who’s in charge?: Matthew 15

read Matthew 15.  For years, I wanted to write a book about worry, but I had to shelve the project.  I knew the problem, but I didn’t know the solution. Here in this chapter, we discover that the solution lies in accepting that God is in charge.  I say that, but the first thing we see in this chapter is the Prince of Peace calling a Gentile woman a dog.  One has to prayerfully telescope in to try to understand.

There are many odd things about the way Jesus interacts with the Gentile woman who asks him to heal her demon possessed daughter.  At first, he doesn’t even reply to her request.  Why would Jesus stonewall her?  When his disciples complain that she is “bothering” them with her “begging”, he doesn’t refute their callous words.  Instead, he tells the woman he came only for the Jews.  Really?  I thought Christ came for everyone.  Romans 10:12.  Why would he say this?  When the woman meets his rebuke with worship, he equates her to a dog: “it isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Instead of taking offense, she embraces the analogy and asks only for a scrap from the master’s table.

At this point, Jesus calls her “dear woman.”  He praises her faith.  He heals her daughter instantly.  So what is going on?

The Gentile woman’s humility stands in stark contrast to the Pharisee’s pride in the same chapter.  The religious leaders take offense at Christ.  But the woman in need worships him, humbles herself, and accepts that Christ is the master.  She has reached the place where she is willing to say: “God, I don’t understand your ways, but I accept that you’re in charge.”  She has reached the place of trust.

The Gentile woman’s proclamation about accepting crumbs from the master’s table reminds me of King David, joyfully singing: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” Ps. 84:10 (NIV).  There is something about serving in the kingdom of God that removes jealousy and selfish ambition;  the Bible teaches that the Jews really are God’s chosen people, and that Gentiles are the “wild vine” grafted in to the one true olive tree. Romans 11:17.  When you know you are fully loved, however, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do; you know you are all working together for the same king.  Jesus praises the Gentile woman’s faith; he is, perhaps, showing that the way of salvation is through faith alone, not works or pedigree: “It is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved… Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him.”  Romans 10:5-13.

The woman’s faith also stands in stark contrast to the disciples’ lack of faith.  Even though the disciples have just seen Jesus feed 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread, they react with incredulity when Christ here asks them to feed 4,000 men (plus women and children) from seven loaves and a few small fish.  How, the disciples ask, will you find “food here in the wilderness”?  How indeed.  One of my favorite things about the feeding of 4,000 and 5,000 stories is the amount of leftovers.  When we allow God to meet our needs, instead of grasping for things outside his will, he showers us with such abundance that there are more leftovers than we know how to handle.

Some people like to portray the feeding of the 4,000 and 5,000 as stories of God teaching people to share.  They suggest that once the little boy so willingly coughed up his lunch, everyone else was shamed into sharing their hidden stashes of food.  Maybe.  But Jesus says here that the people “have nothing left to eat.” They have no hidden stashes.  They were depleted.  They were, in short, in the very place where God can move. I like to think, instead, that the miracle is a miracle.  I don’t have a problem believing in miracles.  If God is God, He can do anything.

Which brings us back to the seemingly odd way Jesus heals the Gentile woman’s daughter.  Why didn’t Christ just say, “okay, fine,” the moment she first asked for his help?  Why make her beg?  Why equate her with a dog?  Why say he came only for the Jews?  I don’t know.  But as always, I know Christ knew.  My guess is that there was something in this woman’s life that needed healing.  Perhaps she felt herself to be a failure in the face of her daughter’s demonic possession.  Perhaps she felt guilty that she couldn’t protect her daughter from the dark forces that had overtaken her.  It strikes me that the woman’s daughter was not the only one who needed healing.

And so perhaps Christ was using a kind of Socratic method to help the woman understand that ultimately, God is in control.  Ultimately, Christ is the master, and we are not.  If Christ had wanted to help only his chosen people, we would have to accept that there was a reason for it.  Only when the Gentile woman proclaims the truth out loud about God’s sovereignty, does Christ heal her daughter.  Perhaps in saying Christ is the “master,” the woman was finally and fully accepting that her daughter’s possession was not her fault.

We often don’t understand why bad things happen in this world.  All we know is that we live in a fallen world, where death, disease, natural disasters and sin occur in a way they didn’t in the garden of Eden.  All we can do is reach a place of believing God’s promise to bring good out of bad.  We reach a place of accepting that “all things” work together for good for those who love the Lord.  We trust that Jesus will provide food for us, even in the wilderness, as he does in the miracle of the fish and loaves.

But what do we do when we don’t trust God with our problems; when we don’t believe he will feed us in the wilderness, even though we’ve seen him do it before; when we are anxious about man-made rules, even though we know we shouldn’t be; when we feel guilty for not being able to help people in the throes of madness or addiction?

As always, the Bible teaches that the solution lies in admitting the truth.  The truth is that none of us are perfect.  We are all at times like the Pharisees, struggling under a load of man-made rules.  We are all at times like the Gentile woman, blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fault.  We are all at times like the disciples, disbelieving miracles we’ve seen before. If, as Jesus here says, evil thoughts are what “defile” us, then we are all of us defiled.

Instead of sinking us, however, this truth ultimately lifts us up.  The truth brings us to a place of humility, where we can hold our empty hands out to God, and say: “Lord, we did our best and it wasn’t enough.  We’re sorry, and we can’t fix these things, and we need your help.”

What happens when we ask for help, is that we discover the extent of God’s love.  When we understand the depth of our need, we finally begin to understand the amazing truth about grace.  It begins to sink in that if we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, that’s why God’s own Son chose to come down from heaven to accept the punishment we deserve.  When we ask for help, therefore, we discover help has already arrived.  When we ask for peace, we discover that the Prince of Peace wants to come and live in our hearts.  His presence will go with us.  When we walk through the fire, he will be with us.  When we pass through the waters, he will never leave us.  His presence fills us with what the Bible calls “the peace that passes all understanding.”

That’s why I couldn’t write the book on worry.  God already did.  He wrote it on his own flesh; he engraved it on the palms of his hands.  He says: there’s nothing to worry about. Cast your cares on me, because I care for you.

Jesus knows exactly what we need.  All we have to do is ask.

posted by Caroline Coleman, in carolinecolemanbooks.com

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