Passing the Test

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    
The Gospels are not like Facebook pages for Jesus.
A Facebook page is essentially a highlight reel of your life.  It displays your cutest pictures with your brightest smiles in the midst of your favorite meal on the happiest day of your best vacation EVER.  Words and images, carefully arranged, help forge a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here positive impression.  It’s not really necessary to post the pictures of the long line at the airport or that day it never stopped raining.
Someone apparently forgot to tell Matthew he didn’t have to include everything that happened in Jesus’ ministry. 
One story in particular – Jesus’ conversation with a desperate Canaanite woman – seems to land with a thud.  At first glance, it leaves a seriously negative impression – or at least a confusing one.
Having provided some background to this particular story yesterday, let’s revisit the text in Matthew 15:21-28:  
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.
How are we to account for Jesus’ seemingly callous, even flippant, attitude to someone in such deep pain?
As we noted before, there’s a lot going on here.  Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey believes that Jesus, like a wise teacher, is administering a real-life test.  How will his disciples respond to this moment?  And how long will this woman – whose ethnicity, theology, and gender are essentially “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” in the minds of faithful Jews – keep asking Jesus for help?
Let’s take a closer look.
The disciples are clearly exasperated.  “Can you please make this woman go away?  She’s bugging us to death.”  Jesus’ response, which is silence, seems shocking.  It appears to contradict everything we know about his compassion and his character. 
That, says Bailey, is what should make us suspect that Matthew is trying to tell us something important.
Jesus finally answers his disciples.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 
This is the test.  He awaits their response.  They are his apprentices, learning from him how to live.  What lessons have they picked up so far?  Will they speak up for this needy person?  Have they grasped what is becoming increasingly clear in the Gospel of Matthew – that Jesus’ mission is to the whole world, and not just to Israel?  That God is the God of people everywhere, including even a desperate Canaanite woman, and that such barriers need to be crossed no matter what?
But there’s no response.  No compassion.  Bailey points out that the disciples will do better in the future.  They will ultimately take the good news to the whole world. 
But on this day they’ll have to go home with failing grades.
The woman, meanwhile, keeps pushing her way towards Jesus.  She’s relentless.  “Lord, help me!” she cries out. 
Jesus pushes right back. “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
On the surface, this seems like a deep insult.  We may presume the children he has in mind are “God’s children,” the people of Israel.  Gentiles were routinely dismissed as dogs – which during this period of history were chiefly feral creatures begging for scraps.  So while God’s favorites are enjoying a full breakfast, they’re being reminded not to waste perfectly good food on the groveling animals at their feet.  
But she’s ready for him.  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 
She uses the Greek word for puppies.  Even squirmy little pups get a few scraps every now and then.  You can throw a scrap in my direction, too, can’t you?  Please?
She’s sparring with Jesus.  Commentators see something playful here.  She’s displaying some serious chutzpah.  Behind her tears there’s a confidence that throws everything to the wind: I honestly don’t believe you hate me, not the way other people hate me.  I bet you have something even for me. 
I’m not sure how one would say, “You go, girl!” in Greek.  But if that expression were to show up anywhere in the New Testament, this would be the place.
Jesus is moved.  She refuses to give up hope.  To the one who keeps knocking, and knocking, and knocking, the door will finally open.  Therefore she deserves an A-plus.  Yes, of course he will help.  Her daughter is immediately freed of the dark spirit that has kept her in chains. 
What can we learn from this miracle story that is like no other?
We must do better on our next exam than the disciples did on this one. 
Perhaps it’s hard for us to relate to the revulsion the disciples feel for this woman.  After all, most of us have nothing against people from Tyre and Sidon.  But what if Jesus leads us to come face-to-face with someone we might personally find hard to love?  What if we’re given the chance to bless a terrorist, or a pedophile, or a member of ISIS, or a transgender person, or someone who doesn’t vote the right way, or a computer hacker who makes his living emptying the bank accounts of senior citizens?
Jesus has made it clear that since no one is beyond his reach, no one should be beyond my reach.  As the wise saying goes, God’s job is to judge.  The Spirit’s job is to convict.  My job is to love.
In many parts of India, Dalit people (often called Untouchables) are forbidden to enter Hindu temples.  They have been told that no god considers them worthy.  
Centuries ago, Christian missionaries to India began to speak the words that have now unlocked the hearts and minds of millions of Dalits:
There really is a god who loves you, wants you, and understands your pain.  His name is Jesus.