This story originally appeared at RealLivePreacher.com in two parts.
Part One: The Rabbi, the Woman, and the Cities
(Twenty Years Before)
Jesus, son of Joseph, what would you do if you met the smallest person in the world?
The smallest, Rabbi?
Yes, the person who matters the least. The person with absolutely no power. The smallest person in all the world.
How would I know this person, dear Rabbi?
Indeed, how WOULD you know this person? For when we speak of the smallest person in the world we are speaking of the very mathematics of God. It is only with the reckoning of The Almighty that we are able to make sense of a newborn infant, a fallen sparrow, a single hair on your head.
And yet God’s math is not known nor can it be found. It can only be received in the instant when it is needed. It exists only in the present moment.
Rabbi, I do not understand.
Young Jesus, you will never understand the mathematics of God until you meet the smallest person in the world and look into her eyes.
In the very important city of Tyre, in the bustling and busy center of the business district, slumped against an earthen wall was the smallest person in all the world.
No one knew her name, and no one cared for her. She might have been attractive once, but hard living had taken her softness and left leathery skin, dirty feet, and a wet cough in its place.
Her little girl played at her feet. She was six, but had the mind of a two-year-old. Several times a day she would stiffen and shake with a palsy. Her fingers, wrists, and elbows would draw up, and she would stop breathing. Her face would grow red while spittle bubbled at her lips. In these moments, the woman would hold her and weep while she prayed fervently for the demons to leave her child. Passersby would point and say, “Demons!” They drew their clothing over their mouths and hurried past, terrified.
The woman begged for food in the streets. Pulling her child deep into the folds of her robe, she stretched out a hand to those who walked by. She said nothing for there was nothing to be said. There was no shame in her anymore. Desperation had driven shame away. She looked everyone in the eye and did what she had to do to live and take care of her child.
In the quiet moments of the night, she would look away and remember the man she saw two years before, when her husband, now dead, had taken her to Galilee. There she had seen a miracle worker who was able to cast demons out of children.
They had planned to go back to Galilee and bring their little girl to see Jesus. They had many plans back then, but all that was gone now.
Jesus lived in his world, and she was waiting to die in hers. The smallest person in the world lived each day waiting. She had no hope and nothing to wait for, but she waited all the same.
Waiting was all she had left.
“Tyre and Sidon,” he said, like it was nothing, like it was no big thing for good Jewish boys to take a little road trip to the “Twin Cities of Sin.”
They all laughed because there was no way he was serious, but he kept packing his stuff, and he kept not saying anything. The laughing got quieter and then died out. The disciples started looking uncomfortable. They made eye contact with each other and tried to communicate with exaggerated facial expressions and shoulder shrugs. Several of them caught Peter’s eye and indicated with sharp head movements that he should talk to Jesus and find out what the hell was going on.
Peter accepted his appointed role as spokesman without much thought. “Why Tyre and Sidon?” he asked loudly.
Jesus never stopped working. He was shoving supplies into a bag, and he spoke without looking up.
“Why not Tyre and Sidon? They’ve got good accommodations.”
The men in the room burst into laughter again. Maybe Jesus was just joking after all. Someone shouted out, “How would YOU know?” and the laughter got even louder.
“I’ve been there,” he said, pulling a rope tight around a bag. He looked up and showed no emotion at all. “I’ve been there a FEW times.”
That silenced everyone. Then Peter put his hand on Jesus’ arm and said, “Seriously, why do we need to go…there?”
Jesus dropped what he was holding and gave them his full attention.
“Okay guys, here’s the deal. I need to get away. Need to get away bad. I need to go somewhere where no one knows me. Understand? I’ve got a lot of things to tell you, and time is short. Shorter than you know. It seems like we just get started talking and someone comes running up, wanting me to bless a child, or heal their mother-in-law or something. You know how it is.”
“I need time alone, just with you. We need to get away and do some serious talking. You don’t understand how important our work is, how much is riding on what we do.”
“So we’re going away. No one will know us, and we can talk in peace. Hey, it’ll be fun. Trust me.”
Tyre blew their minds. It was big, for one thing. Big and worldly. The chaos and confusion of frenetic commerce was everywhere they looked, from the men on the streets to the people barking from behind fruit stands. And there were women on the street corners too, women of the night.
“Listen now, because this is important. I don’t want anyone to know who I am. I do not want to cause a scene. I don’t want to teach, preach, or heal anyone. You know how the crowds get out of hand.”
Thaddeus spoke up. “Why not, though? These people need to know God’s love, right?” Thaddeus was like that. Big hearted.
