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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Feeding the Dogs

Sometimes God is silent.

We've all experienced it. Looking for answers and receiving no immediate response. The absence of any sense of direction, often when a decision is urgently needed. A total lack of clarity. And all the comforting scriptures we quote to ourselves suddenly sound like clich├ęs.

Those of us who have been believers for a few years may find ourselves taking our own spiritual inventory in an effort to diagnose the problem. Have I failed to confess sin? Am I perhaps asking selfishly rather than with the glory of God in mind? Am I lacking faith? Have I been persistently inconsiderate at home?

Could be, but not necessarily.

When God does not immediately respond there is always a reason. We just don't happen to know what it is right now. Matthew 15 provides a great illustration of this:

A God Who Does Not Respond

Try to picture the (apparent) near-complete lack of interest on the part of the Lord Jesus from the point of view of the Canaanite woman who was begging him for help:
“Jesus … withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
I can’t be the only one to find his behavior here hard to explain, can I? A woman follows the Lord and his disciples, crying and begging for help and yet we read “he did not answer her a word”. He’ll turn and speak to his disciples, sure. But for her, nothing.

From her perspective, could he be any more insulting? Could the situation appear any more hopeless?

And so she continues to beg and cry until even the disciples get fed up with the distraction and the Lord’s uncharacteristic inaction and say, in effect, “Please, Lord, get her off our case”.

But this is the Lord, and we know he’s going to heal the daughter at the end of the story, right? That’s a given. So why does he wait so long?

Or let me put it another way: If the Lord responds to the woman immediately and grants her request, what’s the difference? What exactly do we lose?

We lose a few things, I think.

1) The Importance of Doing the Father’s Will

First, the delay reminds us that, in this world, God’s purposes outrank any individual human need. In the Lord’s delay in responding to a very legitimate need, we see an indicator of just how important the Father’s mission was to the Son. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

Evidently it mattered to the Lord a very great deal to do the Father’s will. When he says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work”, he means that doing the Father’s will was more necessary than eating, that his delight in pleasing his Father was not only sufficient to sustain him in the desert for forty days but sufficient to carry him all the way to the cross.

Furthermore, it was not enough to the Lord that he perform the will of his Father in some vague and general sense, as he might choose to interpret it, for he said, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing”, making it clear that he was bound and determined to perform the will of God in precisely the way his Father desired.

No, the Lord was not asking the woman to accept a place in the purposes of God that he did not first and foremost accept for himself, up to and including his own sacrificial death. When Caiaphas prophesied “It is better for you that one man should die for the people” we read that “He did not say this of his own accord”. The Lord fully accepted that his own human needs and desires were far outranked by the privilege of doing the will of his Father.

This principle continues to be relevant for the Christian, for the Lord assures his followers that, even today, our genuine needs will always be met when we put the Lord’s concerns first. The principle is right there in the “Lord’s Prayer”, isn’t it: “Your kingdom come, your will be done” precedes “Give us this day …”

Doing the work of the Father, finishing it and complying with his will in every respect was the Lord Jesus’ most important concern, and the woman, the disciples and those who read it today needed to have that message reinforced.

It was a message that without the Lord’s delay, we would almost certainly miss.

To persuade the Lord to publicly step outside of the mandate he had received from his Father to go “only” to Israel, the woman was going to need to appeal to a principle even closer to the heart of God than the principle of keeping his promises to his chosen people.

2) The Importance of the Canaanite Woman’s Humility

Bear in mind they are near Tyre, a Canaanite region beyond the borders of Israel. Nowadays that would put them between 12 and 20 miles into Lebanon. Tyre’s claim to fame, if we recall, is the use of its king as an illustration of the character and wickedness of Satan himself. Though the days of Tyre’s infamy and worldly glory are long past at this point, it is clear the Lord is very, very far from home. In any case — short version — the spirit of Tyre is the spirit of defiance, self-sufficiency and independence. Symbolically, at least, the Lord is explicitly in enemy territory (even more so than usual).

This is, needless to say, the opposite of what we see in this Canaanite woman. When we meet her, she is begging. But one can ask for help without truly having hit bottom.

And if the Lord does not delay his response to the woman, neither we nor the disciples get to see that this is the case. Much more importantly, the woman herself needs to realize she has come to the end of her options. It’s the point we all need to come to with respect to the Lord. There is no other way.

Many people call on God, but only insofar as they consider him one of a number of options. Naaman was like this. Confronted with bathing in the Jordan to be healed of his leprosy, he suddenly thought of all the other possibilities he’d prefer to explore first.

Not this woman. She was at the end of her rope:
“But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
When the Lord, in effect, calls the Canaanite woman a “dog”, a person with even a shred of dignity and independence to draw on would bristle with offence. But far from being insulted, she takes the metaphor and runs with it. “Yes, Lord,” she replies, in two words conceding her agreement and acknowledging his position.

If the Lord does not delay his response to the woman’s need, we miss the opportunity to see her come to the place we all need to arrive at in order for the Lord to work in our lives.

When we come to the Lord, no residue of Tyre-ish independence can be left intact: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

3) The Importance of Understanding God’s Character

When she first begins begging, it is evident that the Canaanite woman understands that the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel. She calls him “Son of David”, so that much is clear. But as the Lord told the disciples, that in itself was not going to help her since he was there only for the “lost sheep of Israel”.

And if the Lord does not delay his response to her, we don’t find out how much deeper her faith is than that.

Because, by faith, the woman then appeals to the Lord, not as Israel’s Messiah, but as the representative of a God who blesses ALL who truly seek him, Jew or Gentile. She says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”.

How much did she know of the history of God’s dealings with Gentiles? Quite possibly next to nothing. But her faith spoke for her. And if I can (massively) paraphrase, I think it said something like this:

“I’m not here to appeal to the Messiah of Israel. I don’t want anything that belongs to the people of God. I’m not here to appeal to THAT God. I’m here to appeal to the God of Rahab, the God of Naaman, the God of Ruth. I’m here to appeal to the God of the Gibeonites. I’m here to appeal to a God who loves his enemies, who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. I’m appealing to a God who lets the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table. I’m appealing to a God who’s been feeding the dogs throughout all of history. THAT’s who I’m appealing to!”

Faith can be quite eloquent that way. It says things we don’t know and can’t verbalize.

And seeing her faith, the Lord effectively responds, “Well, in THAT case ...” The woman’s daughter is not just healed, but instantly healed.

What Do We Miss?

So what do we miss if the Lord does not delay his response to this woman?

I think we miss a lot. We miss the importance of the Father’s will. We miss the importance of humility. And we miss the importance of understanding God’s character.

And we miss the spirit of Mephibosheth who, confronted with provision, blessing and a position of honour instead of certain execution, said to King David, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”

It is good to remember that we are all the beneficiaries of the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.

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