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Passing the Test

Jesus sometimes tests us in order to teach us.

"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.' Her daughter was healed from that very hour."

Jesus is a master teacher.

Jesus is a master teacher. How many of you think Jesus seems a little rude here? Let me explain what's going on in this passage. Among other things, Jesus is the greatest teacher who ever lived. I don't know of another passage that more effectively shows the absolute brilliance of Jesus the teacher.

Several things characterize a great teacher, and they're at work in this passage.

A great teacher aims not just at dispensing information but at changing lives.

A master teacher doesn't just give lectures; he or she creates experiences for people. Great teachers know truth is most powerful when people have to work to discover it. They know truth discovered has a much deeper impact than truth merely presented. We've all experienced that.

A master teacher is able to teach more than one person or group at a time. Their teaching is going on at different levels.

A master teacher's methods are not always clear to their students at the time. For instance, Jesus was an expert at using what Walter Wink has called "deliberately induced frustration" with his disciples. He tells them once to feed a crowd when they don't have enough food. He tells them to cast out a demon they're not able to cast out. He puts them in a boat one day with a storm coming up.

Deliberately induced frustration in the hands of a master teacher is a powerful learning tool. Master teachers are always testing and probing to help their students see where they are on the learning curve. This passage is about the master teacher. Ken Bailey, who has written insightfully on this encounter, notes that to grasp the point of this passage, you have to see that Jesus is giving a test for two different sets of people. But tests are not always pleasant to the ones who are being tested.

Illustration: My favorite story is about a guy taking a class in ornithology, the study of birds. The teacher has a reputation for being extremely difficult, so this guy studies his brains out for the final. He goes to class feeling prepared, but instead of having a normal test, there are 25 pictures on the wall of birds' feet. He is supposed to identify the birds by their feet. The guy goes nuts, and says to the teacher, "This is crazy. Nobody could take this test." The teacher says, "Nevertheless, you have to take it." The kid says, "I'm not going to take it." The teacher says, "You have to take it, or you fail." The kid says, "Go ahead and fail me. I'm not going to take this test." The teacher says, "All right. That's it. You've failed. Tell me your name." The kid rolls his pants up to his knees and says, "You tell me."

Jesus teaches his disciples and the Canaanite woman by testing them.

This encounter with Jesus is a test both of his disciples and of this Canaanite woman, and we'll see who aces it and who gets an incomplete. Jesus goes for some rest with his disciples to a region far to the north. Tyre and Sidon are two Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast, and the Israelites despised these people.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote roughly in the time of Christ, wrote, "The people of Tyre are our bitterest enemies." To see how badly they're regarded by the Jewish people, go to Matthew 11:20. Jesus had performed miracles among the Israelites, but the people didn't respond. "Then Jesus began to denounce the cities" are Israelite cities—"in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 'Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.' "

He's saying: Even the most wicked people you think you Tyre and Sidon, the bottom of the spiritual have repented if they had seen the miracles you have seen. The point is, this woman would have been regarded by the disciples as the enemy, a member of the most spiritually degraded people they know.

She comes to Jesus in Matthew 15 with the traditional cry of a beggar: "Have mercy on me." She humbles herself, and she adds a title to it: Lord. The Creek word kurios could mean sir, but it could also mean master or lord. She repeats that title through this story, and she also calls him the Son of David, which means she knows something about Judaism. She's deeply respectful.

Then in verse 23 it says, "Jesus did not answer a word." This woman's daughter is suffering terribly, so she appeals to Jesus with humility and reverence, and he acts like he doesn't hear. He responds with silence, with what looks like indifference and rejection. Notice Matthew doesn't try to hide this. He deliberately draws our attention to it in the text, because Matthew knows what we don't know yet. He knows this is a test, and he wants us to have to grapple with what Jesus is up to.

The woman could walk away at this point. She has to decide in the face of Jesus' silence, How deeply do I want healing for my daughter?How much am I willing to trust this man? This is part one of her exam.

We're going to leave her for a second and look at the disciples, because Jesus is also giving them a test. Jesus tests the disciples' love. They're not surprised Jesus doesn't talk with this woman, because no rabbi they know would. There's an ancient rabbinic saying: "He that talks with womankind brings evil on himself, neglects the study of the Law, and at the last will inherit gehenna," that is, hell. So the disciples are not surprised by this.

