Just when we think we’ve got this business of faith and doctrine all figured out, Jesus comes along to challenge our ideas about God. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow about a woman who wasn’t supposed to get in on the Kingdom of God, but who claims her place through faith. There’s a lesson here for all of us as we rethink our ideas about God.
Rethinking Our Ideas About God
Matthew 15:21-28 NIV84
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
23 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.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Today’s lectionary gospel reading actually has two passages that at first glance might seem unrelated. In the first passage, Matthew 15:10-20, the Pharisees ask Jesus why he lets his disciples break the law and practice of ceremonial hand washing before eating. Of course, it is a good thing to wash your hands before you eat, and some folks go a bit further by applying that sticky anti-bacterial stuff to their hands. You can’t be too careful today!
But, while hygiene may have been a problem in Jesus’ day – and I’m sure it was – that’s not what this passage is about. The Pharisees, as they often did, were trying to bring any kind of accusation against Jesus to discredit him. They tried trick questions, they dared him to heal someone on the Sabbath, they even were lying in wait for Jesus and his disciples as they walked through a grain field on the Sabbath and caught the disciples helping themselves to a little homemade granola – a few heads of grain rubbed in their palms – as a tasty snack.
After a long rebuttal to the Pharisees, whom Jesus calls blind guides, he then calls the crowd together and says, “Look, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him.” Being “defiled” in Jewish life was a bad thing – it meant ceremonial uncleanness, and prohibition from participating in Temple worship until the proper offerings were made for restoration. So, being defiled was not a good thing to be, and you certainly didn’t want to be defiled by an activity as common as eating.
But Jesus tells the crowd that he has gathered that day that what goes into a person is not what defiles him, including food eaten with unwashed hands. Of course, mothers down through the centuries would disagree with Jesus here, but Jesus is now speaking spiritually, not as a health expert.
“Rather,” Jesus says, “it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” In other words, what you say confirms what is in your heart. To illustrate Jesus quotes from Isaiah by saying,
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.”’ — Isaiah 29:13
Jesus wraps up the conversation by explaining to his own disciples what he means:
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’” – Matt 15:17-20 NIV84
So, that was the first part of the Gospel reading for today, but the scene shifts quickly to another area, as Jesus and the disciples make their way into the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus has been in the region of Galilee, but now makes his way northwest to the coast, where the cities of Tyre and Sidon are found.
In that region, a Syro-Phoenician woman according to Mark, or a Canaanite woman according to Matthew, cries out to Jesus for help.
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
Jesus appears to ignore the woman, who apparently keeps on crying out to Jesus to help her daughter.
The disciples become disturbed by this woman’s pleas, and approach Jesus with their plan. Here it is –
“Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the disciples with this same plan when it came to feeding the 5,000. Apparently, this is the only plan they have – get rid of people, send them away.
After all, people are a nuisance, they’re messing up the schedule, they’re sick, they’re demanding, they get hungry, they complain, and when Jesus does something for them, they seldom remember to thank him.
But this woman is even worse than the Judeans or the Galileans they are used to dealing with. She’s not even a Jew. She’s a woman from that region, of Syro-Phoenician descent, a stranger, a gentile, and she’s bothering Jesus and making a fuss on top of all of that. What else is there to do other than send her away?
But when the disciples make that suggestion, Jesus doesn’t answer them directly, but turns to the woman (I’m imagining this is the scene now), and says –
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
I’m sure the disciples think, “Well, that will shut her up.” But of course, it doesn’t. Now a quick aside for a moment. I read several commentaries on this passage and almost all of them said that this passage makes Jesus look bad because he seems to give her the brush-off.
But, what I think is happening is that Jesus is saying the words the disciples expect and have suggested, but Jesus knows that what he is really doing is engaging the woman, not brushing her off.
And, that’s exactly what happens because this woman, whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite woman, comes closer to Jesus, and kneels before him, and then continues her request by saying –
“Lord, help me!”
Now the situation has gotten worse, I’m sure the disciples are thinking. Now the woman is even closer to Jesus than before, and now she is just begging for Jesus to help her.
Okay, hit the pause button right there.
Matthew describes this woman as a “Canaanite woman.” So, we’ve got to be sure we get what’s going on here. One source said that this term is used for merchants, because Tyre and Sidon are coastal cities, and engaged in trade and commerce as seaports. But I don’t think that’s why Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman.
I think Matthew is trying to convey that this woman is not a Jew, and therefore not entitled to an encounter with the Messiah. After all, Matthew’s primary theme is that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and that God has anointed Jesus as the Messiah of that Kingdom, which is exactly what “messiah” means – the anointed one.
