In the New Testament we read about a woman from Canaan. She wasn't a member of the Church or even the House of Israel. She was a foreigner, a stranger.
A nobody, really.
Well, that's not quite right: she was somebody. She was somebody's mother. But a Syrophoenician gentile (Mark 7:26) nonetheless.
And behold a woman of Canaan cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
All we know about her (besides being an outsider) was that she had a daughter in need. And she turned to Christ for help in her distress. But he answered her not a word.
Oof. The silent treatment? Really? That's right: Jesus completely ignored her. Which was impossible, when you think about it, because the woman was causing such a scene.
And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
It appears the apostles were annoyed with the woman. They appear dismissive of her needs. The Twelve were busy, after all, so who can blame them for wishing she'd go away?
Sick-and-tired of her raising a ruckus, the Twelve implored the Lord to "do something" about it. "Call Security!"
But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Well, this just got interesting. We need to unpack this juicy morsel; how mysterious it is.
"Only Sheep Need Apply"?
First of all, it's important to note that Jesus spoke these words directly to his disciples ― not to the woman (there's nothing in the text to indicate she heard him say it).
But what strikes me most about this statement is how utterly legalistic is sounds. Is the Lord shrugging His shoulders, saying, "Sorry, my hands are tied; she's a Canaanite. Nothing I can do for her"?
Because His statement is, on its face, ridiculous. I mean, just a few chapters earlier, we saw Jesus healing the Roman Centurion's servant (Matt. 8:5-13).
Last time I checked, the Centurion was not a "lost sheep" of Israel. He was a gentile, too! So the Lord has already disproven His statement by prior action.
And what about the time Jesus cast out devils from the Gadarene man who lived among the tombs, sending Legion into the sky-diving pigs (Luke 8:26-33)?
So again and again, Jesus went out of His way to show compassion to the gentiles. Were the apostles paying attention?
Did a single disciple take issue with the Lord's seemingly xenophobic statement about being sent to the lost sheep of Israel only? Or did they bite?
If Christ was testing them, they utterly failed.
No one chimed in, "Lord, sir, not to disagree, you know, but remember last week in Decapolis, when the demoniac attacked us, and you healed him? Can I just get some clarity on what you mean, viz-a-viz your jurisdiction?"
"She Fell At His Feet"
The Canaanite woman was watching the scene unfold and knew something was up. Summoning her courage, she barged in and "fell at his feet" (Mark 7:25).
Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
She's entirely out of order! Those poor apostles didn't know what-for. She had no appointment, no references. No status. Not even a little money to offer Judas to sweeten his purse. And absolutely no assurances she followed any of the proscriptions of the Law of Moses.
What entitled her to walk right up to God, into His personal space? As if He were her personal Savior?
It was unseemly, especially now that Christ had apparently declared her unworthy of His ministration.
I can picture the Twelve (who so often acted as Jesus's bodyguards, doing crowd-control) reaching out to remove the troublesome woman, but Christ turned them aside as He spoke to her directly:
But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
Well, there's a speedbump if ever I saw one. Might as well give up. I mean, after having ignored her in the first instance, now Jesus calls her a "dog"? Ouch.
But we've hit a wall; no use taking it up with management: the Lord Himself has spoken. Jesus just announced a Rule. A law. A standard. Good luck going against that.
When the Lord declares "IT IS NOT MEET" to take bread promised to the children and "cast it" to dogs, it's over. Full stop. End of story.
Or is it?
How many of us turn around at the first speedbump? If I had been this poor woman, I probably would have felt crushed; even hurt. Would those words have caused me to turn around and go home? "Well daughter, I tried. I really did. What can I do? God said no."
BUT HE DIDN'T! Re-read what Christ said. Not once did He reject her, or refuse her. Not once. He never said no.
We give up too easily. Faith is a creature who discovers her true strength when pressed out of measure; she thrives in extremities, along the margins. Look for her among the exceptions: she shines brightest next to flickering hope.
