Sunday, January 29, 2012

Not-so-Great Expectations

Jesus left that place and went off to the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. 
A Canaanite woman who lived in that region came to him.  "Son of David!" she cried out.  "Have mercy on me, sir!  My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition." 
But Jesus did not say a word to her.  His disciples came to him and begged him, "Send her away!  She is following us and making all this noise!" 
Then Jesus replied, "I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel." 
At this the woman came and fell at his feet.  "Help me, sir!" she said. 
Jesus answered, "It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 
"That's true, sir," she answered, "but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters' table." 
So Jesus answered her, "You are a woman of great faith!  What you want will be done for you."  And at that very moment her daughter was healed.
Matthew 15:21-28 (GNT)

This story seems difficult to reconcile with the rest of the gospel.  The Canaanite woman was an outsider and ceremonially unclean.  Jesus dealt with others who were outsiders, though.  He healed the Roman centurion's servant, for example.  Jesus also dealt with others who were ceremonially unclean, including many lepers.  The story of the Canaanite woman goes differently than the others, though.

When the woman cried out to Jesus, he did not respond.  In other, similar circumstances, Jesus leaped into action.  In those other situations, Jesus immediately responded to calls for help.  In this story, it seems that Jesus's disciples had to prod him into responding.

"Send her away!" they implored him.

Jesus appeared to side with his disciples.  Twice, he tried to drive her away.  He told her that he had only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  He told her that dogs (Canaanites) did not deserve the children's (Israelites) food.  We can imagine the disciples gathered around this poor woman, nodding their heads in agreement.

To her credit, the woman would not give up.  This woman showed persistence, and it paid off.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus constantly taught the lesson of persistence.  But, perhaps here Jesus was making another point as well.

At first, Jesus kept silent.  Was he testing his disciples?  Did he want them to speak up first -- to show that they had learned the full extent of his ministry?  Was he waiting for them to beg him to help this woman?  If so, they failed that test.

Then, when Jesus did speak, he said the kind of things that his disciples would have expected to hear.  She was an outsider; she was of no concern to Israel's Messiah.  Not only that, but Israel's Messiah certainly would not violate the Law of ceremonial cleanliness.  This was the kind of Messiah that the disciples thought they were following.

Jesus confounded his disciples' expectation.  He sided with the woman, he praised her faith, and he gave her the miracle that she was begging for.  Jesus not only gave the woman her miracle, but he gave his disciples another object lesson in the difference between their limited expectation of him and his true nature.

Do we, like the disciples, attempt to limit Jesus's infinite power by our own expectations of what he should do and who he should be?  Are our expectations of Jesus too narrow-minded, too self-righteous, just plain too small?  Where has Jesus confounded you?