One of my favorite stories about the life of Jesus involves a woman who changed Jesus’ mind, and perhaps the entire course of Christianity. It was a powerful story for Jesus, and I believe it has important implications for our lives today. Here is the story:
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 (Matthew 15:21-28).
Up until that point, the ministry of Jesus had been focused on the Jewish people, the chosen people of God. Jesus himself was Jewish, and it is clear from this passage that Jesus saw the scope of his ministry as focused on the Jews. Here was a Canaanite woman, a person who had a different ethnic and religious heritage. She was an outsider. Yet she approaches Jesus in faith, asking him to heal her daughter.
At first, Jesus doesn’t do it. It’s almost as if he is wrestling with the issue himself. What is the scope of his mission? Is it only to the Jewish people? Or was Jesus called to minister to all people, regardless of their ethnic or religious heritage?
This passage is not the most flattering picture of Jesus. He calls the woman and her people ‘dogs,’ which is unsettling to me. Was Jesus racist? In this passage, he certainly appears to show preference toward people from his own ethnic and religious heritage.
But the woman is persistent. She keeps at Jesus, and ultimately Jesus changes his mind. Through her faith, Jesus begins to recognize that ‘outsiders’ can have remarkable faith as well, and he should not show preference for his own group. The scope of his ministry was expanded to include all people. Contrast this passage to the Great Commission at the end of Jesus’ ministry, where he instructs his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The message of Jesus isn’t just for the Jews anymore. It’s for everyone. As a non-Jew, I’m thankful for the Canaanite woman’s tenacity and faith.
I think there are two key lessons we can learn from this story:
- Humility is essential. Humility involves being open to new perspectives, ideas, and people. In this passage, Jesus had one idea about the scope of his ministry, but he allowed himself to be open and changed by a woman from a different ethnic and religious background. He was open to the idea that God might have something different in mind for his ministry—a bigger plan than he could have imagined. Jesus wasn’t boxed in by his own perspective. In the same way, it’s important for us to be open to new perspectives, ideas, and people, instead of thinking we know everything. You never know what God might have in store for you. Walk through life with humility, curiosity, and openness.
- Racism has a long history. Even two thousand years ago, people had the tendency to prioritize their own cultural group, and struggled to figure out how engage with people who were different. Even Jesus wrestled with this issue! We see these difficulties in the early church, and they continue to the present day. I wonder if this passage provides one way forward to the problem of racism. In this passage, I notice a shift in Jesus that occurred over the course of his interaction with the Canaanite woman. It’s a shift toward humanization. In the beginning, Jesus had a dehumanizing stance toward the Canaanite woman, calling her and her cultural group ‘dogs.’ But over the course of the interaction, his stance shifts, and by the end, not only does Jesus view the Canaanite woman as a human being, but he has a deep respect and admiration for her. In our society, it is important for us to engage in relationship with people who are different in order to move from dehumanization toward mutual respect.
Discussion: What do you make of this story? What lessons can you take from this story that you can apply in your life today?