And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And 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.” But 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Then 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)
You hear a lot these days about the need to be missional. "The church is only really the church when it is on mission," the experts say. And they are so right. But what in the world does that look like? Well, Jesus gives us a wonderful picture--albeit rather odd--right here in Matthew 15. And if we can get past our initial resistance to the image he's using, and see what he is really trying to say, I think it has a lot to teach us.
Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Tyre and Sidon when a Canaanite woman approaches them, begging for mercy in the form of help for her demon-oppressed daughter. But, we are told, Jesus did not answer her a word. Interesting. Not really a side of Jesus we are used to seeing. Why in the world would he hear the desperation of this woman's cries and say absolutely nothing? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Jesus knew his mission. And knowing your mission has a lot to do with knowing, not only what you have been called to do, but knowing who you have been called to do it to. Jesus did not let needs and demands determine his course, but only the voice and will of his Father. So he stayed true to his mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." And this woman was a definitely not one of Israel's lost sheep, but a Canaanite.
The Canaanites were one of the peoples that inhabited the Promised Land before the Israelites finally arrived from their pilgrimage in the wilderness and settled there. The Canaanites were notorious enemies of God's chosen people, constantly worshipping and serving their own gods rather than the God of Israel. So God commanded the Israelites, because of his deep love for them (his chosen people and his treasured possession) to drive all of the Canaanites out of the Promised Land, lest they remain in the land and infect the children of Israel with their defiant mindset and detestable practices. God wanted the hearts of his people to remain pure and holy, fully belonging to him in every way (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). So naturally the disciples, like any true Israelite, tell Jesus to send this Canaanite woman away.
That's where it really gets interesting, because then she comes and kneels before him, begging for his help. And when she does, Jesus makes a incredibly interesting statement: "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." And if we can get past the fact that it appears that Jesus has just called her a dog, we can see the amazing quality of what he is saying. I was called to the lost sheep of Israel. They are the ones I came to proclaim the good news to. Your day will come. The Father has a plan for that as well, and I will fully trust his plan. But for me, right now, my mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. And if I allow myself to get diverted or distracted from what the Father has sent me to do and to be, it would be like taking the bread right out of the mouths of the very ones I have been called to. I mean, none of us would ever do that to our own children, right? But that is what Jesus says we're doing when we know our mission and allow something or someone to distract or divert us from that mission. When we are not being about what God has called us to be about, we are disobedient.
One day a good friend of mine was innocently asked by someone in our church if he would consider teaching Sunday School for a group of Middle School students. And before the request was fully out of his mouth my friend had already replied with a quick and firm no. "Well, don't you even want to pray about it?" the man asked. To which my friend replied, "I've been praying about that all of my life. Let me tell you what God has told me I am to be about." And he went on to list a number of things that God had clearly communicated to him that he was to be about--his mission, if you will. Then he went on to say, "If I said yes to your request, I would be disobedient to what God has called me to be about." In essence, that's what Jesus seems to be saying here, but the story does not end there.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." the woman replies. And what a beautiful reply it is. I'm not asking for the children's bread, says the woman, I realize that you were sent for them. All I'm asking is for a few crumbs that might fall off the table, that will not cost you (or them) anything, as far as your mission and direction is concerned. She got it! And Jesus fully realized that she got it. In fact, he was moved with compassion. Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.
So what does it mean to be on mission? It means being attentive, alert, and obedient to God. It means seeking his face and listening to his voice. It means having a very clear sense of who he has called us to be and what he has called us to do. It means constantly keeping that mission on the forefront of our hearts and minds. It means allowing that mission to determine how we will spend our days and our lives--determining all that we do or say. It means constantly staying alert for distractions and disruptions to that mission. And finally, it means continually asking ourselves the question, "Is what I am doing right now taking the children's bread and throwing it to the dogs?" Because, ultimately, the question is: "Are we being faithful to the mission and direction that God has called us to?"