Jesus deliberately ignores this woman, and he is watching the disciples to see what they will do. Do they understand his heart for everybody, including Gentiles and women? Do they understand what he's about? Their response comes in verse 23, and they're quite confident their words will meet with his approval. "Send her away," they say. "She keeps crying out after us."

Now the woman is a little grandiose. She hasn't said anything to the disciples. She's after Jesus. But they generously include themselves in Jesus' power and ministry: She's bothering us. "We came north for a little R&R. Everybody wants a piece of us. So, Jesus, you send her away." It's reminiscent of another story in the Gospels, when children tried to come to Jesus. The text says the disciples rebuked the children. They thought they were quite clear on the kind of people Jesus did and did not have time for.

Jesus goes on to part two of the exam. The woman comes up. The disciples say to him, "Send her away." So Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Why does he say this? In other places he makes it clear he has come for the whole world. He's not willing that any should perish. So why does he say here, "the lost sheep of Israel"?

Remember, good teachers don't just give lectures and hand out information. They know experience is a much more powerful teacher than just presentation. So Jesus doesn't simply give his disciples a lecture about negative attitudes. He tried that after his disciples shooed the children away. The disciples need some remedial help. So Jesus appears to agree with them: Of course I'll get rid of her. I'm sent to Israel, God's favorites. We have no time for Gentile, female, riffraff. Good call, guys. I'll send her away.

But notice he doesn't send her away. He appears to agree and then watches to see how they will respond. Will anybody dare to disagree? Does anybody have the guts to stand up for this woman?

Simultaneously the woman goes through part two of this test. She's hearing what Jesus is saying. Jesus is talking to and facing his disciples. His words say to her, in effect: You're an outsider. I'm the Son of David. I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. You are not my mission. Why should I serve you? The question here is: Is her concern for her child so deep, her confidence in Jesus' compassion and power so strong, that she will persevere in her petition even when he seems unwilling?

But she has nowhere else to go. So she kneels on the ground in a posture of reverence and humility. Verse 25: "The woman came and knelt before him." She utters a single phrase, a cry of the human soul: "Lord, help me!" A second time she calls him Lord. The disciples are watching. The tension starts to build in them strongly, as Jesus knew it would, because their theology tells them this woman is to be shunned, rejected, ignored, and turned away. They themselves would say the same thing Jesus said. Yet something inside them begins to be moved. This is the cry of a desperate mother for a beloved daughter who is in physical and spiritual agony. Could it possibly be that God is better and bigger than their theology?

This encounter is striking at beliefs and prejudices so deeply embedded in them that they will not get rooted out all at once. But a seed is planted here. That seed will not be fully grown and harvested until the Book of Acts, when Peter sees the Holy Spirit fall on a Gentile named Cornelius, and Peter realizes God has no favorites but accepts human beings from every nation. But the disciples don't get it yet. So Jesus speaks again.

He had been speaking to his disciples, and it will help you get the dynamic of this story if you picture him still looking at his disciples, still watching their faces, still testing. Verse 26: "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." The meaning of this statement was clear. The children were the Israelites. The dogs were the Gentiles, this woman. Dogs in the Middle East were despised animals. They were scavengers and garbage eaters, and they were considered almost as unclean as pigs.

Jesus is forcing the disciples to face themselves. He says to them, in effect: You want me to get rid of this woman? You want me to limit my ministry to Israel? Okay, I'll do what you ask. You watch her. Listen to her daughter's screams. He gives voice to their theology. It's one thing to have contempt for somebody behind their back, it's another thing to hear the ugliness of your thoughts and feelings expressed out loud before a real human being. Will any of them speak up for this woman? Will one of them love her? No, not one, not today. This is the end of their test. There will be other tests in days to come, and they will do better. They're still learning. But not today.

Jesus is giving some of you the love test he gave his disciples.

