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Faith, Pressed and Precious

September 16, 2012 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Compasssion Passage: Mark 7:24–37

Years ago it was popular to wear a little bracelet that had the letters WWJD on it – What Would Jesus Do? And it encouraged us to consider what Jesus would do in every situation we’re in. The problem with the question What Would Jesus Do? is that in most situations the best we can do is to determine what we think Jesus would do.

If you are visiting us this morning we are working through the gospel of Mark and this morning we come to what might be one of the strangest exchanges in any of the gospels, if not in all of the Bible and the reason it is so unusual is because Jesus doesn’t seem to act like the Jesus we see throughout the rest of the gospels. If a mother came up to one us desperately pleading for us to help her suffering daughter, I think we all know what Jesus would do: he would instantly help the mother. But we have exactly that scenario here in this passage and when we ask, WWJD, the answer we find here is that he’d ignore her, dismiss her, and then insult her. So let’s take a look at what Jesus does, and then ask one more question: why does Jesus do what he does?

Before we look at all that, though, it’s important that we connect the story to the context.

Clean and unclean redefined

Remember that in the verses preceding this story some Pharisees come to Jesus upset because his disciples aren’t ceremonially washing their hands before they eat. To the religious leaders this made his disciples “unclean” and “defiled” but Jesus turns the religious traditions on their head when he teaches that it’s not what goes into our mouths that make us unclean, but what comes out of our mouths because what comes out of our mouths comes from our hearts and that is where the true defilement of sin is. Mark adds a radical commentary when he writes “thus he declared all foods clean” – nullifying the dietary laws of the OT.

Mark doesn’t record the Pharisee’s response but there is little doubt that they left there confirmed in their belief that Jesus and his disciples are unclean lawbreakers and so what does Jesus do to correct that image? Well, actually the very next thing Jesus does is to travel 20 miles inside Gentile territory to the coastal town of Tyre and Sidon – which would just confirm Jesus’ unclean status in the minds of the religious establishment. The reason for this excursion into Gentile territory is to get away from the crowds that are constantly surrounding him, apparently to get some much needed rest and so he doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. But word gets out and immediately a Gentile woman – Matthew tells us she was a Canaanite woman – approaches him for help. Now if entering Gentile turf was defiling, for a rabbi to have dealings with a Gentile woman – a Canaanite at that – would be scandalous in the eyes of the religious leaders. It is no accident that this story comes right after the teaching on what makes a man clean or unclean because the real issue isn’t going to be washed or unwashed hands, it’s going to be the gospel reaching out to people once considered hopelessly unclean and washing them in the sight of God. So keep that in mind as we work through this passage.

Ignored, dismissed, and insulted by Jesus

This Canaanite woman approaches Jesus desperate for help. There are serious ethnic and cultural barriers between her and Jesus. She knew that a Jewish rabbi should have nothing to do with her, and on the other side, she risked retribution from her own people for rejecting the pagan gods and seeking help from a Jewish rabbi. But driving her was a mother’s determination to get help for her little daughter who was oppressed by a demon and sentenced to death through torment and self-destruction. So this mother risks everything and comes pleading for Jesus to help her – somehow she learned his messianic title and she was crying out “have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David…” loudly and incessantly.

And what’s she’s asking for is mercy. She knows she doesn’t deserve his help. She isn’t a Jew; she knows that she shouldn’t even be approaching Jesus. She isn’t demanding what she thinks is owed to her, she is begging for mercy. She is a mother begging for mercy for her daughter.
WWJD? Well, Mark records it, but Matthew includes a little more detail about the interactions between Jesus and this woman so let’s turn to Matthew 15:23 to see exactly what Jesus did do.
The answer to WWJD is found in verse 23: but he did not answer her a word.

1. WWJD? Jesus ignores her (vs. 23)

They say that the opposite of love isn’t hatred, its indifference. Being ignored by someone is worse than being hated, because it treats you as if you aren’t worth even being acknowledged. But that’s what Jesus does, he did not answer her a word – no acknowledgement, no sympathy, no gesture of care, just silence.

