I have my favorite characters in the Bible; I’m sure you do, too. I would hazard a guess if I were to ask you who your favorite was, some would say David for being a man after God’s own heart, maybe Solomon for his wisdom, perhaps Paul or one of the other apostles, or maybe someone else for their courage, righteousness, or some other characteristic you wish you had in greater quantity. It’s understandable because all of us, if we sincerely desire to be devoted to Jesus Christ, want to be pleasing and acceptable to God.
While I admire all the “heroes of faith” of the Old Testament and in the Faith Hall of Fame of Hebrews 11, two of my favorite people in the Bible only merit a few verses and their names are never mentioned. They were Gentiles, non-Jewish people who were despised and looked down upon by the Jews. Worse yet, one was a Roman soldier. Their demonstrations of faith and boldness are breathtaking, considering the time and the context.
We first meet the Roman centurion, seen in Mattthew 8 and also Luke 7. The common Roman soldiers in the New Testament are shown in a less than flattering light, but centurions are seen more positively. This particular centurion had a servant who was ill. The centurion heard of Jesus and His healing power. So, he came to Jesus (Luke tells us he sent a delegation of Jews to plead his case), asking the Master to heal his servant. When Jesus started toward the house, an additional message came: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but say the word and my servant will be healed.”
I love this man. As a Roman commander of troops, he was used to issuing a command and having it instantly obeyed. Additionally, the Romans were known to have little or no regard toward the nations they conquered. Yet here is a man who had won the respect of the Jews and honored their God by building a synagogue. In Jesus he recognized a greater authority than his own and in a show of incredible humility asked only that Jesus ‘say the word’ because that’s all it would take for his servant to be healed. We are told Jesus was amazed at this man’s faith: “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such a great faith.”
My other favorite is a woman from the area of Tyre and Sidon, in Phoenicia. We meet her in Matthew 15. Jesus and his disciples had withdrawn from the province of Galilee, in order to take a respite from the crowds and the badgering of the Jewish leaders for a while. But his reputation had spread so widely that a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and began to beg Jesus to heal her. The disciples wanted him to send her packing. After all, she was a Gentile. Jesus told her he was only sent to the children of Israel, but she persisted. He finally told her it was inappropriate to “take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was an insult, but it was the way the Jews viewed non-Jewish people.
The woman’s response is amazing. Picking up on Jesus’ words, she replied, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from the masters’ table.” Rather than bristling at the insult, she humbly asked for a few crumbs, just enough to heal her daughter. She knew who she was, and what the disciples thought about her. But she had a need, and she recognized the only One who could meet it. So, she boldly made her request and no more. Jesus honored her: “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” Her humility and faith touched the Lord.
We like to think of ourselves as great warriors of faith, bordering on being indispensable to God and his kingdom. If you’re a Christian, there is a temptation to consider yourself one of ‘the chosen ones’, a cut above the “sinners”, just as Israel made the mistake of doing. They thought that being “God’s chosen nation” meant “God’s only chosen nation”, which then meant that anyone else was a “dog”, less than human, and without any hope whatsoever that God would extend His blessing to them. So it’s not surprising to see the disciple’s reaction to the Canaanite woman. What Jesus did was to destroy their sense of entitlement and exclusivity.
God wasn’t as interested in Israel’s sacrifices and following the letter of the law as He was their hearts and minds. They were going through the motions, but their hearts weren’t in it. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes, were more interested in looking spiritual than actually being spiritual. They claimed knowledge of the Scriptures of the Old Testament, but it was flawed by being filtered through their own preconceptions. They were expecting a Messiah, but they rejected Jesus the true Messiah because He didn’t live up to their expectations. They were looking for a conquering King to finally restore Israel to its earthly prominence as ‘God’s chosen people’. What they got was a Savior who opened God’s spiritual kingdom to anyone, regardless of nationality, who would believe in Him as the Son of God and humbly submit themselves to His rule in their lives. Their ‘status’ as God’s chosen ones suddenly was threatened, and the threat had to be eliminated. In having Jesus put to death by crucifixion they unknowingly fulfilled God’s plan from before the beginning of creation.
God’s grace is not for people who are ‘good’, or ‘religious’. Those who come to Jesus with the attitude of being owed salvation based on their self-righteousness are the ones in the New Testament who were the most severely castigated by the Lord. Humility is the only proper attitude to have when we approach God and ask for His blessing. When we recognize the greatness of God, we are forced to acknowledge that we are beggars in filthy rags. We are not worthy to expect anything from God, but He invites us to receive righteousness and reconciliation through the death of His son, if we will accept the invitation to submit ourselves to Jesus as Lord. We don’t even deserve crumbs from God’s table, but through Jesus Christ God gives us a feast.