Well, was He? What about this incident He was directly involved in?
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession."
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 their dogs."
"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Matthew 15:21-28 (NIV)
I have always been intrigued by this story.
In fact, the reaction to this story by many Christians has been very mixed.
Some have no problem with it, they take it as they read it … but some are deeply troubled by it! It's not untrue to say that some Christians are quietly embarrassed by it.
After all, a very sincere foreign woman, who deeply bleeds in her heart for a greatly suffering daughter seeks help from Jesus. His first reaction is to ignore her (sexism?) and then suggests to her that she is not a part of the correct ethnic group (racism?) and is then is rude to her in public.
He does heal her daughter, eventually, but the aching mother is publicly humiliated. Why should this distressed mother be put through this difficult interview by Jesus? It just doesn’t seem right!
Well, at least that’s how some choose to see it.
Before we look closer at the story we need to be clear on at least some points because what we are looking at took place 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, not yesterday on your local beach (or desert or whatever!).
So let's get clear on at least 2 things:
1. Middle Eastern culture differed greatly from ours on a number of points e.g. the general community was always there – always around – unlike our culture which is highly individualistic. Middle Eastern culture revolved around a very tightly knit community. Everybody formed part of a community – identity came, not from individualism but as part of the community.
2. Jesus, therefore, ministered not only before the community but also in full view of His disciples – who watched and heard everything He did/said publicly.
In our story, therefore, Jesus is not just dealing with the woman but dealing profoundly with his disciples.
This double interaction is very important if we want to understand what happened.
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession." Jesus did not answer a word. Matthew 15:21 - 23a
What is taking place here is happening on Gentile territory – not Jewish soil, where Jesus hears the traditional cry of a beggar, “Have mercy on me!”
Now, what I am about to write is of no great issue to you or me but it certainly was in Middle Eastern culture. Are you ready for this? It is very significant.
She is a woman!
He is a man!
His disciples are men!
How about that!
In public, Jewish rabbis didn’t even talk to female members of their own families.
The other thing I hoped you noticed is this: a Gentile is seeking a favour from a Jew. We know that the divide between the two people groups was enormous - really enormous!
So let us note carefully how she addressed Jesus. She called Him "Lord" (Sir) and “Son of David”, which is a Jewish term! In fact, it’s a term for the Messiah.
Therefore, she knows something more about the man Jesus than we initially think!
All this is really unexpected stuff from this Gentile woman! “LORD, Son of David”.
But Jesus doesn't respond to her pain. His is silent. Is He indifferent? Does He reject her ? Or both?
At this point we need to remember that the woman is there but so are the disciples.
So the question - is Jesus specifically going to train his disciples now - applicable?
What are disciples? According to David Stern (Messianic Jew) "... the relationship between a disciple and his rabbi was very close; not only did they learn facts, reasoning processes and how to perform religious practices from his rabbi, but he regarded him as an example to be IMITATED IN CONDUCT AND CHARACTER" (emphasis mine).
Jesus is silent. A self-respecting rabbi DID NOT talk to women.
The disciples are watching! They know this is the rabbinical convention! It’s all OK!
In fact, the disciples have had a gutful of this Canaanite woman. The motherly pain she feels in her heart for her daughter is really of no concern to them. She is woman - she is Gentile.
Jesus is silent; the disciples view this as entirely appropriate.
And it is this silence of their rabbi, Jesus, that seems to affirm their view of women, especially Gentile women.
So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." (v 23b)
Is this what Jesus is thinking in His silence: "I will start by shutting her out and hopefully she will leave of her own accord. As a self-respecting rabbi I do not talk to women – particularly Gentile women. If I do talk to her, all of us could be thrown out of the district by an angry mob. If she persists, I will make clear to her that my healing ministry is only for Israel. She will then have no choice but to leave." (Bailey)
But then Jesus speaks to His disciples: He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." (v24)
This statement is true; in fact, they accept it gladly. Did she hear the statement? I don't think so. Therefore, why did he say this to the disciples? This a theological statement - BUT it must have practical implications!
The mother acts! She moves, not away from Jesus, but towards Him.
The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. (v25)
She knows something!
She believes something! She not only has a deep concern for her daughter but a profound opinion of Jesus. She believes something very important about HIM – but remember, the disciples are watching! Her request is simple (see v 25) but will He respond in compassion?
Will he move out of the “Jews-I-only-help-mission” and help a Gentile (woman)?.
Then something amazing happens – He talks to her! Jewish rabbi to a Gentile woman.
And His response to her request for help is stated in v 26: He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
We know the disciples want the woman dismissed – "Get rid of her; she’s female Gentile trash!"
Despite the fact that visibly they can see the actual face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughter.
Will He help? This is a teaching session; everything a rabbi says/does is a teaching session for disciples!
The statement of v 24, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" captures the theology of the disciples so well – but where does it lead?
I’ll tell you where it leads: A limited ministry only to Israel means that she and people like her can get lost!
Jesus' reply in v26: "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs" in Middle Eastern culture is strong language – very strong: The blessings of grace are to be first offered to Jews – God’s chosen people.
To which she reacts so brilliantly, "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." (v 27)
My belief is that JESUS knew exactly the outcome of this public encounter with this foreign woman. Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour (v 28.)
So, is Jesus sexist and racist?
We are not told what the disciples thought of this whole scene and the final outcome - where He showed grace to a woman and a non-Jew; despite the theological statement addressed to His disciples.
But we do know that Jesus’ was very happy to bless those outside of ethnic Israel and to shun prevailing attitudes to women. Grace does this! So much for sexism & racism!
The disciples would have had to re-evaluate their own biases and prejudices in light of this encounter and for them it would have been a deep struggle.
I personally think that this would’ve been a deep significant moment in this training. After all, a male Jew (Matthew) chose to record it!
Also, Jesus cares for those who seek compassion from Him, but he also cares for the disciples as well. After His death, the gospel will move into Gentile territory and take root. He’s a Gentile saviour too and the disciples will die to take the Good News to non - Jews, including women!
On a personal note – the perseverance of the woman is so inspiring. The power of a mother’s heart can be so unbelievable, powerful & indelible, so incredibly giving.
Those who label Jesus as sexist and a racist need to do their homework on ancient Middle Eastern culture - He was a radical within His culture.
I have borrowed heavily from Kenneth E. Bailey's book Jesus Through Middle Esatern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. It is a book that I highly recommend ( IVP Academic).