That alone would be enough to make most of us give up and leave but Jesus’ silence doesn’t silence this Canaanite woman – she continues to cry out for mercy loudly and incessantly until the disciples come to Jesus and beg him to send her away. Either send her away by healing her daughter or send her away by telling her to leave, but please Jesus, get her out of here - we can’t take her crying out anymore! Jesus’ answer to this request is found in verse 24. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

2. WWJD? Jesus dismisses her (vs. 24)

Jesus answer in verse 24 is unexpected– first of all, who is he speaking to? The disciples? The woman? Is he talking to himself? He doesn’t address the disciple’s request directly but says, almost wistfully, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He dismisses her plea with a theological truth about his mission: Jesus’ earthly ministry wasn’t to leave the borders of Israel. He dismisses her, but for a big reason – Jesus’ mission would eventually break open to all the Gentile world, but not now, not through his personal ministry. He knew that if he opened up his ministry to the Gentile world at this time his ministry would be stretched and diluted to the point of being ineffectual. The time would come, but not now, not by him.

In essence Jesus is saying, “I wasn’t sent to help your ethnic type. My ministry is limited to the Jews. Healing your daughter isn’t what I came for” and by saying this Jesus is reminding her of the ethnic barrier between them – a barrier that is meant to put an uncrossable chasm of distance between him and her – the only problem is, it doesn’t work! Look at verse 25: But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He reminds her of the distance between them, and she draws nearer. Before this she must have been crying out to him from a distance, but now she comes right up to Jesus and kneels down in front of him and looking into his eyes pleads in a very personal way for mercy, “Lord help me.”

We’ve seen Jesus moved with compassion at the suffering and pain of the crowds, how could this heartrending appeal for mercy not move his loving heart to show compassion to this suffering mother? 

3. WWJD? Jesus insults her (vs 26)

Jesus answers her pleas in verse 26: "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He calls her a dog! Now people are often quick to point out that the word Jesus uses for dogs isn’t the word for the savage wild dogs that roamed the streets, but rather the softer word used for dogs that were house pets and that’s true, but it’s still an insult. This mom is there for her precious daughter’s sake and Jesus likens helping her to taking bread from the children (Israel as God’s children) and throwing it to the dogs (the Gentiles) saying that would be wrong to do.

At this point most mothers, fathers, anyone would give up. Most would be offended and walk out angry. It seems pretty obvious that Jesus is rejecting her, it seems obvious he has no compassion for her daughter, it seems obvious there’s no help coming from him. Mom, it’s time to take the hint and go home to your daughter. But not this mom! She will not be refused and her answer is priceless and one of the wittiest lines in the Bible: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

She agrees with Jesus that she’s a dog. She agrees that the bread should go to the children. But she takes Jesus’ words and turns them back on him – yes Lord, but those house dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table –they can eat at the same time as the children without taking anything away from the children. That’s all I’m asking for, Lord, is for a crumb to fall from the table.

Why would Jesus do what he did?

Jesus has ignored, dismissed, and insulted this woman, but we all know there’s more to it than that. We’ve asked WWJD, but now we need to ask why would Jesus do what he did. Matthew 15:28 is the pinnacle and the great point of this story: O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. And her daughter was healed instantly.

It’s like a dam bursts in Jesus and I think he is laughing in amazement, O woman, great is your faith! He is impressed with her faith! No one else in any gospel is said to have great faith. No one else! Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s faith but he didn’t say the centurion had great faith. Of all the people Jesus encountered in his ministry this woman stands alone in the category of having great faith.

This was why Jesus stayed so distant, why he ignored, dismissed, and insulted her: to draw out of her the amazing faith that she had. He pressed hard on her faith so that the precious beauty of her would be revealed.

Undoubtedly our compassionate Lord intended to heal her daughter all along – he couldn’t turn away such pleas for mercy. Jesus answered her not a word, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t hear her all along. His ears were tuned to her pleas from the first cry. But if he had answered her pleas right away, the “greatness” of her faith, the strength, the depth, the determination of her faith, would never have been displayed. It took Jesus pressing on her faith to squeeze out the preciousness of her faith. And that brings us to a beautiful truth about Jesus and faith.

