I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of Jesus’ harsh sayings being explained away, especially in light of the Christian church falling into disrepute. We should not be trying to placate everyone, and this is obvious by Jesus’ (and Paul’s) own words (verses are from the New International Version [NIV] unless otherwise stated):
- Jesus was hated, so His true followers will be hated. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. . . “ (John 15:18-20).
- People will be offended by him, and therefore us. “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me“ (Matthew 11:6, New King James Version; Luke 7:23).
- What Paul said about our smell. “To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?“ (2 Corinthians 2:16).
Christians are not to attack back when we’re personally offended, but we are to convey God’s word and will. This is simply going to be offensive to some and we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty over it. Many “Christians” just seem to roll with the cultural flow, but Jesus’ example was . . . what? He ended up dying on the cross for the truth.
One example of Jesus’ harsh words that I’ve always found difficult is from Matthew 15:21-27 (see also Mark 7:24-30). Can you imagine Jesus ignoring you, then calling you a dog and making you feel like you have to beg like a dog? Here is the passage:
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 demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
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 the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
I’ve heard sermons admonishing us to think of the “dogs” here as “puppies,” and in Mark’s version of the conversation the woman indeed uses the term “little dogs.” But, if we wanted to think of the word as “puppy,” there’s the issue of what puppies grow up into: dogs. Whether a puppy or a dog, the creature is something less than its owner. In the passage, Jesus is saying that the gentile is asking something of God that only the privileged should have, the implication being that not all humans are equal in God’s eyes.
But brushing aside the offense, the desperate mother cleverly and humbly responds. We don’t know if Jesus’ expression and inflection betrayed a different intent than His literal words, which were said in the presence of Israelites. In any case, I think the passage’s primary meaning can be understood in the light of Jesus’ other examples of people other than the house of Israel having true faith (and large doses of humility). Many in Israel thought that, in God’s eyes, outsiders were less than they were, and here Jesus seems to be confirming that belief. In another harsh passage, Jesus says not to throw your pearls to swine (Matthew 7:6). Ouch. These passages seem to fly in the face of God’s love and concern for everyone, that Christ died for all, and that all are equal in His sight.
But there are common misconceptions based on these ideas which indeed are found in scripture. Misunderstandings seem to come from thinking that certain verses refer to universal salvation. God’s saving grace may be universal, but it requires individual acceptance (it’s a gift that one accepts, or leaves unopened), and God knows that not everyone is going to accept it. He also knows (and has passed this knowledge on to us) that He has active enemies, not just people who don’t really want to accept Him. We don’t know who all these enemies are, but God does.
Therefore, neither “human” or “person” are synonyms for “child of God.” People can become children of God through faith, and individual Israelites were not necessarily God’s children. Once Israel rejected Jesus as Christ, all who did (and do) accept Him as such were (and are) adopted into God’s family. The Canaanite mother seems to be an example of this forthcoming church age.
While many Israelites did take Jesus’ messages to heart and come to faith, the nation as a whole did not. What were the problems? Following man-made traditions like many in Israel were doing was actually leading people away from God, and as alluded to above, many also had the attitude that being born an Israelite (a child of Abraham) automatically saved you (see John chapter 8, for example).
Again and again, Jesus dispelled these notions. In Matthew 15 here, a gentile Canaanite woman has saving faith. She believed that what Jesus was doing was real (of God) and sought Him out, while the religious leaders amongst God’s “own people” did not. Other examples are the centurion who knew that Jesus could heal even from a distance (Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10); the (parable of the) good Samaritan who helped a man left to die when Israelite holy men would not (Luke 10:30-37); the Samaritan woman who became His witness to other Samaritans (John 4:1-30); and, the thankful Samaritan leper who was healed along with nine other Israelite lepers, who did not glorify God like the Samaritan did (Luke 17:11-19).
Jesus also brought up other related examples from the past, like Jonah the Israelite not wanting to give God’s warning to the Ninevites, God having the prophet Elijah stay with a non-Israelite lady during a severe, long term drought, and God healing a Syrian–but not any Israelites–of leprosy during Elisha’s time (Luke 4:24-27). Of course, He also reminded the Israelites here and there about God’s prophets they had killed in times past. These examples, of course, angered many. Those unwilling to accept His messages sought His life, just as they sought the past prophets’ lives he reminded them of.
We can see, perhaps shockingly, that the Canaanite woman was not really offended; apparently, she understood something that was more important than the apparent offense. Her faith led to the healing of her daughter and a compliment from the Son of God. In another example that many of His own disciples found offensive, Jesus taught that He was the bread of life, and that His blood was for salvation. He said that a person needed to eat his flesh and blood. Of course, he was speaking in spiritual terms of the coming Last Supper and future sacrament of communion. He wasn’t all-of-a-sudden advocating cannibalism. But many disciples failed to trust His words, were offended, and left Him (John 6:47- 71). But those who believed in Him stayed even though they didn’t fully understand His words at the time. Faith is trust, and blessed are those not offended by Christ.