I have come only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
When we get too comfortable with Scripture, we risk losing our connection with what underlies it. While it is true that Scripture is a place where we can go to find comfort when needed, it is also true that the challenges it presents help us to grow. Like Jacob, it is in wrestling that we become who we were created to be. Like Joseph, we realize how the struggle prepares us to find our place in the bigger picture. In being challenged, we can begin to see the world with Kingdom eyes.
Today, Matthew presents us with something to struggle with. What is this that Jesus is saying? It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing we are used to hearing from our gentle and loving saviour. In fact, it sounds like the kind of thing we might catch ourselves saying when we grow tired of the Federal Government offering international aid when people at home are jobless. “Charity starts at home,” we might say, or “we should look after our own before we look after others.” If we shift the context south of the border; America First.
Listen to what the disciples ask and how Jesus responds according to The Message:
Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”
While many translations have the disciples saying, “send her away,” Petersen and some others chose to render the disciples’ demand as “take care of her.” In other words, “give her what she wants so she’ll stop bothering us.” While we might find Jesus’ dismissal of his disciples’ request troubling, remember it is directed at the disciples. It is a rhetorical device that challenges their thinking, and ultimately the prevalent worldview of the Scribes and the Pharisees in which because Israel is unique among the nations God has little concern for unclean foreigners. Hearing Jesus say these words should have brought the disciples back to Kingdom reality so that they might look upon this woman with compassion rather than disdain; to have empathy for her in her distress rather than being annoyed by her pleas.
Exclusivism leads to a kind of idolatry of the self where we are in danger of creating God in our image. This can happen at various levels. Entire nations can get caught in this trap; the religious elite of Israel did, and we don’t have to look far at present to see it at work in the world around us. It also happens at the individual level as we make own personal expression and identity the cornerstone of our worldview. The woman herself is a study in breaking down the walls of exclusivism. In Matthew’s Gospel, she is identified as a Canaanite and as such, she represents the long and complicated history between Israel and the occupants of the Promised Land. She could have gone that direction in her argument. She could have said “you owe me, do what I ask,” but she doesn’t. Instead, she stays focused on her human need and the remedy for that need. She calls out to Jesus in her brokenness, and in Jesus, God responds.
Humility is a great leveler and disruptor of idols. In a world where voices are crying “look at me” and “listen to me” as we try to find salvation in ourselves, the woman in this story reminds us that we have no power to save ourselves and therefore we need to reach out, not in. In his interaction with this woman, Jesus demonstrates yet again that God is not partial to identities rooted in nation or personal understanding. God responds to those who humble themselves and call to him out of their need. Almighty God, without you we are not able to please you.
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts. Through Jesus Christ our Lord who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.