sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 17 August 2014 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The
scripture readings that day were Isaiah
56: 1,6-8; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28
Gospel reading is a strange story. It’s troubling to readers because it has
Jesus doing and saying things that seem so unlike what we expect from him.
Jesus – the champion of women; Jesus – the healer of the sick; Jesus – who had
harsh words for religious leaders and those who abused the poor, but never to
the suffering and marginalized.
why the story in Matthew 15 puzzles us. Even though it has a happy ending, it
seems the Canaanite woman has to endure insults to get what she wants from
Jesus. She has to figure out how to outwit him to get help for her sick daughter.
So why is this story in the Bible? What are we supposed to learn?
take a look at the story at face value.
and his disciples are in or near a region called Tyre and Sidon. This is no
longer Jewish territory. It’s an area where non-Jews or Gentiles live, in other
words pagan territory. As they go along, a woman from that region comes out.
She starts shouting to Jesus, ‘Lord, have mercy! My daughter is tormented by a
demon!’ The daughter was possibly suffering from what we know as epilepsy or mental
illness today. We’re not sure, but whatever it was, it was a terrible
affliction. So what was Jesus’ response? Nothing. No answer. He seems to be
the disciples come into the picture. “Send this troublesome woman away,” they
plead. The New Revised Standard Version gives the impression that the disciples
just want Jesus to brush her off. However, there are different ways to read the
Greek text. They could also be saying ‘Just give her what she wants so she’ll
leave us alone.’ That’s how the New Jerusalem Bible translates it. Have you
ever done that? Given a beggar what they wanted so they’ll go away?
it’s likely that the disciples were asking him to heal her daughter to
shut her up, because look at what Jesus says next: “I was sent only to the lost
sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I can’t do it. My first priority
is to our own people. This might seem odd, given Jesus had healed a Roman
centurion’s servant earlier in Matthew Chapter 8. The centurion was also a
Gentile, not a Jew, and we suppose his servant was a gentile too.
this gentile woman gets nothing. So, she drops to her knees and begs him,
“Please help me!” At this point, you would think anybody with an ounce of
compassion would do what he could. And how does Jesus respond? “It’s not fair
to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right. He’s saying
this foreigner and her people are dogs. In that time and culture, being called
a dog was not a compliment. In other words, why should I take what is needed
for God’s chosen and give it to people like you?
now, you would think the woman would get the message. He’s not going to help
you – either he can’t or he won’t. So give up. But she doesn’t. She actually
takes his words and uses them to her advantage. OK, you want to call me a dog?
OK, I’m a dog but even dogs aren’t left to starve. Even dogs get leftovers,
even dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table onto the floor. I’ll take
the scraps, the crumbs, anything you give me.
that finally seems to do the trick. Not only does Jesus grant her wish, he does so because he’s so impressed by her
faith. And just as she had asked, her daughter is healed instantly.
you can imagine, preachers and scholars have
had many debates on how to deal with the difficulties in this text. Some take
the simplest way. They say maybe Jesus really didn’t say this. Matthew or the
early Church created this story after Jesus’ death. Remember Matthew was
writing for a Jewish Christian audience. They weren’t crazy about non-Jews joining the church without going
through Judaism first. But it was happening anyway. So Matthew wants to assure them that Gentiles coming to Jesus were part of God’s amazing plan since the beginning.
But others take the exact opposite position.
have said these words
because surely the disciples wouldn’t have made up such an unflattering picture
of the Savior. If someone were going to put words in Jesus’ mouth, they
wouldn’t have chosen such jarring language. So the church has to deal with it being
in the Bible even if it makes us uncomfortable. And the uncomfortable
conclusion for some is that Jesus was acting like a jerk, and it took a foreign
woman to teach him a lesson about God’s grace.
For me, neither of these interpretations is
particularly satisfying. Both read a lot into 8 short verses, making
assumptions that can’t be proven one way or the other. For me, the best way to
give you a sermon is to accept this story as a portrayal of the actual words
and actions of Jesus. But knowing Jesus as we do, or try to anyway, it seems
unlikely that Scripture intended to portray Jesus as a jerk. As one commentator
remarked, “… I doubt Jesus’ intention was to take a vacation among unpleasant
people in order to insult them when they annoyed him with a desperate cry for
help…it doesn’t fit with the psychological or spiritual character of Jesus.” Yes,
there are cultural factors operating in the Bible in terms of religion, gender
and society. But I trust that if we come to Scripture with open hearts and open
hands, we can find God’s redeeming word for us.
To start, I’d like to propose that the focus
of this story is really not the Canaanite woman, even though she is rather
amazing. I don’t think the focus is on healing the daughter either, though that
is what brings all the parties together. I think the focus of the story is Jesus
and his desire to know and do the will of God.
That would explain why Jesus was silent when
this woman approached him begging for help. He wasn’t heartless, but he was
torn inside. Yes, he had healed many others before this, both Jewish and
Gentile, but this time something is different. This time, he holds back. Why? Because
he has come face-to-face with someone who embodies everything his people tell
him to reject – unclean religion, unclean gender, unclean family.
He could heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter,
but if he did, then what? Would that bring his own people any closer to
repentance? No, it would only bring more and more of her
people to him, and that might drive an even bigger wedge
between him and the people God sent him to save – the people of Israel, the sheep
without a shepherd.
So that’s exactly what he tells his
disciples. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Whether
the woman heard it or not, we don’t know but she persists. This time she
prostrates herself in front of him, begging again for help. Jesus has to
respond to her, one way or the other.