“Yes, Thad, but that is not my calling. My life is given to the children of Israel. It will be for others to bring God’s word to the gentiles.”
“Have you guys considered what might happen if I healed someone here? Can you imagine if a crowd of needy people followed us home? Can you see me coming back to Capernaum with a mob of lepers and demon-possessed gentiles straggling after me? No. Now is not their time, and everything must be done in its season. Let us use our time here to prepare ourselves for what is to come. Keep your heads down and your noses clean.”
Jesus cut right through the center of the city. The streets were very crowded, but he walked with confidence, like a man who knew where he was going. The disciples knotted themselves into a little clump and followed right on his heels, safe in his wake.
“Okay, there are SO many gentiles,” Bartholomew said. He was walking with his wrists crossed in front of his chest, moving his shoulders violently to avoid brushing against anyone or anything. “Do you KNOW how unclean we’re gonna be?”
Jesus just laughed. He didn’t care if he touched a hundred gentiles. He was striding through downtown Tyre like it was his old neighborhood.
“Loosen up guys. We’ll be fine. There are Jewish people here. The Diaspora Jews might be a little scary, but they know how to cook. We’ll have soup like your mama makes it tonight; I know a great place. And tomorrow I know a quiet spot where we can talk.”
Thaddaeus heard her first. He was in the back of the group, and he was feeling vulnerable. He had already stepped on the heel of James’ sandal twice because he was trying to stay close behind him. James was getting pissy about it, so Thaddaeus was looking down, watching where he put his feet when he heard the faintest sound over the noises of the city. It sounded like a woman’s voice from far away. It sounded like she shouted, “Jesus.”
Thaddaeus stopped and turned around. He scanned the street, but all he saw were people moving fast and in every direction. “Nah,” he said as he turned and trotted to catch up with the group.
Then he heard it again, this time louder.
“Jesus! Hey Jesus! Jeeee-suuuus!”
Part Two: The Voice, the Eyes, and the Math of God
This time they all heard it. Jesus stopped abruptly, and some of the disciples bumped into him. They turned around and looked down the street, trying to find the voice.
“Jesus, son of David. Have mercy on me. Jesus!”
All their heads snapped to the right a little, and then they saw her, back thirty paces or so, across the road. A ragged looking woman yelling loudly and waving her hand. She was working against the flow of human traffic, trying to cross the road at an angle to catch up with them. It was hard to tell, but it looked like she was dragging a child behind her.
“Keep walking,” said Jesus, turning quickly and heading away. She saw them leaving, and her shouts grew louder and more frantic.
“Jesus, stop! Please, come back. Have mercy on me, son of David. Oh please! It’s not for me, it’s for my baby!”
People started paying attention. Following her gestures, a few even pointed at Jesus and the disciples who were obviously trying to get away from her.
Peter worked his way up to Jesus.
“Listen man, you gotta do something about this woman. She’s starting to make a scene, which is exactly what you didn’t want. How does she know you anyway? What does she want?”
Jesus looked pained. “I know what she wants, but I can’t give it to her. We can’t do our work here. I am only called to work among the children of Israel. I have to follow the rules on this one, Peter. I have to. Everything could be at risk.”
“Hey man,” said Peter. “You don’t have to convince me. I never wanted to come to this God-forsaken place anyway.”
The crowd thinned a little, and Jesus was able to walk more quickly. When she saw that she was losing them, she cried out one last time. She reached down into her soul and found the ancient sound of sorrow. This sound is the birthright of every mother, and it carries great power. It cannot be faked or easily ignored.
“No, Jesus. Stop!”
The sound of sorrow was her last move and her only hope. She hurled it at Jesus with all her might. Her voice hit him like a fist in the back, stiffening him and stopping him in his tracks. He was not able to walk, but he didn’t turn around. He just stood there, facing away from her, head down, breathing hard. The disciples milled around him, wondering what happened.
She came a little closer, but tentatively, scared she might frighten him away. She spoke again, but softer. “Please, I call out to you in the name of God. Son of David, please, help my little girl.”
Peter grabbed Jesus by the arm. “What are you doing? Why are you stopping?”
Jesus looked at Peter, amazed. “You heard the sound of her voice. How are YOU able to walk?”
He turned to face the woman, now only ten steps behind them. She stood still, panting and watching them. She seemed shocked that they had actually stopped.
Jesus spoke softly to the disciples. “I’m going to tell her the truth. She deserves that much.”
“What do you mean, the truth?” asked James.