Faith Fights Forward
Notice the curious verb Christ used: "to cast." It bespeaks thoughtlessness, waste, uselessness; it reminds me of salt having lost its savor that is "good for nothing but to be cast out" (Matt. 5:13).
We throw away junk; someone discards something ("casts it") when they esteem it to be of little or no worth.
Cast aside. Like how His disciples treated this woman, right? But wait. Doesn't the Father feed the fowls of the air, who sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns: yet heavenly Father feedeth them? So why can't He feed dogs?
Jesus is teaching something profound here, but not the thing we think.
And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which FALL from their masters’ table.
Oh hoh! Now we have a game-on. Notice how the Canaanite woman subtly changed the verb? With deft sleight of hand, she created space for a loophole (enough, I think, for tender faith to take root).
You see, instead of taking the bread from the children and feeding it to the dogs, she implies it would be harmless (and, in fact, would not deprive the negligent children one whit) if they, themselves, allow crumbs to "fall" unwanted.
Picking up the discarded crumbs from the floor would be a virtue, even (call it frugal), because we don't want to let any of the Father's food go to waste.
I can see her raising her eyes to meet the Lord's, holding His gaze, saying, "I may not be a child, true; and I may not have a seat at the table, that is correct: but I am not asking you to take anything away from them; but, perchance, if I catch the crumbs the children don't appreciate nor desire, they don't lay claim on those, do they?"
The wordplay on "crumb" (other translations render it "scraps") is clearly an allusion to the Lord's supper (the sacrament).
That's the dinner table they were discussing: the Old and New Covenants. In a way, this story prefigures the entire message of the New Testament: Christ (the bread of life) came to offer Himself for the lost sheep of Israel. His flesh and blood are the children's meat, rejected (they craved McDonald's nuggets instead), and so they cast Christ aside.
Who will pick Him up?
The (1) sacramental and (2) dispensational overtones in this exchange are astounding.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman
As I read this story, I wonder if this is the first time He really stops and "sees" her; sees into her soul, I mean.
O woman, great is thy faith
Why does He call her faith "great"? What was it that made it so great? How did she wrestle a blessing from where none was waiting?
Be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
The Point: Did you see the difference between how the disciples reacted to the Lord's words and how the woman responded to the Lord?
When the Lord told the disciples He was called only to the lost sheep of Israel, they took it at face value. They didn't plead, implore, or reason with the Lord. They showed no great concern for the woman.
In other words, they didn't exercise faith.
Let me be clear: the disciples heard, believed, and accepted what the Lord said. And yet (!) they didn't exercise faith. Why not?
Lesson Learned: Faith peers beyond the letter of God's word and sees into its Spirit.
We saw how the Canaanite woman sought to honor God's word while at the same time giving voice to His innate goodness and expansiveness and graciousness. She found a way beyond mere obedience to embody His Spirit in a more excellent way. This was her faith.
Practice Pointer: Too often, I think, we take something we read in the scriptures or hear over the pulpit, and think, "Well, that's that. The Lord has spoken." But do we not remember that His "words never cease" (Moses 1:4)?
So faith does not sit back, resting upon what God has said (which is just the launching point). No, faith looks forward and listens for what God may yet speak, like this Syrophoenician woman (see, Article of Faith 9).
Are we more like the disciples in this story, or are we like the Syrophoenician woman?
Many shall come from the east and west [these are the last people we'd expect; they are outsiders who are not members of the Church; those we accuse of not being "children", who we think have no right in how God's affairs should be arranged] and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob [how dare they! They aren't "children of the prophets." They haven't entered into the covenants I have in the Temple] in the kingdom of heaven.
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast [there's that verb again . . .] into outer darkness.
How funny it is that Jesus did not mention adulterers, drag queens, murderers, whoremongers, democrats, or Hollywood movie producers, as those who are "cast into outer darkness."
No, outer darkness is reserved for "the children of the kingdom" who apparently do not like to comingle or associate with us "dogs."