So, this is a woman who has no claim to citizenship in the Kingdom of God. If anything, she is to be excluded because her ancestors were the hated descendants of the son of Noah, Ham, and his son, Canaan, whom Noah curses with a curse in the book of Genesis.
But it is the Canaanites, and several other pagan tribes that the nation of Israel is to displace as God gives them the land of promise, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of Canaan.
Okay, beginning to get the picture? Back to our story.
After this woman begs Jesus for help, Jesus’ reply to her is also puzzling to us:
Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
The “children” in this case is the nation of Israel, and the “dogs” in this case are everybody else. Ta ethne’ or the nations, as they are often called in the New Testament. The Gentiles, everybody not a Jew, that is.
What is the world is Jesus doing here? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. What happened to the Jesus who healed everybody? What happened to the Jesus who fed everybody? What happened to the Jesus who looked on the crowds and had compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd?
Well, that Jesus is still there.
Okay, a quick illustration to help us get what I think is going on here. In the world of email and texting (for those of you who do not know what “texting” is, it’s using your cell phone to send short written messages to other people), in that world, it’s often difficult to tell if a person is joking or mad or happy or serious.
To solve the problem of giving emotion to words in the text, so that the receiver knows “Hey, I’m just kidding” – someone, probably several someones, starting making little symbols with the punctuation marks available on a keyboard.
The most frequently used is probably the happy face, which looks like this: 🙂
The second most frequent one used is probably the sad face, which looks like this: 😦
There are endless variations – the mad face, the amazed face, and so on. You get the idea. These little symbols made from punctuation marks, etc, are called “emoticons” because they help the person you are texting know what emotion you are trying to convey.
My point in relating all of that is that Matthew didn’t use any emoticons to help us know what Jesus was trying to do. But there are no instances of Jesus turning anyone away except the religious leaders of his day. There are no instances of Jesus refusing to heal or cast out demons.
So, this passage leaves us with a dilemma: We either think Jesus was a) joking around; b) being incredibly rude and insensitive; or c) drawing the woman’s faith out for the disciples and all around to see.
Which is exactly what I think Jesus was doing. He was giving this foreign woman an opportunity to express her faith, but he wanted others to see her faith, too. I’ll tell you why in a moment.
So, Jesus has just said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
One thing you did not call someone in that part of the world, was a dog. Still today, that term is an insult. Similar phrases are just as insulting today in the Western world. I’ll not give you an illustration of that.
But rather than turn away in an indignant huff, the woman meets Jesus eye, and says clearly, “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Bingo! She said exactly what was in her heart – even I, a Syro-Phoenician woman, even I am privileged to benefit from the blessing of God through the nation of Israel. Even a person like me, and my daughter, who are not first in line to receive God’s blessing, even we can stand in the overflow and receive the love of God in all its glorious expression.
Because you see, this is what Jesus had been talking about earlier, in the first passage. Here is a woman who is not religiously “clean” according to the Law. She eats with unwashed hands, at least ceremonially according to Jewish law.
But there is something in her heart, and it comes out of her mouth. Her faith in Jesus, whom she calls “Lord,” is expressed in her confidence that she has a right to ask and receive.
Which brings me to the sermon title today – “Rethinking Our Ideas About God.” This woman makes us rethink our ideas about God. She certainly made the disciples rethink their ideas about God because Jesus says to her –
“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
Matthew tells us that from that hour (meaning instantly) her daughter was delivered from the power of the demon which plagued her. “She was healed” is what Matthew actually says, which is another way of saying, “She was saved.” Health, wholeness, soundness of mind and body, were ways in which the idea of salvation was described in Jewish life.
So, what ideas of God do we have to rethink today? Perhaps the same ones that the disciples had to rethink as they watched this dramatic dialogue between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.
We need to rethink the idea that God belongs to us. That we are more special to God than other people, nationalities, races, or cultures.
We need to rethink the idea that we know exactly whom God loves and whom God doesn’t love. Because most of the time you and I would not go home with the tax collector Zacchaeus, or eat with sinners, or be caught in the company of coarse fishermen and their families. Most of us would rather have been with the regally-robed Pharisees, eating the finest food, Kosher of course, and hobnobbing with the best of Jerusalem’s citizenry.
We need to rethink the idea that we have it right, this business of faith in God, because that sounds an awful lot like the Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
We need the humble persistence of this Canaanite woman, who just knew that Jesus could help her daughter, and that he would. And I think she knew that she and Jesus were engaged in a public conversation, a dramatic bit of street theater, to show everyone around that it wasn’t just the Jews, or just the disciples, or just the people in Galilee or Judea whom God loved. God also loved a Syro-Phoenician woman whose descendants were despised for their lack of understanding of God’s plan.
After all, it’s what comes out of our heart that counts.