I have a friend who serves as a pastor in one of the larger correctional facilities in Canada. He believes he has one of the greatest ministries in the world because he has an opportunity every day to share his faith with someone who wants to listen. During a recent conversation, he told me about an interaction he had with one of the prison guards. I was greatly disturbed by what I heard.
Rob was on his way to a certain area of the prison to visit some of the men and, in order to see them, had to pass through a gate that separated the two sections of the institution. As he approached the gate, there was a guard standing by it controlling who came in and who came out.
“Could you please open the gate so that I can visit with some of the men in this section?” asked my friend.
“Men?” she replied, “You won’t find any men in here. We only have prisoners and convicts in this place.”
I’ve never been a prison guard, and I know that they have to deal with a lot of nonsense, but what a sad way to look at other human beings. These men may have committed horrific crimes, and many are unrepentant, but they are still people made in the image of God. Shouldn’t they deserve grace and mercy for this reason alone?
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 suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
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 their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:21-28)
In Matthew 15:21-28, a story is told about a Canaanite woman with great faith. It is in this story where we see this question of mercy presenting itself to Jesus and his disciples. You would think it would be easy for the disciples to answer this question but, in the day-to-day activities of life and ministry, these questions can often be taken for granted and neglected. The way the disciples dismiss this woman is an example of this neglect.
In this period of history, as in ours, there were many people who were poor and rejected, people who were seen as outcastes, and had no hope for their future. A Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter was one such person. This was someone that no self-respecting follower of Israel’s God would be associated with. Canaanites were those who had a mistaken understanding about God. They had false ideas and worshipped false idols. They deserved to be possessed by demons because that’s who they served. At least, that was the attitude of God’s people at this time. Jesus uses this long held attitude to explore this woman’s faith and to teach his disciples a lesson.
This lesson begins as the Canaanite approaches Jesus looking to have her daughter healed. “But I have only come for the lost sheep of Israel,” he tells her. In other words, I’m not here to speak with Canaanites about matters of faith. That will come later but the woman persists, “Help me, she pleads, “Lord, help me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession” Here is a woman desperate for mercy, but does she deserve it? Is it not her own false worship that led her to this place? Is it not her own fault?
As we try to live out the kingdom of God in our own ministries, we might also struggle with these same questions. Who deserves mercy? Is everyone entitled to it? What about those who look different and who act different. What about the sinners? Don’t they deserve what they get? How often are we just like the disciples in this story from Matthew? “Lord, send these people away.”
I once heard a pastor talk about a young woman in his town who was about to have a child out of wedlock. This was a small town and word was out about this young woman’s behaviour. It was expected that the pastor would go and see this woman, and that’s exactly what he did. He came to her house, was invited in, and he shared with her the good news of Jesus. He told her about God’s love and forgiveness, and about how God can make a real change in her life, no matter what she had done. The woman accepted this message and gave her life over to Christ that very day.
The next Sunday the young woman came to the pastor’s church and was worshipping God for the first time in her life. She was excited, her hands were raised while she praised, and she was so full of God’s joy. This excitement lasted another couple weeks but then she suddenly stopped coming to the worship meetings.
The pastor went to visit her again and asked her why she had stopped coming to church. “I just can’t come anymore,” she said, “I just can’t do it. Every time I go into that church I get the feeling that I’m dirty and no good.”
You shouldn’t feel that way,” he said, “Jesus has forgiven and forgotten. You no longer have to feel shame or embarrassment. You are new and wonderful creation.”
“Jesus may have forgiven, and he may have even forgotten. But the people who belong to the church, they haven’t forgiven me. And they certainly haven’t forgotten.”
We Christians can be some of the most dismissive people. “Lord, send these people away.” But God demands better attitudes from his people and so questions of mercy continue to plague us. Who deserves our mercy? Who deserves our forgiveness? Who deserves our acceptance?
The Canaanite woman we meet in Matthew 15 is one such person. She is different from God’s people. She is not a Jew and she is certainly not a follower of Christ but she is desperate. It is in this desperation that she comes to Jesus, “Lord, help me.”
The disciples want to dismiss this lady as soon as possible but Jesus is stopped in his tracks by this woman’s faith. It doesn’t matter to him that she looks different, or acts different, or that she’s an outsider. Jesus looks past these things and sees a woman of faith and a woman in need. He hears her cries for mercy and her daughter is healed that very hour. We need to hear the cries of those in need as well because God wants to do these same kinds of miracles through us.
There are people all over the place struggling today with real issues in their lives. These are people trying to get a job, trying to overcome an addiction, trying to find a place to live; people with sick kids, people with family problems, and people struggling with all sorts of disappointments. There are unwed mothers looking for forgiveness and acceptance, and men in prison hoping to find something to believe in. These people might not always look or act like us but their cries are real, “Have mercy on me. Have mercy.”
Jesus heard this cry for mercy and a woman’s daughter was healed. I wonder what kind of miracle God will do through us when we hear these cries too?