A sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
This passage is just thoroughly offensive to modern ears, especially these past two months. It’s not so much the demon possession, although we have no place in our culture for talking about demon possession and we tend to write off anyone who does. It’s more that Jesus is making a racial slur. Which I don’t need to underscore how problematic this is, perhaps more so because Jesus is the founder of a religion which has at times been associated with imperialism and conquest. (Although, let’s not read too much of our culture into this, neither Jesus nor this woman are white, and neither of their races was at the time dominant over the other). Nonetheless, Jesus has come into a foreign culture and he first ignores the woman until he eventually calls her a dog. Again, this is especially glaring in our current culture, and its appropriate that this is an offensive passage because Jesus was intending to cause offence. Which brings up the question — when was the last time someone intentionally offended you? When was the last time someone intentionally offended you because they want to draw the best out of you? That’s what we have going on in this passage, and its completely foreign to us.
Jesus and the disciples traveled outside the territory of Israel to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This geographic region was often under condemnation by the Old Testament prophets for worship of the pagan god Baal, as well as their arrogant pride in their power and wealth. Jesus and the disciples are not in spiritually friendly territory when this Canaanite woman enters the scene. The Jewish audience of the day would immediately have had some fairly strong stereotypes to launch at her, and may have wondered why this lost, good for nothing pagan has appeared in the story. Yet appear she does, and she immediately would have caught a Jewish audience off guard. Not only does she address Jesus with remarkable respect, she shows that she is familiar enough with Hebrew Scripture to know that “Son of David” is a title for the Messiah. She’s addressing him as king. Racial stereotypes are getting thrown out the window. The other disciples were not even using that title yet, but here she is confessing Jesus as the Messiah. Her confession of Jesus as Messiah takes place one full chapter ahead of when Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He apparently learned something from this Canaanite woman who came begging for Jesus to heal her daughter tormented by a demon. Tormented by a demon. Perhaps at this point stereotypes could comfortably resume, and the disciples could think, “Serves you right that your daughter is possessed — with all your twisted spiritual practices.” Who knows, maybe they thought, by his silence, that Jesus was also thinking this. Yet this woman is undaunted by this frosty reception — she continues to beg Jesus for help.
Jesus is silent, the woman is crying out, the disciples get uncomfortable. Perhaps they’re not so much uncomfortable as they are annoyed. Their compassion goes as far as asking Jesus to send her away because she won’t just be quiet.
Finally, Jesus responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What’s he mean by this? On one level you could see Jesus as just helping the stereotypes become further entrenched, as if Jesus is saying, “we Jews are only concerned about out own kind.” But at the same time, back in chapter 8, after Jesus heals Roman Military Officer’s servant, he says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” Jesus fully intends to clear a way for the nations of the world to be welcomed into God’s family, so why does he say that bit about coming only for the lost sheep of Israel? Is he just trying to provoke her? On the one hand yes, but there’s another level. Let me remind you a bit about why God formed the nation of Israel in the first place. When God first formed the people of Israel he did so because the world was in trouble. Everyone had rejected relationship with the One, True God. So God called the people of Israel to be a light to the nations, to be a kingdom of priests to show the other nations how to get back on track in worshiping the One True God. But this mission went off course pretty quickly and the nation of Israel became like all the other nations. The rescue operation needed rescuing. The people of Israel needed rescuing because they had become just as lost as the world around them. They had become just as estranged from God as the surrounding nations, the one’s they so enjoyed stereotyping. But God had made a promise that He would Rescue the world through the people of Israel. So, when Jesus came, His first mission was to get the lost sheep of Israel back on track — restores their relationship with God through forgiveness of sins so they might actually live out their calling and be a light to the nations. That must happen first. It wasn’t until after His death and resurrection that Jesus would gather the eleven disciples on a mountain, and He would send them out as the new Israel to make disciples of all nations. The disciples to embody the family of God, Israel, and do the work Israel was always meant to do. They were to live out the mission of inviting people from all nations to come and join this family. So eventually the Canaanites and everyone else would be invited to join the family, just not yet. The Canaanite woman had gotten the timing wrong. What she wanted wasn’t supposed to happen till after the resurrection and Jesus sent out the disciples. Then she could join the family. Her response to all that is, “I don’t give a fig for your timing, I don’t care if you need to go to the lost sheep of Israel first… I want my daughter healed now!”
Her humanity is unfortunately disrupting a nice sermon on the folly of racial tension and stereotypes. Her wonderful character is disrupting a sermon about the importance of interracial dialogue with her true humanity. What might of been a sermon about racial tolerance and how God is to include all people in His Kingdom is displaced by her pure and beautiful faith — and the fact that I’m really challenged by the faith I see in her. She’s moved us beyond a discussion of racial stereotypes and moved us to marvelling at her as a wonderfully brazen woman of faith. She doesn’t care what Jesus says about his timing and how he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. She wants healing now! Her posture challenges me. As a pastor, I want to give meaning and shape to people’s suffering by helping them to recognize how their suffering fits into the big picture of Scripture. The Kingdom of God is already, but not yet. I want to help people understand how in this period of time the Kingdom of God is not fully here and so we need to persevere. I want to help people understand how God will shape them through suffering. I want to help people frame their suffering in light of the fact that God’s Kingdom is coming and encourage them to continue with perseverance. After all, one day, in God’s timing, His Kingdom will fully come to Earth and make all things well. Let’s wait with perseverance until God’s timing is complete and he wipes away every tear. Yet then this bold woman breaks through not only my stereotypes, but also reveals my own inadequate faith when she says, “Forget timing. Jesus is here and I want my daughter healed now!”
And some might think that she overstepped. That’d be my concern. I want to say, “Just be content and wait for God’s timing.” But she wasn’t content with this timing and keeps making herself heard. Jesus says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food (meaning the people of Israel) and throw it to the dogs (a racial slur for this Canaanite woman).” “See!” I want to say, "You overstepped! Look! You got rebuked!" This says more about my own issues than hers — I’m trying to grow in my comfort with rocking the boat — perhaps even rocking the boat by being bold with God. What this woman is doing makes me really nervous. — But Jesus doesn’t say that bit about "not throwing the children’s food to the dogs” in order to shut her down. He says it in order to draw her out! He says it to push her so that her remarkable faith will shine through even more brightly so we all can live by her example. And she does not disappoint! Without missing a beat, she replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” This woman is terribly clever (all stereotypes are far behind us now), we’re just seeing one of humanity’s most beautiful representatives. I’m not sure there is any other instance in Scripture where someone has verbally sparred with Jesus and come out the winner. She shows simultaneous great humility and also great daring. “Yes, Jesus, but even the dogs eat the crumbs.” At that point Jesus drops the guise and His joy simply breaks through the text. “O Woman! Great is your faith!” Just one chapter earlier Jesus asked a soaking wet Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But here Jesus cries out — O woman, what beautiful, tenacious and persistent faith you have!” Jesus responds to bold faith with utter joy and delight! Immediately, Jesus grants her request saying: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.
Let’s challenge each other to persevere in our faith. The witness of this Canaanite woman is to persevere. To be bold. To not be content with silence. To ask God to let His Kingdom break into our lives here and now, even if the timing’s not perfect.