And the way he responds to her is tough to
hear: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the
dogs.” I confess I struggled with this verse for a long time. There have been
all kind of explanations that try to soften the words, but they aren’t
altogether convincing. Eventually two incidents about dogs came to my mind
after much pondering.
first was a few years ago when I visited my university roommate in Florida in
the USA. She usually cooked for us, but she mentioned she’d like me to teach
her to cook Chinese food. Well, I’m not much of a chef, but we give it a try.
So we went to the Asian market in Jacksonville and bought rice, vegetables and
spices. Then she pulled out meat from her freezer, big chunks of pork and
chicken. I had forgotten how big freezers are in the US and how much meat
Americans eat. It made a lot more food than we could finish, so I said oh, we
could give the scraps to her dog Lucy. My friend gave me a look of surprise.
“Oh, Lucy doesn’t eat table scraps. That’s no good for a dog. We feed her dog
food, because it’s got the right nutrition for a dog.” So, that’s one way to
think about Jesus’ words: Children have children’s food and dogs have dog food,
and it’s not good to mix them up. But still, he’s calling her a dog.
The other incident happened in an Anglican
church in Toronto back in 2010. Maybe you read about it. It was summer and the
church had an interim minister. When it came time for Holy Communion, a man
came up to receive the bread and wine, bringing his dog with him. The minister
knew he was a first time visitor, and she wanted to make him feel welcome. So
she gave the dog Holy Communion too. From what the news reported, the dog did
not receive the wine. Well, you can imagine some people might have had a
negative reaction. One member resigned from the church in protest and filed a
complaint to the Anglican Diocese.
The bishop, a godly
man no doubt, wrote to the parishioner, “It is not the policy of the Anglican
Church to give Communion to animals. I can see why people would be offended. It
is a strange and shocking thing, and I have never heard of it happening before.
I think the reverend was overcome by what I
consider a misguided gesture of welcoming. She is embarrassed by her action,
but the matter is closed…we are after all, in the forgiveness and repair
We are after all, in the forgiveness and
repair business. That’s what Jesus believed about his ministry on earth. Yet
everywhere he went, he was offending people, doing strange and shocking things
that his ‘bishops’ had never heard of happening before. Now, if he goes against
official policy, if he accepts this ‘dog’ at the table of the Master, could
this too be labeled a misguided gesture of welcome? Could this Canaanite woman
not understand that there might be a conflict between her immediate need and
God’s bigger plan?
As it turns out, this rather amazing woman
did understand. Remember she called Jesus ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’. That wasn’t
just flattery. She understood that the lost sheep of Israel were his first
priority, and she wasn’t among them. But, she says, I’m not asking for the
children’s bread. I’m not asking you to change God’s plan. I’m only asking for
a taste, just a taste of the blessings God has brought into the world through
you. That’s all I want, that’s all my daughter needs. That will be enough.
And it was enough. After praising her great
faith, he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was
healed instantly. The wording is rather special here. Not, I will heal your
daughter. Rather “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
In other words: “Your will be done.”
Sound familiar? Yes, the same words Jesus
used when his disciples asked him how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your will
The same words Jesus himself prayed in agony
in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Your will be done.’
From the beginning to the end of Jesus’
life, he sought only one thing: to know and do the will of God. To know what
his Heavenly Father was calling him to do and to have the courage to do it.
That’s what he prayed for and that’s how we should pray when we ask for help in
We could be under the mistaken impression
that the Canaanite woman was granted her wish because she figured out how to
change Jesus’ mind. But there’s nothing great about that kind of faith. In
fact, that’s not faith at all. Faith means ultimately trusting that God’s
divine wisdom and mercy will never fail, even when the answer seems to be
silence or ‘no’. Believing that behind the silence is a word, behind the no is
a ‘yes’ waiting to be revealed in God’s bigger plan for you and me and this
world through Jesus Christ.
As one Lutheran theologian said: God’s love
which is eternally on its way to Calvary is always on its way to us. No matter
what happens or doesn’t happen, God’s love is always on its way to us, and it
cannot and will not be bound. That’s why the Canaanite woman was willing to
endure the silence – because she believed her prayer was heard. That’s why she
was willing to ignore Jewish opinion about her people – because she trusted that
Jesus was a man after God’s own heart. That’s why she could align her will with
God’s will, because she was so sure divine love was on its way to mother and
child through Jesus the Christ. Woman, great is your faith!
Christian writer Anne Lamott said the two
best prayers she knows are ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank
you, thank you.’ This comes out her own experience of coming to faith after
hitting rock bottom in her life with nowhere else to turn.
She says, ‘Help me’ is the first essential
prayer and the hardest one. Why? Because you
have to admit defeat — you have to surrender.
But at the same time you’re surrendering, something else is happening. You’re establishing
a connection with a power greater than yourself, something in the next
concentric circle out whose name is not yours.
Lamott calls ‘help me’ the prayer of blessedly giving up, of surrender, which
is the greatest condition for finding faith.
Help me – the first great prayer of faith.
Help me – the essential prayer of great faith.
Help me – the prayer that today’s Gospel assures us will
never come back empty.
I’d like close with words by Anne Lamott. She
shared this in her 2012 book on prayer Help,
. It’s a bit irreverent, as much of her writing is. But think of
it as a 21st
century Canaanite mother’s prayer. And claim it as your
own if you need to.
would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not.
I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this.
I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.
Can this be true? If so, how about this afternoon – say two-ish?
You in advance for Your company and blessings.
have never once let me down.