Friday, May 2, 2014

Great is Thy Faith

Life of Christ 78

          We come now to a story that I freely confess I used to dislike very much as a boy. In it Jesus projects such a harsh, mean attitude as to make Him nearly unrecognizable. But I think herein lies for us a wonderfully sweet lesson. Allow me to unpack it for you.
          Jesus is in the last summer of His ministry. He will spend these six months or so avoiding Judea completely, and Galilee quite often, by taking occasional side trips outside of Galilee's borders. Once again, His purpose is not just to avoid Israel's religious and political leadership, but also to spend time alone with the Apostles training them.
          In this story (Matthew 15.21-28) He is looking for the private opportunity with them that He had tried to set up across the Sea of Galilee in Bethsaida. That one was ruined, so to speak, when a crowd of thousands showed up, wholly uninvited, at their rural retreat. This time He and the Apostles travel west of Galilee into the Gentile region of Syria close to the Mediterranean Sea in which the cities of Tyre and Sidon were located (Mark 7.24).
          Upon arrival, word gets around that He is there, and even in these Gentile towns along the edge of Israel everyone knows who He is. Almost immediately, He is approached by a Gentile woman, the mother of a girl possessed of an unclean spirit.
          I can imagine the sudden hope that flooded the breast of this weary mother. For years she has battled with her daughter. For years she has run from false hope to false hope seeking desperately for a cure. For years she has held her daughter when the fits come upon her, held her back from hurting herself and others, held her back from school, from worship, from the market, from the neighborhood, from everything. She has heard, as have all, of this new Man claiming to be the Messiah in Israel, and that He has the ability to cast out devils, but she isn't a Jew nor does she have any means to chase Him down.
          Suddenly, against all hope, there He is, big as life, in her town. Screwing her courage to the sticking place, she respectfully approaches Him, and grants Him the title of Israel's Messiah, Son of David (Matthew 15.22). She explains the situation and waits hopefully for His response.
         Response? Ha! He doesn't give her one. He completely ignores her. The Apostles don't ignore her, however, though she probably wished they had. They implore Jesus to send her packing, 'Send her away; for she crieth after us' (Matthew 15.23). I have remarked much upon Jesus' compassion in this series. Where is this famous compassion now?
          Finally, He deigns to speak, not even addressing her, but addressing the Apostles, seemingly agreeing with their startlingly naked Jewish prejudice. 'But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (Matthew 15.24). Compassion? Hello?
          Her response is very simple, and, at this point, probably driven by sheer desperation. Otherwise, why would she put up with this? The text implies that she falls down at His feet, and cries out with great emotion, 'Lord, help me' (Matthew 15.25).
          Again, He answers her roughly, now finally addressing her directly, 'It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs' (Matthew 15.26). Not only is He here refusing to help, but He is also calling her a dog, which in any language or culture is unflattering. Compassion? Jesus? No, not Him.
          I love this un-named woman. She reminds me of the guy in that old movie clip who approached a girl clearly out of his league.
          'What are the chances we'll end up together?'
          'Not good.'
          'What, like one in a hundred?'
          'More like one in a million.'
          Then, with a big goofy grin, he says, 'So you're telling me there's a chance.'
          This Gentile woman's optimism and perseverance in the face of such blatant hostility is precious indeed. 'And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table' (Matthew 15.27). At this, Jesus promptly shifts gears, heals her daughter, and commends her very highly.
          There are all sorts of unseemly characters and disreputable theologians that point to this story as the be all and end all justification for their own inherent racism. Others simply seek to use it to make Jesus look bad, stating that this shows us the real Jesus, one unmasked of His pretense of compassion and tolerance. I could not possibly disagree more strongly.
          It doesn't show an uncompassionate Jesus at all. An intellectually honest observer will note that Jesus did heal her daughter and commend her highly at the end. Nor does it show a racist Jesus. I suppose if this was the only story about Jesus that history shows us they might have a point, but it isn't, not by a long stretch. He repeatedly, in other stories, proves to be the opposite. After all, this is the same Jesus who dealt so wonderfully with the Gentile Samaritan woman at the well at the very beginning of His ministry. It is the same Jesus who healed the Roman centurion's servant when requested to do so. Furthermore, it is the same Jesus who went out of His way to assert the equality of the Gentiles with the Jews in the Kingdom (see my blog post Life of Christ 58). Additionally, this is the same Jesus who will shortly found the Church, an institution made in His likeness and emphatically against racism of all types.
          Well, if He isn't being uncompassionate and prejudiced here then why is He treating her so harshly? Very simply, for this reason: to test her faith.
          My kindergarten teacher still holds a sweet place in my memory, lo, these 35 years later. I can still remember my fear the first day of school, and she greeted me so kindly. She passed out hugs like candy. She gave me juice and graham crackers. She read me stories. For crying out loud, she let me be the gingerbread man in the school play that year. She was nothing if not compassionate. Yet she had the unmitigated gall and unfounded harshness as to expect me to pass the occasional test!
          Tests aren't an indication of harshness or prejudice. They don't reveal a lack of compassion. To the contrary, tests are actually an equal opportunity leveling of the playing field. They are a necessary means of revealing precisely where the student is at, and are absolutely essential to growing that student. I've been on both sides of the desk, as student and teacher, and I know that tests aren't a curse but a blessing. They aren't a hindrance but rather a help. They aren't a mistake born of the flaws of the teacher, but instead are actually the expressed wisdom of an experienced mentor.
          It was good for me to be tested way back in kindergarten, and all the way through. That doesn't mean I always enjoyed the tests I experienced over 19 years of formal education, but it does mean that they were designed to help me. And they did.
          This is exactly what we see in this story. Jesus is testing her faith, and after putting before her an exam of a very high level of difficulty what grade does He give her? 'Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith' (Matthew 15.28).
          Discouraged Christian, weary mother, lonely adult, frustrated teacher, saddened parent, questioning young person, worried senior citizen, homesick immigrant, poverty stricken young couple, let God test your faith.
          It is the only path to a great faith.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you are out of luck. It hasn't been posted yet.

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