Jesus is giving some of you the test that was given to love test. There's somebody in your life you're having a hard time offering authentic, Christlike love to. Maybe it's a parent. Maybe it's somebody at work. Maybe it's your child or your spouse. Maybe it's somebody you're in a small group with. Maybe, as with the disciples, it involves a whole group of people you have problems with. The love test is given all the time in our world.

Illustration: This is from a book written by Tony Campolo:

Some time ago I was invited to be a counselor at a junior high camp. I don't know how many of you reading this book are Roman Catholics, but that old Roman Catholic theology is right. There is a purgatory. It's junior high place between heaven and hell where people go to suffer for their sins. I've never met meaner kids in my life than at this junior high camp.

Don't get me wrong. I love junior high kids individually, but the gang at this camp was really bad. Let me tell you. These kids at this junior high camp really turned mean, and their meanness was focused on an unfortunate kid named Billy. Billy broke my heart, because he had been born with a whole host of birth defects. He had cerebral palsy, and his brain was unable to exercise proper control over the movements of his body or his speech. The other kids mocked him. They called him spastic. Billy would walk across the grounds of camp in his disjointed manner, and the others would line up behind him, imitating him and mimicking his every movement. They thought this was funny. It was the worst kind of cruelty I'd ever seen.

One day I watched as Billy asked one of the boys a question: "Which way is the craft shop?" The other boy twisted up grotesquely, pointed a dozen different ways and said, "That way." I felt like punching out that mean kid. How could he be so cruel to a handicapped boy?

The level of meanness reached its lowest point on a Wednesday morning. Billy's cabin had been assigned the morning devotions for that camp of 150 kids. All the boys in his cabin had voted for Billy to be the speaker. I knew and they knew he couldn't do it. They just wanted to get him up there so they could mock him and laugh. They thought it would be fun to watch spastic Billy try to deliver a devotional talk. I was livid. I was seething with anger.

As little Billy got up out of his seat and limped his way to the platform, you could hear the mocking laughter and sneering going through the group. I could not remember ever being so angry. What was amazing was that the ridicule of the boys did not stop that little guy. He took his place behind the rostrum and started to speak. It took Billy almost ten tortured minutes to say, "Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me. And I love Jesus."

When he finished there was dead silence. I looked over my shoulder and there were junior high school boys shaking and trembling and crying all over the place. A revival broke out in that camp, and kids turned their lives over to Jesus. A host of junior high school boys committed their lives to Christian service.

I wish I had kept count of how many ministers I have met as I have traveled across the country who have told me they gave their lives to Christ because of the witness of someone like Billy.

A test comes for you when a human being comes into your life. Will you say, "God, will you help me love this person? Will you help me speak and act with compassion and truth and courage? God, here's somebody who's difficult for me. Here's somebody who doesn't know you. Maybe they're far away from you, but they're poor and needy, and I have stuff."

This is the will of God for you. This is the way of Christ. I hope you're doing well on this test. I hope you are living as Jesus' student devoted to learning from him how to love, because he's still looking for disciples who are willing to love.

Jesus is giving some of you the endurance test he gave the Canaanite woman.

Jesus uses harsh language about dogs to force the disciples to face themselves, to give voice to what they've been thinking and feeling privately. Jesus tests the Canaanite woman's endurance. At the same time he softens his language slightly for the woman. Two words could be used for dogs, and Jesus uses the diminutive word, meaning little doggie. The word Jesus uses is for a little puppy, not a big scavenger dog. Jesus uses the word dog for the disciples' sake, but he makes them little dogs to soften it for the woman.

This is the hardest part of the test for her. Will she run away? She could decide this is not worth the effort. She could give up. She could insult him in return. Or is her love for her daughter so intense, is her trust in Jesus' power to heal so deep, is her faith in Jesus' compassion so strong, is her commitment to Jesus as Lord and master so unwavering that she won't give up? Her response is unbelievable. Verse 27: "Yes, Lord." For a third time she speaks to him. For a third time she calls him Lord. Still he is her Lord. "Yes, Lord," she says, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

You need to know part of the color of the story. She picks up on the diminutive form of the word dogs and uses the same word, and then she adds that diminutive to the word crumbs. Literally it might be, "Yes, Lord, but even the get the from their masters' table." She comes back at Jesus with grit and grace and even wit. There is an element of playfulness about her, as if she's sparring with Jesus. She's got a little attitude going: All right, Lord. Go ahead, by all means feed the kids. I bet you have a crumb for even me.

