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Demons, Lost Sheep, and Hungry Dogs

Healing Miracle Series, #12

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Matt. 15:21 (NIV).

The religious leaders of Jesus’ home country plotted to kill him. His family thought he had lost his mind, and tried to interrupt his preaching. His hometown shunned him. And his cousin, friend, and partner in ministry, John the Baptist, had just been executed by the local political authority. Yet crowds pressed on him wherever he went. Everybody wanted something. Some wanted to be healed; some wanted him to be quiet; some wanted him dead.

The demands of the crowd and the persecution from those in power drove him out of the country. He retreated to the coastal plain in what is now Lebanon where he would be relatively unknown. Remember when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness? When the devil left finished all this tempting, he left him until a more opportune time. (Luke 4:13, NIV). Maybe this was “the more opportune time,” and maybe the doubt sown by the devil was for Jesus to wonder if he had really heard the voice of His Father, and, if so, why was it so hard?

Jesus wasn’t the first to be thrown into doubt and chased away from his mission. Moses fled to Midian, David fled to the wilderness of Judea, Elijah fled to Mount Horeb–all of them experiencing early success and strength before falling into fear and uncertainty. They all had something more to learn before they went on to the great final acts on their lives. Jesus, like the great leaders from the past, had good reason to flee the country and seek some peace.

But peace eluded him. A Canaanite woman, a descendent of the people Israel displaced when they took over the Promised Land, pestered him to drive out a demon. She had the bulldog tenacity of a sick child’s mother.

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 terrible.”

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.” Matt. 15:22-23 (NIV).

“Demon possession” implies mental illness or epilepsy. This Canaanite girl likely had some form of epilepsy. The ancient Greeks called epilepsy “The Sacred Disease.” Hippocrates wrote an essay about it 400 years before Jesus was born. There were no cures. The mother’s perseverance is totally understandable.

But Jesus, already forced to be a stranger in a strange land, and now beset by a woman in the tribe of his people’s ancient enemy, didn’t say a word. He didn’t agree to heal the girl, but much to his disciples’ dismay, he wouldn’t send the her away either. You can hear the disciples saying, “Not our problem,” then turning to Jesus for confirmation.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Matt. 15:24 (NIV). 

Understanding Jesus in his human form is so much more difficult than understanding him as God incarnate. Because as God incarnate, he already has the right answers and already knows the future. But the little windows we have–his hesitancy to turn solve the wine problem at the wedding in chapter 2 of John’s gospel, the temptation in the wilderness, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane–all tell us that he didn’t have all the answers. But he did have that peculiar faith that listens to the Father’s voice even when the Father hasn’t been saying much recently.

Jesus was keeping a low profile, hoarding his energy, restoring his sense of direction. I don’t know what it cost him personally to heal somebody, but my experience with life and the principles of economics and physics tells me that nothing is free. Each healing experience cost Jesus something we don’t understand. He needed a little space, and now this woman kneeled in his space. He had to tell her something.

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.” Matt. 15:25-26 (NIV).

In 2003, in a roadless village on a muddy riverbank in Central America, a mother brought her nine-year-old daughter to our makeshift, one-day mission clinic with a similar story to the one told by the mother who pestered Jesus.

The house where we held the clinic sat on a mud embankment a dozen feet above a dock at the edge of a fast flowing stream. The house had a solid concrete foundation, a good roof, and generous windows for circulation and light. Electricity and indoor plumbing had yet to reach this small community. The the air hung damp and heavy with the barest breeze, a vague suggestion that rain would bring relief from the heat. But the rain never came, and the house became hotter and hotter under the afternoon sun.

Two college kids served as my assistants. One translated Spanish and the other served as my pharmacist. We had been dropped off at this house by a motorized dugout canoe that morning with a promise of an afternoon pick-up that would get us back to the mission base camp before dark.

The patients had the usual ailments: parasites, water-borne illnesses, fatigue, and pain. We carried with us the usual temporary fixes: anti-parasitics, antibiotics, adult vitamins with iron, children’s vitamins without, and many bottles of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. I freely dispensed advice about water purification, hand washing, and to avoid sleeping on the ground to prevent parasites–advice soundly based in the principles of medicine and regularly ignored in the reality of tropical subsistence farming, hunting-gathering, and irregular migrant labor work. Our goals were modest: temporary relief of pain and suffering, a blip of preventative health measures, and a witness to the love of Jesus.

By mid-afternoon the heat and humidity weigh on me like a damp, wool blanket. My butt aches from sitting, my joints stiffen, and a weariness crawls over whatever good intentions I had started with. And, after a few days in a country where almost nobody peaks your language, the feeling of alienation is inevitable–the literal experience of being a stranger in a strange land. I begin to wonder why I am here. This is what a crisis of faith feels like. I look at my watch and wish the boat to come soon.

