8/16/2020 Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 15: 21-28.
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 2 7She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning we find ourselves confronted with one of the most challenging stories found in the Gospels. And, no matter how we approach this passage, we will find it deeply uncomfortable. There have been many opinions expressed as to why Jesus responded to the Canaanite woman in the way he did, and we will examine these shortly. But ultimately, we must acknowledge that in his first words to her, Jesus referred to the woman and her ailing child as “dogs”. This certainly doesn’t sound like the gentle, humble, welcoming Jesus as he is portrayed throughout Scripture. And it surely isn’t the Jesus that we worship and look to as the example of how we should behave.
Nonetheless, the words were spoken; and we can accept this fact, or attempt to soften or explain away Jesus’ apparent harshness toward this foreign woman. And quite frankly, I’m going to leave it up to each of you to decide what you will eventually believe concerning her interaction with Jesus. Nearly all the potential explanations leave us with some sense of discomfort; so, in this instance the preacher is going to lay out some of the options to consider, and let you determine what to take away from this gospel lesson.
That said, rather than simply dismissing this demeaning insult we should at least examine the potential social and cultural norms that might have been in play at the time. Jesus and the disciples had travelled to the area that included Tyre and Sidon, in what is modern-day Lebanon. They were in a pagan land that was quite distant from Israel in geographical terms; but even further away when their religious and cultural differences are taken into account. The woman who approached Jesus is described as a “Canaanite”. This is the only New Testament reference to a “Canaanite”. You will recall that God promised the land of Canaan to the Jews in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. In Mark’s gospel she is named as a person from Syria or Phoenicia. It’s clear that Matthew used “Canaanite” to show that the woman was far removed from the Israelite Jesus and the disciples. Historically, the Jews and Canaanites were mortal enemies.
In polite Jewish society it was unthinkable that an unaccompanied woman would approach a man she is not related to, especially one of deep religiosity. So, there are two cultural strikes against this woman from the start; she is not an Israelite, and she has ostensibly accosted Jesus, an unmarried man. Even then, the thought of begging a stranger for help was considered unseemly. And to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt we should acknowledge that he initially didn’t insult or demean the woman. He simply said to the disciples that his ministry wasn’t for outsiders, but only for God’s chosen, the people of Israel. It was only after she knelt before him and pleaded for her sick daughter that Jesus hurled the insult at her. Again, the social norms of the time and place were deeply ingrained in the Jewish people. Still, his use of “dogs” remains uncomfortable for us to hear.
There are a number of ways that Jesus’ behavior with this woman has been described over the centuries. Some conclude that he was taken by surprise by her boldness, by approaching him as a foreigner and a single woman. Or, that he was momentarily puzzled, unsure of how to deal with this request from a pagan woman in a pagan land. How had she even come to know who he was? Maybe he was testing the woman, to determine if she truly had faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Some have pointed out that the Greek word translated as “dogs” is more accurately stated as “little pet puppies”. No matter how we try to spin this, it remains deeply uncomfortable for us; we don’t expect this from the divine Son of God.
But it is altogether possible that this is, in fact just the way the human Jesus reacted to this situation. Although it can be challenging for us, we must always bear in mind that in order for Jesus to fully experience the lives of humanity; to live as we do, he was made to be fully human. His life on earth began as a human infant, and as he grew and developed in physical stature, this was paralleled in his human understanding, and awareness of the extent of his mission and ministry. It’s quite possible that when this foreign woman, this “other”, turns his words against him that his understanding of his message of hope and salvation was in fact meant for more than just his immediate circle.
It’s certainly obvious that her response had a huge impact on Jesus, because he immediately recognized her great faith and provided healing for her ailing daughter. Perhaps her words caused some discomfort for Jesus, just as his behavior in this gospel passage does to us. So again, I’ll leave it up to you to determine how you will interpret this passage. There are far too many variables in play to lead us to a single uniform conclusion. I think it’s a matter of how comfortable you are with being uncomfortable. Do you feel the need to find justification for Jesus’ behavior so that he conforms to your ideal of how he should always act? Are you at peace with the understanding that his humanity often comes to the fore, overshadowing his divinity? Does Jesus’ ability to change, grow, and adapt his message give you comfort?
No matter which conclusion we arrive at concerning Jesus’ initial interaction with the Canaanite woman, the lesson we take away from how if finally plays out is explicit and specific. Jesus recognizes that the faith expressed by this foreign woman entitles her to the love, mercy, and salvation that he brings to all of God’s people. His mission and ministry, do in fact extend beyond “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. No longer would the grace of a forgiving God be limited to a small group of Semitic people living in the villages and deserts around Galilee. Christ would later announce that his body and blood would be broken and shed for the forgiveness of the sins of “all people”. And, thanks be to God, this includes us!
And if we profess to follow this Jesus who was open to ministry beyond those in his immediate circle, it becomes our mission to tend to, provide for, support, and comfort any “Canaanite women” we may encounter. “But there aren’t any Canaanites around here”, you might say. True, but there are many whom we might classify as “other”. Women with suffering daughters, hungry children, homeless people, folks who struggle to provide proper clothing for their families, seniors who feel abandoned. Lots and lots of “Canaanites” right here in our backyard! And they are all entitled to much more than the crumbs that may fall from our abundant table.
The shopping cart in the hallway is being emptied weekly and the need to refill it continues. Emanuel’s Closet, your thrift shop to provide clothing with dignity for our neighbors opens on August 29. The church office has compiled a list of people who find themselves more isolated than most these days; a friendly note will do wonders to comfort them. Jesus reached out to serve beyond Israel’s lost sheep; by accommodating the request of the Canaanite woman he has shown us that we are expected to do the same. There are plenty of opportunities to serve as Jesus did. “Canaan” is all around us.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, give us the ability to recognize the needs of those around us. And as Jesus reached out to the ones who were different, help us to see the “Canaanites” around us.
And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who provides abundant grace and limitless mercy; so much more than crumbs. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.