I ask my kids to wash their hands a lot. They are always playing outside in the dirt. I can never be sure what new specimen of bug they will have discovered or what particularly dirty pile of mud they might decide to play in. So I ask them to wash their hands. Especially before dinner because that is when they are going to use their hands to eat. I think you would agree that it’s a good idea that we wash our hands before meals. It’s sanitary and health experts tell us that it helps spread disease.
So we wash our hands. We even use special hand sanitizers to keep our hands germ free. Sanitization is clearly something that is important to us. We also clean our food before we eat it. We wash our fruits and vegetables to get any residual dirt or chemicals off of them. We like to be clean and we like to keep things clean.
We are very concerned that the things we eat and the things we touch be clean. However, Jesus seems to be less concerned about this than those around him. His focus is as it ever is with our intentions and with our hearts. Jesus is less concerned about keeping ancient purity laws and more focused on living God’s commands. Jesus says it isn’t the food we eat that defiles us, but rather what comes out of our mouths that defiles us. For it is from the heart where evil desires take root and then flow outwards. Jesus asks us to be careful about what we say and how we say it.
Which is what makes the next part of the story so difficult to grasp.
Great Faith- Audio Sermon[audio:https://standrewscobourg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/sermons/14-08-17-rev-neil-ellis-great-faith.mp3]
Jesus has just told the disciples and those assembled it isn’t what you eat; it is what you say and what you do. It is about what is in your heart, not about empty gestures and following old laws and traditions out of a sense of duty.
After teaching this lesson he travels with the disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Now this was to a place that no self-respecting Israelite would travel. It was the equivalent of going over to the wrong side of the tracks.
A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and begs for healing for her daughter and Jesus ignores her. Now at that time it would have been appropriate for an Israelite to ignore this woman. The two cultures weren’t friendly and the disciples were probably happy that Jesus chose to ignore this woman.
Then it gets worse Jesus says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” To which the woman responds, “Lord, help me!” Jesus replies again “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”
Jesus calls this Canaanite woman a dog. Now that is not a nice thing for me to say to you on any occasion. However, it is definitely not something that we expect to hear from Jesus. His words here lead to all kinds of unpleasant possibilities.
Many commentators write that Jesus understood what his mission was, which he clearly states. He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Ok maybe that is so. But if it is true, why did he remark on the faith of the centurion early in Matthew’s gospel?
Yes, Jesus was there to proclaim to the Israelites that God was now fulfilling God’s promise to the people. That God’s kingdom was coming. However, does it excuse the way Jesus talks to this woman, his wilful ignoring her and the manner in which he speaks to her.
We might find his words and actions troubling at the best of times, but when we consider them in light of what Jesus himself said in the first part of our reading I have to believe that something else is going on.
Friends, it leaves us with two things to consider. The first is the faith of the Canaanite woman the second is the words and actions of Jesus.
Theologian NT Wright describes the Canaanite woman like this, “The Canaanite woman does indeed have great faith. Not only does she clearly believe that Jesus can heal her stricken daughter. She addresses Jesus as ‘son of David’, the Jewish messianic title … most remarkably, she understands, and uses to her advantage in banter with Jesus, the way in which God’s choice of Israel to be the promise-bearing people for the sake of the world was to work out in practice” (NT Wright, Matthew Part 1).
Now to make sense of that we need to go all the way back to Abraham and God’s initial promise to Abraham. In Genesis 12 God says to Abram “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
The Canaanite woman is saying to Jesus, I understand all this. Further she has recognized that Jesus is the Messiah and that the time for all people to be blessed is now at hand. She understands the message that Jesus has come to deliver, she understands that Jesus is that message. The Canaanite woman shows remarkable insight and courage for her comments and her faith.
This leaves us with two aspects of our reading that we need to deal with. The first is the troubling words of Jesus. Jesus may well have understood his role as being called to the lost sheep of Israel, that was his mission. However, does this excuse his behaviour towards the Canaanite women? Today in Canada we live in a society that accepts all people. That seeks not to discriminate or harm others through words or actions. This makes the words of Jesus really hard to swallow. How does loving, compassionate, forgiving Jesus say these words to this woman? We’ve already covered the social context of the time, but we would think the son of God might have been above such petty indifferences.
Friends, I think that this is Jesus selecting a particular way to teach the disciples and subsequently to teach us. In composing is gospel Matthew very shrewdly linked these stories together. A form of rabbinic teaching was to lead the student to the answer through conversation and action. Rather than simply telling a student the answer you had to instead puzzle it out. Friends, this is what I believe is going on this passage.
Jesus is using his earlier teaching about purity laws followed by his words to the Canaanite woman to demonstrate a greater truth. Do I believe that Jesus felt his mission was to the lost sheep of Israel. Absolutely, however as God’s son Jesus was also aware of the covenant established with Israel. It is that very covenant he has come to fulfil.
When Jesus says to the Canaanite woman “It is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.” When he spoke those words, the disciples only heard what they wanted to hear. They had not yet fully grasped the implication and full extent of Jesus’ ministry. In our story it is the Canaanite woman who pierces the veil and understands what is going on. Who understands what Jesus is hinting at.
She understands who Jesus is and grasps at the fullness of the promise that Jesus offers. Her response to Jesus “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table” indicate that she understands this promise. That all nations, all peoples will come to be blessed through Jesus. That is why Jesus says to her, “Woman you have great faith!” I do not believe for a moment that Jesus was surprise by what was happening, rather Jesus was using this as a teaching moment.
Friends, the second thing we must figure out is what all this means in our own lives. The Canaanite woman recognized a promise that would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The Canaanite woman had great faith, she saw the promises that God would fulfill.
Friends, what are the promises that we see today?
The promises that we believe God will fulfill?
What do we believe God will do in this world?
What are the issues that we face today? In this community, this country and globally?
Do we allow those issues to unfold, for things to resolve in the fullness of time?
Or do we, like the Canaanite woman, grab that issue with great faith so that we might see it resolved now.
Friends are we willing to do that?
Are we willing to pray and work, work and pray to bring God’s kingdom to life?
The Canaanite woman saw Jesus and she believed it was possible. Do we? Amen.
Text: Matthew 15: 10-28