Going to School with Jesus
There are times when even God is willing to be called up short. There is a story in Matthew’s gospel about a woman who taught Jesus something about the mercy of God. The good news is that Jesus was a pretty good student.
As the scripture opens, the danger to Jesus and his movement is rising. In the 14th chapter, Matthew tells us that John the Baptist has been beheaded; Jesus, always aware of the politics around him, knows he might be next. Later, at the beginning of the 15th chapter, Matthew tells how the scribes and Pharisees left Jerusalem, found Jesus, and confronted him for breaking the traditions of the elders. It was a meeting that did not go well. Jesus might have responded with a compromise or contrition; instead he challenged them for breaking the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition. Surely, keeping one of the Ten Commandments is higher than keeping the tradition of the elders. In any event, he offered no olive branch. They went away fuming. So, realizing that King Herod and the Jerusalem leadership have had just about enough of him, he decides to exit into foreign territory, where hopefully no one will care about the controversies he leaves behind. Thus, our text opens with the news: “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon” (15.21).
Tyre and Sidon are located north-west of Galilee, outside King Herod’s kingdom and the population was definitely not Jewish. The problem with Tyre and Sidon is that it was ethnically Canaanite. In the conquest of the Holy Land, the Hebrews had followed the ancient holy war instructions from God. Basically, Holy War required total destruction of the people living in the Promised Land. The core of the God’s instruction is chilling: “Show them no mercy.”
Centuries after the conquest of the Holy Land, these are not the instructions Jesus expected to follow on this trip; it does suggest, however, why Jesus was not inclined to welcome the Canaanite woman when she approached him on the road. Old prejudices die hard. Even the best of us have to watch ourselves that we not fall back into the old racism or sexism of our earlier years.
II. [THE CANAANITE WOMAN]
So, as they enter the region of Tyre, a woman comes near and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Let’s start with what is missing: Where is her husband? Think about it: we are naturally shy around strangers. We are even more shy around foreigners. Thirdly, women of ancient times were taught never to speak to men in public -- and especially groups of men. Tradition held that her husband should approach Jesus and make this request. If her husband was not around, then her son or another male relative should have stepped forward. That the woman approaches Jesus herself suggests that she has no man to speak for her. She may be a widow or divorced; this suggests that she has a very low status in that world. This was true in the Jewish world of Israel; it was true in the Canaanite world where she lived.
That a mother might approach Jesus on behalf of her daughter is, of course, no surprise to any of us. By speaking up for her daughter, she did what we applaud regardless of her status.
Now, think about the woman’s cry:
1. This woman is a Canaanite, not an Israelite. People did not worship the God of Israel in any Canaanite land. That she cries out in faith is strong evidence of her willingness to commit to Jesus, regardless of the cost, regardless of the social isolation she will suffer in her hometown.
2. Second, Jesus has just criticized the Scribes and the Pharisees for their poisonous words. As he told them, “It is not what you eat that makes a person unclean; it the words that come out of your mouth that make you unclean in the sight of God.” So, here in the very next passage, this seemingly unclean, low status woman utters these beautiful words of faith in God and loyalty to her daughter.
3. In the instructions to Israel when it invaded the Promised Land, God told the Israelites: “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deut 7.1). This woman specifically cries out to Jesus for mercy.
4. Now, Matthew knows that the long standing claim of Israel held that the God of Israel is only for the people of Israel. But, he also knows that Jesus came to save all people – for all time, in all places, in every situation. Because Matthew writes his gospel for a distinctly Jewish audience, he has to make sure they understand that Jesus came to do a new thing. So, this story of the day Jesus met this is precious to Matthew and to every one of us who is not of Israel. This story shows Jesus himself breaking the boundaries, and thus we are invited to break the old boundaries for the sake of the gospel, too.
III. [JESUS’ RESPONSE #1]
According to Matt, Jesus responded three times in ways designed to send her away:
This Canaanite woman recognizes him and begins to beg for her daughter’s healing. First, Jesus does not respond in any way.
[APPLIC:] Like any of us being hassled by a panhandler on the sidewalk, the best response is no response. Keep walking; don’t make eye contact. There is no need for confrontation; they will get the message soon enough and stop trying.
How to respond to the person who calls out to us along the way is one of the most common moral dilemmas we face.
+Should we give them a little money to help them?
+Would giving them money just encourage this panhandling and turn them into full time beggars?
+Should we engage them in conversation to determine what really might meet their need? Giving a dollar when someone really needs diapers really does not help much if the diaper store is 5 miles away.
+Should we get involved in their lives or just give a little money so our consciences will let us move along?
This is the moral dilemma we face every time someone calls out to us on the street. For all of these reasons and all the reasons Jesus did not want to deal with Canaanites, he simply did not respond in any way.
[[JESUS’ RESPONSE #2]
Well, the silent treatment did not discourage her. She continues to call and continues to follow them. The disciples come to Jesus and urge him to send her away. So he turns to the woman and says: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15.24).
