Discipleship was very common in the ancient world, so when Jesus began his ministry around the age of thirty with a dozen pupils at his side, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. His twelve students left their jobs and families, dedicating their lives to following him and learning his ways.
Jesus intentionally, like all Rabbis did, brought them into a process of theological and spiritual formation. He used real life moments throughout his ministry to teach his students about themselves, their worldview, the people they interacted with, as well as their future ministry.
Jesus was training them for mission.
The Gospel of Matthew tells a story of when Jesus and his disciples encounter a woman outside Jewish territory in the land of Canaan, Refusing to interact with Canaanites was the norm for Jews. It highlighted the bias that Canaanites were impure, defiled, less than fully human. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she was different from them.
But he does something else instead, something completely contrary to what their expectations were in terms of social norms: at the woman’s request, Jesus heals her daughter.
I imagine how incredulous they were when Jesus, instead of turning away, Jesus continued conversing with her and, even more shockingly, healed her daughter. Doing this would have been earth shattering for the twelve because it completely breached the norms of how Jews were to relate with Canaanites. It was downright taboo to engage with a Canaanite in such a manner, let alone a Canaanite woman!
I imagine some of them thinking: What are you doing, Jesus? Why are you treating her like one of us? Stop wasting our time!
This was a powerful teaching moment for the disciples, witnessing Jesus subvert age old cultural expectations. It would have disrupted their worldview and planted seeds for how they would come to understand the Other. It was a definitive moment in their life of discipleship, a formational experience that shaped their own approach to mission in the following years, as they embarked on their own ministries, revealing to people the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.
Many of them would soon go on to cross ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries to carry the message of good news beyond Israel’s borders. Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman was an important moment in which those who the disciples had viewed to be on the outside, to be lost, and in need of rescuing from their odd ways were actually worthy to receive all Jesus had to give. In was a harbinger of the Kingdom as a reality in which every dividing line would be torn down, every notion of inferior/superior revealed for the illusion that it ultimately is.
If we find ourselves in our cross-cultural service work asking questions like who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who has the truth and who doesn’t, we are asking the wrong questions.
If we think we are showing up somewhere to change the Other, may we remember this story and how Jesus did cross-cultural mission being asking ourselves how God is changing us through our encounter with difference.
As disciples, we are being invited to allow the Other to change us.