I try not to stray too far from the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in my Bible reading and study. In any given year, I try to stick close to Jesus’ words and the story of His life in these four books. I do this partly because Jesus is the center of all that God has done for us and said to us, from Genesis to Revelation. Without Jesus…well, life-the-universe-and-everything doesn’t make much sense.
But I also stick close to the gospels because even though it’s familiar territory, each time I listen to Jesus speak through the text, He catches me off guard.
Jesus always surprises me.
Let me tell you about a recent surprise…
In 2017 I’ve been reading through the Bible chronologically. I say reading, but it’s mostly listening. About 80% of my time in the Scriptures this year has been listing to the Bible in chronological order of events using two apps: ReadingPlan and English Standard Version. I’ve found this approach really helpful when reading the Old Testament because it has helped me pick up on major themes I’ve missed before. For example, until this year, I haven’t fully appreciated the significance of this Old Testament word: steadfast love. It’s all over the Old Testament and a constant reminder of God’s faithful care for those He calls His own.
But, reading the Bible this way also means that I haven’t been in the gospels much this year. Until now.
This past week I listened to the entire book of Matthew. And there was Jesus, saying something I’ve heard, and even studied, many times in chapter 15. And yet, He caught me completely off guard. Again. Here’s the passage below. (I’ve marked Jesus responses to her in red.)
21And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26And he answered,“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.—Matthew 15:21-28
The woman sounds pitiful, her words reveal her desperate heart, arousing our compassion. And yet, Jesus at first appears callous ignoring her, then condescending, and seeming to insult her. In fact, he almost sounds what we would call racist. Is this the picture of Jesus you learned in Sunday School?
Ultimately, of course, its a story of Jesus’ power and compassion. But, if you or I demonstrated power and compassion that way, those around us would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I had to stop and listen a few more times. What do I make of this Jesus—a man with the miraculous power to heal, but who alludes to her as a dog in the process?
When I considered His surprising words, I was forced to remember…
❯ I Don’t Know the Whole Story
Jesus never spoke this way to any other woman. Consider the way He spoke with another woman who was publicly accused of adultery. It was quite the opposite. He came to her defense and did not condemn her though she was guilty of the charge. So, for reasons I will never know, Jesus treated this Canaanite woman in a way that provoked her persistence and revealed her desperation. And so, she has become a parable of what Christian faith and humility looks like in action: casting one’s hopes entirely on Jesus alone.
❯ I Am Not His Equal
If a mere man spoke like this to you, whether his intention was kind or not, you would rightly think him full of himself. When a mere man condescends and treats you as beneath him, his conceit is evident. But we know Jesus to be the only truly obedient Son of the Father. The voice of God proclaiming him so at his baptism and on the mount of transfiguration, and his own resurrection testify that Jesus is The (only) Righteous One.
So, Jesus is no mere man. The word condescension has negative connotations when applied to a man. But, the condescension of a true, divine superior is the essence of grace, mercy, and kindness. In this story, I read of a man unlike any man, a God-Man who granted an inferior audience, tested her, and amazingly, satisfied her heart’s desire. The passage teaches in surprising terms both that Jesus is good, and that I am infinitely beneath Him.
I expect Jesus will keep surprising me as I read through the rest of the gospels. It’s good to keep the gospels close and stay surprised. Otherwise, I fear I have a tendency to try to tame Him in my imagination. But as C. S. Lewis said of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, He is neither tame nor safe.
I want to encourage you to meet Jesus face-to-face in the gospels, too. Pick up a Bible. Sit down. Listen. Look Him in the eye. If you want to know Jesus, that is where you will find Him. If you want to grow in faith, that is where you will hear Him command you to believe in Him. If you want to know why, that is where you’ll find the reason. If you want to grow to be a more spiritual person, He will tell you what that really means.