“I mean the truth. I’m going to tell her exactly why I cannot heal her daughter. I’m going to tell her what our people think of her people. And she’s going to hate me. She will absolutely hate me, but hating me is better than her thinking that her daughter isn’t worth healing.”
The woman walked to Jesus with her little girl in front of her. Then she knelt before him. And there she was, the sum of all their fears. A gentile. Unclean. Needy. A distraction, a bother, a problem.
“Jesus of Nazareth, I know you. I saw you two years ago. I know that you have the power of God. Please, heal my little girl. We don’t ask much. My husband is dead, and I am reduced to begging, but that’s okay. I can live with that if only you will make her well. She’s so little and she doesn’t even know how hard her life will… Just please, make her well. I know you can.”
She fell silent, then bowed her head and waited.
Jesus paused, and this moment seemed like an eternity. The crowd moved around them, but some curious onlookers stopped to see what was going on.
It was a hard call to make, but it was Jesus’ call, and he made it. He made the call back when he first heard her, and he wasn’t going to back away from his decision now.
“I’m sorry. I truly am sorry, but I cannot do this for you. I know you will not understand, but I cannot take what is meant for God’s children, and give it to the dogs.”
Jesus never took his eyes off the woman. He swallowed hard and waited for her anger.
But her anger never came. Not one hint of anger crossed her face. She was a mother with a sick child. She was beyond anger, beyond reason, and beyond desperation. You could insult her, strike her, spit in her face, and she would only be thinking about how she might get you to help her child.
She did not get angry; she got stronger. She rose to her feet with a dignity that surprised them all, even Jesus. She pulled her chin up with pride and looked right into his eyes. And then she had her say.
“I know how you feel about us. I’ve been to Galilee. That’s where I saw you. ‘Galilee of the Gentiles,’ you call it, but I could tell that people despised me even there.”
“You say that you are the chosen people of God. Maybe you are. Maybe compared to you we seem like dogs. I know life isn’t exactly great in these parts, but let me tell YOU something. Around here, we save a few scraps to feed the puppies under the table, you know? We might not know that much about God, but we know something about compassion.”
“See, there you stand, an important rabbi with a powerful history, but you don’t even have scraps for someone like me. I think maybe you should ask yourself just what it means to BE God’s chosen people.”
Jesus was stunned by her words, and then wonder flooded his face. He bent closer and looked deeply into her eyes.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
And then he saw it. She had the Rabbi’s eyes. Same color, same shape, same gentle honesty. She was not condemning him; she was seeing him and speaking the truth to him.
“Rebbi,” he whispered.
The Math of God
At that instant, in a flash of enlightenment, Jesus understood the mathematics of God. In that moment it was given that he should stand outside of time and know a deeper truth. Sometimes it is right that everything should stop for the smallest person in all the world. Sometimes one person is worth as much as all the people. Sometimes the least is the greatest and the first is the last.
And maybe, in just the right moment, one person could carry the sin of the world on his shoulders.
“I understand,” he said to no one in particular.
The math of God filled his soul, and the beauty of it, the unexplainable beauty, welled up inside of him, driving a shiver up his spine. A smile burst onto his face. He laughed out loud and put his palm on her cheek.
“Woman, I had no idea. I didn’t know such faith existed outside of my own people. I did not know until now. Yes, absolutely. What you want will be done for you.”
He bent and held the little girl’s head between his hands. He kissed her forehead, holding his lips there for a moment. Her eyes closed, and then he drew back. When her eyes opened again, he saw that she had the eyes of the rabbi, just like her mother, full of intelligence and curiosity.
Jesus took one look at her, smiled, and walked away. The disciples were stunned and trailed after him. They did not know what they had seen.
The smallest woman in all the world held her child, looked into her eyes, and let out a shout. People parted around Jesus as he moved away, then melted back together as he passed through. By the time she looked up, Jesus was gone forever.
No one said anything for a few minutes. They walked in silence. The disciples could tell that something important had happened, but they weren’t sure what it was, exactly.
It was Jesus who spoke first. “I think we have about a half an hour to get out of town before people start looking for me. Let’s go home, whaddya say?”
Several nodded their agreement, but Thaddaeus spoke up. “What about the retreat? What about all those things you said you needed to teach us?”
Jesus laughed and put both hands on Judas’ shoulders from behind, leaning on him and letting Judas pull him along for a step or two. Then he let go and punched Peter on the shoulder.
“I think we’ve learned enough for one day.”
Note: This story occurs in two places in the gospels. Mark’s account gives us the clue that Jesus did not want to be recognized. Matthew’s account shows Jesus searching his soul and the wonderful interaction with the disciples.