a sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on August 14, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Back in Sunday school, I learned a lot of fun and interesting stories about Jesus healing the sick, but I don’t think we ever studied today’s gospel reading from Matthew. In all those great stories from my childhood, Jesus seemed to welcome anyone and everyone who needed to be healed. He was glad when some folks cut a hole in the roof and lowered down a man on a cot to get through the crowd that had mobbed the house. He stopped everything to offer healing when an unclean woman in the crowd crept up to him and touched his cloak, even though it meant that a more powerful man who sought healing for his daughter would see his daughter die during the delay before Jesus arrived at his house. Jesus even stopped on the side of the road to heal a blind man who didn’t even ask for it.
The stories of Sunday school stuck with me to this day. Over and over again, Jesus reached out to unexpected people who were simply in his path and seemed to be in need to offer them his healing power and touch and to invite them to be a part of the new way of life he was bringing into the world.
So amidst all these wonderful stories I learned in Sunday school, today’s reading sounds quite different, making me wonder if we’re even talking about the same Jesus. Here, when a Canaanite woman meets Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, he ignores her. It’s almost like he was walking the sidewalks of New York City or something – he doesn’t even acknowledge her and keeps on walking! But she keeps following him and pestering the disciples, so much so that they come and ask Jesus to do something about her: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus encourages their narrow-mindedness, remarking loudly in hopes that the woman would hear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Still, this Gentile woman does not leave them alone. She finally throws herself at the feet of Jesus, echoing the cries of the psalms: “Lord, help me.” But Jesus has nothing to do with her and instead offers her what sounds to me like an insult to her and her status: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But this persistent woman just doesn’t give up. She spars with Jesus one more time: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus gives in. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter is healed instantly.
It makes sense to me why we don’t teach this story in Sunday school – Jesus doesn’t look all that good here. In my view, he comes off as something close to a real jerk. First, Jesus tries to completely ignore someone in need who seeks him out. While countless others have been welcomed to his healing grace, and some have even received it without asking for it or giving permission, here Jesus chooses not to care about the woman. He seems to be too busy – the healer is not in, so too bad if you showed up today expecting something from him. That doesn’t seem to be the norm for Jesus, but it’s what this story makes clear.
But if that’s not enough, Jesus picks and chooses who he will help here based on race and culture and maybe gender too. This woman is not an Israelite, so she’s just not important enough to demand his attention today. But Jesus has healed Gentiles before, so if you ask me, Jesus is just being mean.
And at least to my ears, Jesus seems incredibly disrespectful. You just don’t respond to someone’s plea for help by suggesting that helping her would be like throwing good food to the dogs. For the savior of the whole world to behave in this way toward a woman who just wanted her daughter to be well just doesn’t seem right.
Too often, we try to explain all this away. Several commentators on this story suggest that Jesus is just trying to keep focused on his main mission that he declared from the very beginning – a ministry in and among and toward the people of Israel, a grounding that then gives him the ability to reach beyond this initial group and do something more. Other commentators insist that this story would mean something different to its first hearers, that they wouldn’t be offended by Jesus calling this woman a dog or that his seeming insult to our ears was not quite that bad after all.
But even considering all this, even if there are good theological and narrative reasons for Jesus’ actions in this story, I’m not entirely comfortable with a savior who lives out his mission first by ignoring someone crying out in need and then by comparing her to a dog. Instead, I think our last hymn speaks more truthfully about the way God in Christ responds to the cry of the poor and needy:
Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience…
Jesus is Lord; he has championed the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts its timely end.
– John L. Bell and Graham Maule
But even if this image of a savior is problematic for us, even if we don’t see Jesus acting at his best here, I think we can still get a little hope from Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Here we get a little glimpse of a very human Jesus who is a little more like us. Here Jesus is so focused on the big picture that even he misses out on the small details that matter too. Here Jesus responds to the pressures of his friends and falls short of the kind of interaction with this woman even he would expect. Here Jesus is open to being challenged and called out to embrace new and different perspectives even by people who he tried to shoo off. And here Jesus goes beyond his original assumptions to think about things differently when the old way doesn’t show the fullness of life for all people.
Now this doesn’t mean that we have to like the Jesus we hear about today, and we don’t have to start teaching about him in Sunday school, either, but nonetheless he remains one and the same savior. He remains fully human and fully God. He responds to our pleas for help whether it is the first time or the hundredth time. He heals our every ill and makes us whole as only he can do. He offers up his life on our behalf in his death, and he opens up a new way of hope for us today and every day in his resurrection.
And it is this same Jesus who calls us out of his own experience not to act as he did with this Canaanite woman but to deal generously with all those in need, to embody compassion and hope in every encounter, to share from our abundance and give up our privilege of place and power, to show the new life we have in Christ as we respond to the need of the world, and to join in God’s work of remaking even this world, acting “in our present imperfection” to show that Jesus is Lord even now and steps in to transform all things into the new creation that God intends.
So may we for once not act as Jesus does but instead show the fullness of his love and compassion for all people from the very beginning and cry out in faith and action until all things are made new through the new life we have in him.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.