(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 14, 2005.)
Imagine for a second that you and your family have a trip planned. It could be a trip to Orlando. Or maybe you’re planning on "spending Christmas in Elmira" with your sister. Or you'll be doing a business-and-pleasure vacation. Whatever the case, imagine that your bags are packed, the car is gassed up, Mapquest's almost-accurate itineraries are printed off, and you're ready to roll.
Just then, the telephone rings. It’s the next door neighbor. The husband and wife there need to run to the hospital, where his mother has just been taken unexpectedly, and they wonder if your family can look after the kids for awhile?
For a brief moment, you consider listing all the reasons why you can’t do it. But you know that your neighbor needs you. Elmira or Orlando or wherever can wait, you know. Baby sitting wasn’t part of your game plan for the day, of course. It can be something you do as part of the overall mission of your life, though. It can be part of loving God and loving neighbor, of sharing Jesus Christ with others.
A few hours later, your neighbors’ usual sitter shows up to take over from you and you and your family pile into your vehicle. Somehow, the world hasn’t come to an end because you didn’t get started on time.
Part of growing in our faith in Jesus Christ is being willing to be sent wherever God may seem to want us to go and to go even when it interrupts our plans.
When Jesus walked the earth, He had an overall game plan, a mission. Central to it was for Him to visit the so-called “lost sheep of Israel.” These were Jesus’ fellow Jews, but ones who had wandered from God. Jesus was to call these people from their sin and back to God.
It wasn't that Jesus didn't care about all the people of the world. But His life and ministry were to be like a pebble thrown into a pond. He would create a big impact among one group of people and those who came to follow Him would move out, like the ripples created by the pebble, into the whole world.
Jesus was to target His ministry, calling many of His fellow Jews to faith in Him, and then, after His death and resurrection, they would carry the Good News that all people--Jews and Gentiles--who believe in Him will live with God forever.
In our Bible lesson for today, we see Jesus getting interrupted in the pursuit of that mission. He and His disciples are passing through the non-Jewish region around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The people who live there Jesus aren’t the target of His immediate game plan.
And yet, while there, a Canaanite woman shouts at Jesus. The Canaanites, you’ll remember, were bitter enemies of God and of God’s people. A first-century Judean rabbi wouldn’t have been very likely to respond to a Canaanite.
Decreasing this Canaanite's chances of getting a rabbi to notice her is the fact that she’s a woman. The etiquette of the time forbade men and women from speaking together in public.
This particular woman was so insistent in calling out to Jesus that the disciples beg Him to send her away.
Jesus keeps His counsel for awhile. But frankly, I think it was His intention all along to respond to this woman’s plea. She cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David: my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry, no one had expressed such faith in Jesus. She clearly saw Him as the God and Lord of all creation. She also saw Him as the Messiah, the Anointed King. Even Jesus' closest followers had been slow to see Him in this light and in the chapter just before this incident is recounted in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has reason to upbraid them for having so little faith. By contrast, in just a few moments, He will extol this woman for having "great faith," the only place in the Gospels where Jesus uses this phrase about anybody!
It's interesting that this woman never claims to be entitled to the request she makes of Jesus. This must have been refreshing to Jesus' ears. Both He and His cousin, John the Baptist, had been disgusted by their fellow Jews' claims to special rights and privileges simply because they were genetic descendants of Abraham. "God," John had said, "could raise up descendants of Abraham from these stones. You have no entitlement to the blessings God gives solely because of His mercy."
You know, you and I live in a society that is completely hung up on what we think that we're entitled to, on our rights. In the United States, we have the Bill of Rights, which is a great thing. In New York Harbor, we have a Statue of Liberty, which is wonderful. But we rarely talk about our responsibilities. (Maybe a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay, America's other great point of welcome, would be a good idea!)
And we in this modern age are no different from Jesus' fellow Judeans of the first-century. We in the church may like to point out that we put an offering in the plate every Sunday, warmed the same pew for thirty years, taught Sunday School, and stood up at the right point in every worship service as proof that we are entitled to have our prayers answered. And as to those outside the Church, how many folks have you known who never gave God a thought and then became fiercely angry at Him for some offense of which they've found Him guilty? The notion of entitlement is pervasive.
But the Canaanite woman doesn’t seem to feel that Jesus owes her or her daughter release from demonic torment. She bases her request not on what she deserves, but on the infinite love and mercy that God bears for all people!
After the disciples urge Jesus to send this pesky foreign woman away, He turns from them and to the woman in order, I believe, to teach His disciples and us, an important lesson. He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Then Matthew tells us:
“...she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”In those days, Jesus’ fellow Jews referred to non-Jews as wild dogs. Here, poking fun at His own people’s exclusionary ways, Jesus uses the word kunarion, a term used for dogs kept as house pets. On the way to granting this woman’s request, I think that Jesus speaks to her tongue-in-cheek.
She seems to pick up on Jesus' humor and His intent immediately. She would never dream of taking anything from the children of Israel, she tells Jesus, “yet even the house pets eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus then lays aside the banter and declares, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” He saw in her faith that He had never observed even in His closest followers. At that, Matthew tells us, “her daughter was healed instantly.”
There are many lessons we could draw from this incident. But I want to lift up just one.
Larry Dossey is a physician, researcher, and writer, who has made the general public aware of the scientific research that is being done into the effects of prayer as a component of the treatment regimen for those suffering from many diseases. His book, Prayer is Good Medicine, is one that can be read like you would a magazine.
Last night, I read his account of the efforts of a Methodist pastor, Karl Goodfellow, in Iowa. He had read about a scientific study in which the crop yields of Haitian farms were dramatically increased when people were recruited to pray for each farmer. Iowa is an agricultural state, of course. On top of that, farming is a dangerous profession, especially at harvest time when the pressure is on. Goodfellow decided to recruit prayer partners for each of the 12,000 family farms in his region.
The results were amazing. Yields increased. Farm families reported that even when accidents did happen, they seemed to have a serenity in dealing with them that they wouldn't otherwise have had.
But the thing that these farm families could hardly believe was that people they'd never met would interrupt the routines of their days--would look beyond themselves--to pray for and care about others. To bring Jesus' healing to others, they allowed themselves to be interruptible.
You and I can get so caught up in our agendas, in doing what we think is the right thing, that we forget to do the best thing. You and I have been sent to be agents of God’s healing in the world. The opportunities to bring Jesus’ healing to others may come to us at unexpected times and in unexpected places, sometimes at inconvenient times and places. To find them, we only need to open our eyes and our hearts! For Christ's sake, we need to be interruptible.