She won't give up. This is what might be called the endurance test. The disciples faced the love test; she faced the endurance test. Some of you are facing this test. Something is going on in your life, and it's difficult. You don't know if you will ever find relief. But it's not just that. You pray, you kneel, you beg, and you don't understand God's response. He seems silent. He seems indifferent, even hostile.

Illustration: We have some neighbors in our , and the husband is the glue in the neighborhood. He's never met a stranger. Anybody he talks to feels like a friend to him. He is a home improvement guy. We have lived there years, and he has never been without some project he's working on. When he finishes them, he always brings us over to see his finished basement or redone floors or added gazebo. Two days ago, paramedics came to our . I went outside and watched as he was carried away in an ambulance. I drove to the hospital and sat in the waiting room with his wife. They came out and said he didn't make it. He had had a massive heart attack. He had two teenage children who were his pride and joy. He was an unbelievable dad.

Why does something like that happen? There's so much I don't know. I only know that finally, the choice every human being faces is the choice between hope and despair. Jesus says: Choose hope. I know my Father well, and there is good reason for choosing hope. Some of you are facing an endurance test tonight. The question is: Will you keep going even when you don't know why, even when you don't know if or when you will get relief? When you cannot get any answers that could make the pain go away, will you still say, "My Lord," even when his ways are not clear to you? Will you keep going with all the grace and grit and faith you can muster and live in hope that one day he will set everything right? Will you trust that the Lord is good?

When I think about this woman, I remember the story in Genesis when Jacob meets a man at Jabbok. He realizes afterward that it's God. He says: I met God and lived. He met this man, and he wrestled with him all night. When it was almost daylight, the man said, "Let me go," but Jacob wouldn't quit wrestling. The man reached out and touched his hip, crippling him.

Even at that point Jacob says, "I will not let go unless you bless me." When the man saw Jacob would not quit, he blessed him. He gave him a new name—I he wrestled with God and man and prevailed.

The name Israel means one who wrestles with God. Why does God wrestle with Jacob? Obviously God wouldn't have a problem winning that match, so why does he wrestle with him all night long? Why didn't he just give him the blessing? God prizes a greatness in the human spirit that will not give up. One of the things God wants in his children is greatness of soul: people who will endure and wrestle and persevere and refuse to quit; people like the woman who keeps banging on the door of the unjust judge and will not give up; people like a neighbor who keeps pounding on the door of another, confident that eventually there will be an answer; people who cling to the goodness of God even when there is much they cannot see clearly.

This woman in Matthew 15 you know what her name was? Her name was Israel, one who wrestles with God and prevails. The disciples, who didn't do so well on their test, are watching this encounter with open mouths. They have never seen anybody show so much confidence before Jesus or demonstrate such love. When this woman approached, they thought they were watching their inferior, the spiritual bottom of the barrel. It turns out she is relating to Jesus on a level of understanding, humility, reverence, trust, and boldness that puts them to shame.

Finally Jesus turns to face this woman. Now the mask comes off. If for a moment he concealed the great goodness of his heart, he had a purpose, but now that purpose is fulfilled. The test is over, and its time for the grades to be given out. Jesus says, Woman, great is your faith. Your prayers are answered. Your daughter is healed. You were my beloved daughter all the time. What a spirit is in you. You have wrestled with God and prevailed. 0 woman, great is your faith. The word great comes from a form of the Greek word mega. We have words like mega malls or mega churches. She had mega faith. This woman (who everybody thought was the spiritual bottom of the barrel) is honored by the one before whom she knelt and called Lord and of whom she would not let go.

John Ortberg is teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He is author of several books, including everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Zondervan, 2003).

John Ortberg

Preaching Today Tape # 228


A resource of Christianity Today International

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:

Jesus is a master teacher.

Jesus teaches his disciples and the Canaanite woman by testing them.

Jesus is giving some of you the love test he gave his disciples.

Jesus is giving some of you the endurance test he gave the Canaanite woman.