In my previous post, I referenced the rich young ruler and his interaction with Jesus. Today I want to contrast that scenario with another we find in the gospels and one of my personal favorite stories: the faith of the Canaanite woman.
But first, a little history. Because I love history.
We find this story in two of the four gospels of the New Testament – Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. Matthew’s account refers to her as the Canaanite woman, and in Mark’s she is called a Syrophonecian. What might seem at first as a conflict between the two stories reveals, with just a little digging, an interesting and astonishingly accurate harmony.
As a side note, my dad was born in Malta. I talk about this a lot simply because it’s a bit of a rarity. There just aren’t that many people from Malta. In fact, the current population of the entire island boasts a mere 425,224 people. There’s an interesting story about the apostle Paul after his shipwreck on the island of Malta in the book of Acts, and his experience with the Maltese people showing him “unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2).
Those are my people.
Malta is known as one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world because of Paul’s direct influence just 2000 years ago. Today 98 percent of its citizens are members of the Catholic Church. The natives of Malta are descendents of the Phoenicians. Maybe you remember them from history class – they are most famous for giving the world the first phonetic alphabet and for their use of a stinky purple dye called Tyrian purple procured from the boiling of sea snails. Both the Maltese and Lebanese people share the Phoenicians as a common ancestor, and the two languages are very similar.
Oh, and the Phoencians were known to the Jews as Canaanites.
The Phoencians were a seafaring subgroup of the Canaanites, that settled along the coastal areas of the Fertile Crescent. Matthew wrote his letter for a Jewish audience so they would have better understood this woman’s cultural and religious background as a Canaanite. Mark, on the other hand, wrote his letter in Greek for a gentile audience, who would have been familiar with the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon.
Same people group. Two different names.
It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to know that the Jews and the Canaanites were, and their modern day descendents in the Middle east are unfortunately still, bitter enemies. Also, what makes this particular miracle of Jesus so fascinating is that our subject is a woman. Women in that culture and at that time had nothing. No rights. No voice. The only thing that could “save” a woman of her kind would be for her to bear a son. And according to the text we aren’t even sure if she had that.
She was at the bottom of social order. The lowest rung on the ladder. She was nothing and had nothing in the eyes of her society. Whatever ills she faced in her life were probably viewed as her fault.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28 NIV)
At first glance, Jesus’ response seems incredibly offensive and uncharacteristic. Why is Jesus so insulting? Did he just call that woman a dog?! We must understand that He was treating her no differently than any other Jewish male would have. She was so used to being treated this way that she didn’t even bat an eye. Jesus was playing along with societal expectations and conditions, even following along with the disciples’ request to send her away. So she plays along as well, but appeals to His good nature to take care of all of the members of the household, including the pets.
She even has the audacity to contradict Him.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes, it is, Lord…”
I love a bold, sassy girl.
He was responding to her the way society had always treated her. The way she was used to being treated. To see how she would respond to Him. Would she depend on her social status to stand before Christ or simply come to Him as she was?
She could have so easily turned away like the rich young ruler, face fallen and full of despair, no hope. She would never measure up. But she pressed in.
You can call me a dog. That’s ok. But I still have a right to be here. Just like everyone else. I am still a member of your household, even if everyone looks at me like a dog. But I believe that you care even for the likes of me. Even, as you say, for the least of these. You are the only hope I have. Give me something, even if it’s just a crumb.
You can almost hear her say it…
Maybe her utter dependency on Him makes us uncomfortable. Maybe even Jesus’ response to her makes us wince. But let’s contrast this story with that of the rich, young ruler.
He asks Jesus “What must I do…?” Too often when we have a question, or we are faced with a problem or painful situation and we need the solution, we ask the same thing: “What must I do?” We are uncomfortable with our lack of power or influence to change our circumstances. We squirm beneath the heavy weight of our lack of control. The Canaanite woman had no control. She had no power or position. She acquiesced to being like a household dog. She knew the Jews came first. That men came first. Hadn’t they always?
She didn’t place her faith in her gender or her race but in Christ alone. Her master. Her God.
Jesus told the rich man there is still one thing you must do. There will always be one more thing to do. How good is good enough? You will never quite measure up. Another version Christ says “If you want to be perfect…” I can almost hear him smirking as He says the word “perfect.”
The point of the story of the rich young ruler isn’t to make us all feel bad for not wanting to run out and immediately sell all our possessions. Who would want to do that? The point is to ask us what are we counting on to save us – Our good behavior? Our pedigree? The company we keep? Our tithes and offerings? Our political leanings? Our social status? Our gender? Our bible study and quiet time?
Or simply our faith in Christ alone?
The Canaanite woman’s request was granted because of her humble response. She understood that the answer to her prayer had absolutely nothing to do with her and everything to do with Jesus, while the rich young ruler was still trying to make an appeal to Jesus in his own strength. So he could look good. Save face. Perfectly polished. A self-made man. Attaining eternal life while maintaining his complete independence from God.
The questions they asked and Jesus’ response was totally determined by their focus. God or themselves? Jesus or their accomplishments?
One walked away filled with joy and an answer to prayer. The other walked away crestfallen and full of despair.
The rich man would have been better off acknowledging that even with all his achievements and with all of his status, that he was no better than the Canaanite woman.
I would rather be a “dog” in the Kingdom of God than have all the prestige in the world.