Freedom From Offense, Part 1

The Syrophoenician Woman

The danger of offense

Jesus said that we would encounter stumbling blocks in life. He warned those who created stumbling blocks to faith, but He also warned his disciples who lived by faith to be on their guard against unforgiveness. Those who cause offense certainly have reason to fear, but those who are offended are also in danger of living their lives in the bondage of offense and instead of the freedom of forgiveness.

The king and the slave

In the story of the king and the slave in Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus illustrates this.

In the story, the king has forgiven him a debt that he could never repay in a lifetime, but he later demands repayment of a day’s wage from a fellow servant. The king throws the slave into prison because he refuses to pass along the mercy that he has received, demanding his due. He must collect what is owed him!

He steps out from the king’s mercy and into what he sees as justice.

The king sees it differently. If the slave wants everything to be fair, the king is happy to oblige him, and into prison he goes!

In this story the man’s demand for justice is a trap that costs him his freedom. He chose to live in his offense.

When we choose to live in offense like he did, we step out from mercy and grace, and into the realm of what is due.

We do a very good job of charging full price against the offenses of others, but normally discount our own.

This man was shown great mercy by being forgiven a debt that he could never repay, yet he refused to show the least bit of mercy to his own debtor, a debtor who owed far less than he himself had been forgiven.

Because he refused to pass on the blessing of mercy that he had received, his creditor revoked his mercy and imprisoned him.

Jesus instructs us to forgive others their debts to us because of the great debt that he forgave us, a debt that we could never satisfy. We pass along the mercy that we have received from God to others who have caused us harm.

Paul echoed this when he said that we forgive one another because God in Christ has forgiven us.

The nature of mercy

The key to understanding the dynamic of this is the nature of mercy. Mercy is given when we do not receive the negative consequence that we actually deserve.

Mercy, by its nature, is always a gift, and can never be earned. If something is legitimately earned then it is not a gift, but a payment.

We may say that someone deserves a gift, but what we mean is that we want to honor that person, and find her actions or character admirable. When we give, it is from free will, not demand.

A gift is always up to the giver, not the receiver. Certainly people have expectations of receiving gifts at birthdays or weddings, but those are cultural expectations that often muddy the meaning and significance of the gift for the giver and the recipient.

Suppose two men are convicted of a heinous crime and receive a sentence of life in prison. Both were observed committing the crime and both have made full confessions. The outgoing governor has the power to commute sentences and makes a decision to pardon one but not the other. Is that fair?

Many say, “No!” because of the idea that what you do for one, you should do for the other. But that would not be mercy!

Both deserve their sentence. If one lives out his sentence, he is receiving what he deserved, no more. If mercy is shown to the other, he is receiving what he does not deserve: a gift of freedom!

Mercy does not have to do with fairness; fairness requires that they both live out their sentence.

Our salvation is a gift. It is pure mercy.

The Syrophoenician woman

Two stories illustrate this well, one form the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. The New Testament story is found in Matthew 15: 21-28. Jesus has gone to the Gentile area near Tyre and Sidon with his disciples, possibly to rest and debrief. A woman has heard that Jesus had come into her district and immediately went to see him crying out,

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”

She is a Gentile woman and yet she knows who He is! For though she is a Gentile, she calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David,” a title for the Jewish Messiah. She obviously is convinced that Jesus can deliver her daughter from the evil spirit.

Jesus hears the woman crying out, but Matthew records that “he did not answer her a word.” Jesus ignores her cries for help.

His disciples, perhaps taking their cue from the lack of response from Jesus, begged him to send her away. Matthew writes, “begged,” indicating that her incessant crying out was bothersome to them.

Jesus answered them by saying that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus has first ignored her cries for help, and he follows that by telling the disciples that she has no standing to make that request. He rejects her request for help.

She then came right up to Jesus and knelt in front of him, making an impassioned plea, saying, “Lord, help me!” Jesus answered her by saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

He is standing by his response that he is only sent to Israel, and his ministry should be limited to them, but he has added a description of her and Gentiles in general that is derogatory: He calls her a dog.

Dogs were not pets in the ancient world; they were scavengers.

Paul warned the Philippians (3:2) to beware of dogs, meaning those people who are garbage eaters, ready to feed on gossip and every evil report. Jesus said not to give what is holy to dogs (Matt 7:6), referring to those who would not value the holy or respond to it with due reference. In Revelation 22:15 John places dogs outside the holy city along with the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and those who love and practice falsehood.

Jesus lumps her with those who have rejected the truth and embraced evil, those who do not deserve his attention.

Most would be insulted by his remarks, but she is not.

Jesus ignored her, rejected her, and then insulted her. What is going on here?

This is the same Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He is the one who cast the demons out from the man from Gerasene, a Gentile area. He quoted Isaiah 42:1-3 saying that the Messiah would proclaim justice to the Gentiles and they would hope in him. And he recognized that his sacrifice was coming soon when his disciples told him that Gentiles were seeking to meet with him. (Jn 12:20-26)

The same Jesus who openly supported ministry to Gentiles now ignores, rejects, and insults a Gentile woman seeking his help!

Clearly Jesus is trying to discover what motivates this Gentile woman who calls him Son of David. How does she view him, and especially, how does she view her standing with him?

She responds and reveals her bottom line: “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Her reply showed complete agreement with what Jesus has said. She has no standing for her request. Jesus owes her nothing due to her lineage or her relationship with him. She can bring no legitimate reason why he should respond to her plea.

What she did have is faith that he could do it, and that he is full of mercy and will do it. She boldly asked for a gift for her daughter without any grounds except that she knew who he is and what he can do. Jesus complimented her saying she had great faith, and granted her request.

The centurion

Jesus only complimented one other person for great faith, and he was another Gentile, a Roman centurion whose servant was ill.  (Luke 7:1-10)

The centurion had a highly valued servant who was dying. He asked the synagogue leaders to ask Jesus to come and heal the servant. The leaders approached Jesus saying that the man deserved this favor because he loved Israel and built their synagogue. Jesus agreed to go, but while en route a friend came from the centurion with a message for Jesus:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”

The synagogue leaders believed that the centurion’s love for Israel and his gifts to them gave him standing to ask a favor of Jesus. The centurion knew that he did not.

Faith, not merit

The centurion and the Syrophoenician woman had this in common: they both knew that they have no standing with Jesus. They could not ask on their merits, only their faith in who he is and what he can do.

Because they knew that they had no standing, they did not expect to be treated like they deserved any special treatment. In fact, the Syrophoenician woman was not surprised to be called a dog, and agreed with what Jesus said about her.

Because she had no expectations of deserving a favor, she was not offended to be ignored, rejected, and insulted! She pressed in because of her faith and the desperate need of her daughter.

Someone has said that expectations are pre-arranged resentments. The root of offense is not what others do or say, but what our expectations are!

When we approach our relationships with certain unspoken expectations from each other, even when we feel that they are legitimate, we are ripe for offense. The Syrophoenician woman was able to press in to the relationship with Jesus because she knew that she had no special standing with him. Had she expected to be graciously received, her story may well have turned out differently.