“I know my job, and my job does not extend to you. Please excuse me; we have to move along.” Again, it is a perfectly logical and expected response to the woman’s call. Actually…, it is the expected response except for the “Christmas story”. Remember, it was Matthew who gave us the genealogy of Jesus in chapt-1 which included several women. Three of the women in Jesus’ family tree were Canaanites (or Gentiles) and another one was married to a Gentile. In addition, it was Matthew in chapt-2 who told us the well-loved story of the three Wisemen, gentiles all, who came to worship the baby Jesus at his birth. Later, in the 8th chapter, Matthew tells the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant – again a gentile. Matthew is carefully rethinking the ancient debate in Israel over the work of the Son of Israel’s God. Did Jesus come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Or was Jesus sent to all people in every place and time with the message of God’s love? I think Matthew is telling us that Jesus tore down that ancient boundary between Israel and the rest of the world.
[APPLIC:] Again, what boundaries do we keep? Are there places where we are not expected by God to carry the message of God’s love? Maybe in the tough parts of town? Maybe in the nations where we already know that they have another religion?
Is the day of proclaiming the gospel past that others may come to know the love of God in Jesus Christ? I think it is not past. We who are Christians walk a fine line between (1) respecting the convictions of our neighbors and (2) keeping the call of Jesus to proclaim the gospel. Still, we cannot keep the call of Jesus by our silence.
Further, we must examine the convenient boundaries we keep to protect ourselves from undesirable people around us. These boundaries tell us who we are by assuring ourselves who we are not. These boundaries keep us out of areas of moral compromise by keeping us where people like ourselves agree on the right course of action. But, we must be willing to examine these boundaries to determine (individually and as a society) whether the old worries that drew these boundaries still hold. Name for yourself the areas where you and society have made great progress over the past 50 years. Name for yourself in the areas where you and society are hearing the call to examine the ancient boundaries. There are boundaries that individually and as a society we must keep for the protection of all that is good. There are boundaries that serve us well; there are boundaries that must be examined
[JESUS’ RESPONSE #3] Now, Jesus 3rd response:
The Canaanite woman comes closer, kneels before Jesus and makes the most heart-felt prayer that anyone can imagine: “Lord, help me.” It doesn’t get any more basic than this.
And Jesus’ response, this third response, takes our breath away: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
There have been many efforts to explain this response away or to soften its insult. I find these efforts lacking. It is simply a very male, chauvinist, distancing response.
+The word “children” suggests the children of Israel – those who live in the land and therefore have the right to worship Israel’s God.
+The word dogs is simply an insult applied to this woman. Having dogs as family pets is a fairly modern practice. In poor countries today and in ancient culture, dogs are present but not loved as pets.
If there are Jewish Christians in Matthew’s world who are uncomfortable with the idea of their Jesus offering a miracle to a Canaanite woman, they are surely satisfied that he has done everything in his power to discourage her. He has compared her to a dog. Now, it is up to the woman to redeem this awkward moment.
She absorbs this third response and with humility and wit turns it back on him. He said: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." To which she, the great theologian replied: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Like the pets that inhabit our homes, the dogs of ancient times would snoop around the table when dinner was finished on the chance that they might find a tasty crumb for themselves.
But theologically, she is claiming the crumbs of grace that fall from God’s hands knowing that even crumbs of grace offer a feast to hungry soul. She was a good theologian; she was a tenacious believer. And Jesus, failing to make the case for keeping God’s grace exclusive to Israel, gave in and provided the healing that she asked. I think that Jesus didn’t get it right the first time, but by the time she wore him down, he had learned something about the grace of God from that Canaanite woman.
This story raises several worries that I do not find in keeping with the whole of the gospel.
1. We worry that only those who are good enough at sparing with Jesus will receive grace. Or perhaps only those who have prayed enough or given enough or witnessed enough will receive grace.
2. We worry that grace is “iffy” – that there really is some condition or status that will let us in or keep us out.
3. We worry that only those with something called “enough faith” can have their prayers answered.
Each of these worries are contradicted by the rest of the gospels. Everywhere else in the gospels Jesus keeps feeding and teaching the crowds, Jesus keeps sharing the table with sinners of every ancient kind. This story is about Jesus’ willingness to extend the gospel to the peoples that Israel found unthinkable. Like the gospel song says:
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea.
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.
The woman -- with the wrong status, born in the wrong country, who began her life worshiping the wrong god, with the evidence of sin in the words of her request, breaking all the rules that said she must not speak to male strangers – went to Jesus, asked a healing for her daughter and received the grace she wanted her daughter to have. She went home to find her daughter whole again.
Now that we get the story, I think we can get the invitation right:
+to you who don’t fit in,
+to you who have messed up,
+to you whose past is written in the deep wrinkles all over your face,
+to you who don’t know the right questions,
+to you who live the wrong lifestyle or come from the wrong nation,
+to you who love the wrong person,
+to you who have never gotten to love any person,
+to you who used to be blessed but suddenly find yourself a stranger,
… to you the Lord Jesus says, “Come. There is a place in my house – there is mercy enough – for you. My invitation is for you, too.”