Then our last patients came, a mother and her nine-year-old-daughter. Like many of the people in that area, they were refugees from the violence of the socialist regime in the nation across the river. The mother demanded to know what was wrong with her child.

I looked her over and found nothing wrong. If anything, the child was better nourished with less evidence of parasites than the other children I had seen that day. I told the mother my opinion.

But there is something wrong with her, she said. She cannot do her schoolwork. Two or three times each week her body stiffens and she falls to the ground and urinates on herself. Then she must come home. Other times, several times each day, she stares off in space without speaking. No one can talk to her for a minute, or two or three. Then she will be confused and know nothing. The teachers tell me to stop bringing her to school because she cannot learn.

The diagnosis became clear to me. The girl had a seizure disorder, generalized, or gran mal, episodes with frequent minor seizures, absence spells. A variety of anticonvulsant medications exist that can control these symptoms in the great majority of cases. But I have none of these with me, nor would I be able to do the long-term monitoring and medication changes that would optimize her care.

I explained to the mother what I felt certain was the problem, and suggested we make a referral to a doctor at a town a few miles up the river. Then the mother explained to me that she had already been there, and even taken her daughter to a public health clinic in the capital city. No one believed her story, no medicines had been prescribed, no more tests had been performed.

Other times when I had worked in this country, I had local medical contacts where I could make referrals. But this was the first time I had been in this province and, at the moment, I had no solution. I hoped that Anna, the permanent missionary in the area, would know the necessary local medical network enough to make the right referral.

Just then I heard the puttering of an outboard motor. Our canoe had come. It was time to pack up and go home. I looked out the glassless window to see Anna in the oversized canoe approach the dock.

She was middle-aged, strong and stout, and outspoken to the point of being rude, seemingly an odd choice for Jesus’ local representative. She lacked the gentle demeanor usually associated with the Savior. But she did have his courage, and his heart for the poor and the lost.

Anna marched from the dock to the house and demanded to know if we were ready to go. I told her my frustration with my last patient. “We’ve got nothing to offer her,” I said.

“Nothing to offer?” she spouted. “Of course we have something to offer. Where is that little girl?”

I thought she had some additional medical resources, or meant she knew where to refer the child.

When I indicated the girl and her mother, Anna grabbed my arm and pulled me toward them. She spoke a few words in Spanish then put her hand, and my hand, on the girl’s head. She bowed her head and spoke in a torrent of Spanish, then said a brief prayer in English for my benefit. “In the Name of Jesus, be healed!”

Then she spoke a few gentle words to the mother before stomping away muttering under her breath something about, “nothing to offer, indeed.” She bullied us all, along with our supplies, into the canoe, muttering more things like, “Time’s a-wasting,” and “You don’t want to be on this river after dark,” and in a few minutes we puttered away.

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.  Matt. 15:25-28 (NIV)

I’d like to report, as Matthew did, that my patient was “healed from that moment.” Matthew lived most of his life only a few miles away in Galilee; he probably did know for certain that the Canaanite girl was healed. But did the little refugee girl in Central America have continued seizures, or was she miraculously healed? Or did she finally find a sympathetic and skilled doctor, and respond well to medical treatment? I don’t know. I can only hope. What I do understand after Anna’s prayer is that Jesus still brings hope to mothers of children possessed by demons.

God sent Moses a burning bush, He sent David an army, and He sent Elijah a “still, small voice.” 

Then God the Father sent Jesus a messenger in the form of a desperate mother, someone who needed him and had faith in him, to beg that Jesus could bring hope to a child without hope. Take one more step, the Father said. Even is it is beyond what you thought your ministry was about, even if it is out of your comfort zone.

To our eternal benefit, Jesus took one more step, healed a strange girl in a strange land from a strange illness. Then he took another step, and another. In a few days he had returned to the shores of the Sea of Galilee where “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.” (Matt. 15:29, NIV)

I experience times when I feel that I have been obedient to the voice of the Father and I experience nothing but criticism, and feel that whatever I am doing is no more than feeding crumbs to the dogs. Then God sends someone who needs Jesus, like the little girl with the seizure disorder, and someone, like Anna, guides me, and I take one more step.

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2 thoughts on “Demons, Lost Sheep, and Hungry Dogs”

  1. Compelling story of the trip to Central America with the students as helpers. I know one student who was greatly impacted by his trip with you.

    Thank you for sharing this. Miracles still happen I am convinced. Prayer changes outcomes. God has a plan and I hope I am a good listener.

    You have changed the lives if so many for the better. Thank you for continuing to do so in a new way!

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