Faith that is pressed hard and remains strong is precious to the Lord

This is really true of so many things in life: we don’t see the quality of something until it is pressed. We don’t see the quality of courage until it is pressed in the face of fear and danger. Ray Blankenship was making one breakfast when he looked outside his window and saw a 2 year old girl being swept along a rain-flooded drainage ditch. He knew that not far down the ditch disappeared underneath a road and the emptied out in the main culvert. He knew if he didn’t reach her before that point she would be lost so he ran and threw himself into the deep churning water reaching for the girl. He was able to surface and grab her arm, grabbing a rock protruding from the bank and telling himself to just hang on till help arrived. Somehow he was able to pull the girl from danger before the rescuers arrived and both of them were treated for shock.

Ray’s courage was pressed by the danger to the little girl and himself – and it was even more pressed by the fact that Ray didn’t know how to swim. It took the press of danger and risk revealed the precious quality of courage in Ray Blankenship.

That’s the irony of the human race – it takes the pressing to reveal the precious. Love may be deep but we don’t see how deep until it’s pressed. Years ago SGM shared a heart rending but deeply beautiful story of a husband whose wife had lost all mobility and even the ability to communicate. His wife was confined to a wheelchair and unable to talk, yet still he loved her with a fierce love. At a church party for couples, he wheeled his bride out on the dance floor and danced with her. There is a preciousness to his love that was revealed by a very real, very painful pressing. It would have been a wonderful and amazing thing if the Lord had healed her long before that moment came, but we would never have that display of deep, deep love. And so it is with loyalty, integrity, determination, any noble quality of the human race can only be seen for all it is when it is pressed.

Sometimes the Lord does answer our prayers quickly and dynamically. Sometimes he inserts himself into the situation is a way that is undeniable and awesome and we give Him glory for those times. But sometimes he doesn’t insert Himself into the center of the situation – He stands on the edge, like he did with this Canaanite woman, so that we press in to him – not to the answer, but to him – all the harder. So when the Lord doesn’t answer our prayers immediately we shouldn’t think for a moment that he doesn’t care, he’s not listening, or that he doesn’t have compassion on us. Jesus isn’t pressing on us because he doesn’t love us, he’s pressing on us because he does love us, and that press is revealing something precious to him, our faith.

When you go through those times – when he doesn’t seem to answer – and we all will. Probably some are there right now, but this is to prepare us all for those times – persevere in prayer. Don’t give up, don’t pull back. Be careful that you don’t give in to self-pity that says, “he doesn’t care about me.” Come desperate, come weak, but come! When your faith is pressed hard and it remains strong, it’s precious to Jesus. This Canaanite woman’s “great faith” pleased Jesus! It astonished Jesus. It touched Jesus.

There are times when Jesus may answer us not a word – but he always hears us. He always intends to help us. He never ignores our cries for mercy. But our story glorifies Him when we don’t give up and we persevere and we trust. When our faith is pressed hard and remains strong it is precious to our Lord.

Looking at this passage with a wide angle lens

But let’s look at this story with a wide anle lens. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus – unclean, defiled. Jesus himself seems to be unwilling to help her, telling her that the household dogs shouldn’t be fed at the expense of the children, but she answers, “you’re right, I’m a household dog, but if I am then that means I have a Master, and that Master is you. I’m a part of the household and can claim the crumbs.” She is laying claim to be a part of the household of God, and she is a prophetic foreshadow of the day when God would call Peter to go to the Gentiles by telling him, “what God has called clean do not call unclean” and he would be sent to preach the good news of the kingdom, the good news of being able to join the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself said: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 8:11-12

All of this is possible only because of the press of the cross. On the cross Jesus’ love for unclean and defiled sinners is amazingly displayed. He died so that we could live. He died to give us mercy – undeserved mercy.

If you don’t know Jesus, if you’re not a Christian, I want to urge you to come to him with your sin and brokenness and ask him to cleanse you and save you. Jesus promises that all those who come to him in faith will sit at the table of God as a child of God, adopted through faith in Christ. If that’s you this morning, please don’t delay, please don’t remain at a distance. Don’t stand far away. Come to Jesus and ask him to save you and make you a part of the household of God. He promises to do that for all who come to him with a humble faith. Let’s pray.