Is Jesus ever cruel?

I hope you have a time to pray and and just spend time with God every day. I know when I talk with my Lord, it seems as though He speaks to me in sweet words of encouragement, kindness, and love. I so enjoy these times with Him for I can almost feel His physical presence as He puts his arms around me like a loving parent comforting a child or someone holding a tiny puppy in their hands.

Of course, He often helps set me straight or warns me of behaviors I need to change, but it seems it is always done in a gentle, loving manner. Ah yes, we can have a “cuddly” relationship with Him. And of course there are some qualifiers to having such a relationship, but as a Christ-follower, this is what I often experience.(See note below.)*

Yet in Scripture it seems that Jesus is not always so kind. While there are several examples of Jesus’ “unkindness”, for today let us look in on Him and the twelve as they interact with a Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew or Gentile. The story begins in Matthew 15:21-27. Jesus has gone to the region of Tyre and Sidon with His disciples after a tiring day. A woman approaches Jesus, frightened and desperate. Her daughter is demon-possessed and while the Bible gives no picture, I am sure the child’s behavior would evoke horror in the heart of a loving mother. (Other portions of Scripture associate demon-possession with blindness, inability to speak, wearing no clothes, wandering in the tombs, and being thrown into fire and water. See Matthew 9:32-33, Mark 5:1-20, Mark 9:22, Matthew 17).   She persists to the point that the disciples urge Jesus to send her away. They are annoyed “for she keeps crying after us.” (Matthew 15:23, NIV) And what does Jesus do? He seems to completely ignore her! Can you imagine how this mother must have felt? She is desperate so she begs the One whom she knows can heal her daughter, and He will not even answer. We’re not told how many times she begs Him or how long it took for Jesus to answer, but when He does it almost seems He is responding to the disciples’ request: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24 NASB)

Wait a minute. Jesus came for all mankind, to save us all from our sins, right? For the “whosoever”‘s of this world, didn’t He? (See John 3:16) Hmmm, can’t believe He said that to her. Yeah, I hear a lot of head-scratching out there. Well…let’s just stand back and see how she reacts to these words.

Perhaps to our surprise, this mother persists and falls on her knees (or bows or worships depending on your translation) before Him and begs again.

Jesus says: “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (verse 26)

Okay, before we get upset about this and think “how unloving”, again let’s get mom’s reaction.

““That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”  And now Jesus replies:  “Dear woman, your faith is great. Your request is granted.” (verse 28. NLT) And finally! Her daughter is healed.

Can you be honest and admit that if you had been in that mother’s shoes, this situation might have tried your patience a bit?  Well, let’s take a look at some possible reasons for Jesus’s answers.

So why did Jesus initially ignore her? Why did He tell her He came only for the “lost sheep of Israel”? And why on earth refer to her (and all the Gentiles for that matter) as “dogs”?

To the first question, Jesus may have been testing her in some way. Her patience maybe? Her faith? Or maybe He is allowing her to be an example for us because He knows she will keep asking. Honestly, I am not sure but notice she does not give up.And does her begging seem to bother Jesus? The disciples, yes. But not Jesus. Not in the least.

He then talks about His mission to the Israelites. Did he want her to understand the importance of that mission?  For He had indeed come for the lost sheep of Israel so that these chosen people could spread the gospel to the Gentiles, to all nations. Perhaps He honored her by explaining this. Or maybe He is testing her patience again. At any rate, she reacts by falling on her knees and asking Him again.

When Jesus next refers to her and her people as dogs, telling her it isn’t right to throw food to them before the children are fed, we might think of the whole statement and especially the word “dogs” as an insult. Well, not really. He could very well have meant little pet dogs, you know the kind we have today who win our hearts when they rest their head on our lap and look at us with “puppy dog eyes” or who wag their tails off when we come home. (I mean after all, who else is that happy to see us?) I think Jesus is referring to dogs in a loving way. (One version actually uses the word “puppies”). And she responds readily “True Lord.” Wait….What does she say? She’s agreeing with Him? So it seems. But she doesn’t stop there, instead she gives this incredible statement that complements his illustration. “But even the dogs will eat the crumbs from the master’s table.”

She could make do with the crumbs. Whatever He is willing to give her would be enough. I believe she is saying “You are enough, Your blessings are enough, whatever You give will take care of my daughter’s needs, I trust You.”  At any rate, Jesus knows her heart, and listen to what He says next (wait for it):  ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.”  He compliments her. He grants her request. Perhaps we can learn from this woman that God is waiting for us to cry after Him, waiting for us to come to Him desperate to have our needs met. Yes, He knows your needs but as I am sure you know, He still wants us to present  them to Him. And if you still don’t think Jesus’ response is what you would expect from Him, remember, He deals with different individuals…well, differently. He knows how to talk to people, including you in your situation. So don’t be afraid to ask. And to keep on asking. To cry out with a pain-filled heart and to expect something in return. He really is listening.

Sources for this blog: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/matthew/15.html and Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in the Scriptures(Grand Rapids:Zondervan,1999),357-358

*God does not speak to me aloud, but in that “still, small, voice” and if it truly is Him speaking to my heart, what He says will never contradict His Word.

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