Summary: Jesus responds to a woman, not simply because he loves all people, but because of the great faith she shows in Jesus.This can be an example for each one of us of how to persevere in prayer and faith in God.
We Christians often get criticised for our belief in the uniqueness of Christ. People accuse us of being exclusive because we believe that Jesus is the way the truth and the life and no-one comes to the Father except through him. We believe that there’s no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved and so we’re seen as judgmental or prejudiced. There may be some of you who have the same concerns. This becomes even more common when you start to discuss heaven and hell. It sounds so terrible to think that God might exclude people from heaven just because they don’t believe in Jesus. We think to ourselves, “That’s not how Jesus would have behaved, surely?”
But then we come to a passage like this and what do we find? Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon. That’s Gentile territory, no longer in Israel, and one of the local women comes up to him and starts shouting for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Now this is interesting isn’t it? Here’s a Palestinian woman - a pagan presumably, yet she recognises Jesus for who he is. She calls him Lord. She knows he’s the Son of David. And the way she says it implies that she isn’t just talking abut his ancestry. This is a title. She might as well have called him the Messiah. Even the disciples haven’t made this connection yet, though they will in the next chapter.
So here’s this woman, acknowledging Jesus as Lord, presumably as her Lord that is, and what does Jesus do? He ignores her. Does that sound like the Jesus you know? Just ignoring a woman who’s obviously in pain, in great need? If we did that we’d be accused of being heartless. Why is that?
Perhaps he remains silent because he doesn’t want to stifle her faith. Perhaps it’s because he’s waiting to see what she’ll do. Will she give up? Is he unsure what to do at this stage? Do you know that feeling? You’re faced with some dilemma and you really don’t know what to say or do. For most of us I think our inclination is to jump in and say the first thing that comes into our head. One of the things I’ve learnt over the years, as hard as it is to actually do, is to stop and listen and be quiet a bit longer. To give myself a chance to think through the best course of action. That’s what Jesus does here, isn’t it? He could have told her to go away because he hadn’t come here to minister to Gentiles. But he doesn’t. He just remains silent.
And we find that the woman isn’t put off. She keeps shouting, but it seems she transfers her attention to his disciples. And it works because they can’t stand it.
Of course we know from other examples that they weren’t the most tolerant of people. Do you remember when the mothers brought their children to Jesus for him to bless them? They tried to shoo them away. Jesus was far too busy to worry himself with a few grotty children.
And here they come to Jesus and plead with him to send her away because she’s giving them a headache!
And so Jesus deals the killer blow. He says one of the most politically incorrect things in the New Testament. He says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He dismisses her because she doesn’t matter, she doesn’t rate. She isn’t a Jew so his message isn’t for her.
Now this isn’t the first time Jesus has shown this sort of favouritism. A few chapters earlier when he sent out his disciples in pairs to preach about the Kingdom of God, he told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). He was making it clear that his task was to take the gospel to the nation of Israel. Later it would be their task to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but for now his job was exclusive.
The danger for him if he does this miracle here is that he’ll get sucked in to extending his healing ministry to the whole world before it’s time. So it may be that his question is actually rhetorical. He’s tossing up in his mind whether he should respond to her or not. Will this cause more problems than it’ll solve? He’s thinking out loud, the way we might sometimes when we’re trying to work something out.
Notice that the woman seems to realise this. She overhears him speaking but isn’t put off by it. Instead she comes and kneels at his feet and begs him to help her. She’s stopped shouting. Now that she sees that Jesus is beginning to interact with her she speaks quietly.