Sermon for Sunday, August 17th, 2014 || Proper 15, Year A || Matthew 15: 21- 28 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Really? What kind of thing is that for the embodiment of God in human form to say? Jesus just totally “dissed” this Canaanite woman—first by ignoring her as if she didn’t exist, and then by calling her a dog—the most common racial slur used by first century Jews to refer to Gentiles, who were by definition ritually unclean.
Don’t you kind of wonder why in heaven’s name Matthew, or one of the later redactors of this gospel, didn’t edit that part out? Wouldn’t you think they’d clean the story up a bit to portray the Son of God in a more flattering light? I mean, had these guys never heard of spin control?
Except we already know that there was a certain sort of spin control in the first century. We already know that each of the gospel writers was addressing a different community—a different “niche market” if you will. So each would put a little “spin” on his account, crafting his words for his own audience, changing some of the details here and there, emphasizing one thing more than another.
That’s why the gospels so often contradict one another. The aim of their writers was not to give a blow-by-blow historical account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Their aim was to convey the truth of the good news, the truth of the gospel, in words that could be heard and understood by their particular niche audience. So not surprisingly, Matthew’s version of this story differs in a number of details from Mark’s version, on which his is believe to have been based. They’re writing to different communities.
But since Matthew could easily have left this story out like Luke and John did—or cleaned it up to make Jesus look better– we need to assume he knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to include it in his gospel, and to tell it the particular way he tells it—even the part about Jesus calling the desperate woman a dog.
Here’s my theory: Matthew was a brilliant student not just of the gospel, but also of human nature. And this whole encounter is a way of establishing Jesus’ credentials as a faithful Jew despite the fact that he consistently broke the Law by embracing the ritually unclean, the outcast and the “other.”
Remember that Matthew’s gospel was written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death, at a time when the Jewish Christians who made up Matthew’s community were being kicked out of the synagogue and ostracized by their friends and families.They, and the man they worshipped as Messiah, were now considered heretics by mainstream Judaism—outsiders almost as bad as Gentiles. So they were grieving the loss of everything they’d ever known and loved. No doubt many of them were tempted to give up on this new Jesus movement so they could return to the fold of mainstream Judaism.
Now, if you were writing to Jews whose faithfulness to Judaism was being called into question because they were followers of Jesus, wouldn’t you want to emphasize Jesus’s faithfulness and legitimacy as a Jew? I think you’d want to portray him as faithful beyond reproach, so that your readers would be assured that they could be his followers and still be faithful Jews, too. So you might even portray Jesus as chauvinistically Jewish. You might even portray him referring to Gentiles as dogs, which wouldn’t elicit from Matthew’s first century Jewish readers so much as a blink of an eye. It may be hard for us to understand, but that was a perfectly acceptable way for Jews to refer to Gentiles. (Consider some of the words that make us cringe now, that within our lifetimes were considered acceptable ways of referring to entire races, ethnic groups, etc…)
By having Jesus lump this woman into the category of “dogs,” Matthew was subtly persuading his readers that Jesus was as ritually mindful as the next. And he was preparing them to accept the most radical piece of his Gospel’s teaching: the scandalous expansion of Jesus’ ministry beyond all acceptable boundaries– to include the excluded, invite the outsider in, declare the unclean clean, forgive the sinner, and love the unlovable. This is what Jesus came for: to embrace the other with generosity of heart and spirit.
Assured now of Jesus’ credentials as a Jew, and of their own faithfulness as Jews in following him, Matthew’s readers would be prepared to go along with Jesus when he has this radical change of heart towards the most despicable outsider they could imagine, their bitter enemy of long-standing, a Canaanite. And what’s worse, a Canaanite woman. Because if Jesus says let the outsiders in, then let the outsiders in. So Matthew has crafted a brilliant bit of groundwork for the church’s widening mission to the Gentiles. Jesus welcomes the other. That means we, his followers, welcome the other.
But who might that other be for us? I wonder who you would be uncomfortable welcoming into the pew next to you at St Stephen’s? Or with whom you preclude even the possibility of having a relationship? It’s an intriguing question to ask ourselves: Who, for us, is the other?
We’re incredibly welcoming as a church, but we all have people or groups in our lives from whom we separate ourselves with metaphorical “keep out” signs…people we make “the other.” We’re seeing a lot of it these days in our country and in our politics. But this scripture tells us that as followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our “keep out” signs. We’re called to the risky business of moving out of our comfort zone, and into the open and expansive world of embracing the other—with generosity of heart and spirit.
What is it about this woman that so impresses Jesus that he embraces her? We don’t know very much about her, except that her daughter is sick. If you imagine her to be a poor, oppressed, peasant woman draped in rags, you may be as surprised to learn that scholars suggest she was actually among the upper classes, probably well dressed and Greek-speaking and that in Tyre and Sidon it was her people who oppressed the Jews, not the other way around.
So imagine the upside down oddity of this scene when a spiffy, well-to-do Greek-speaking woman starts shouting at a rag-tag Jewish rabbi for help! She’s a woman speaking to a man; a Canaanite speaking to a Jew; a wealthy woman speaking to an itinerant miracle worker. But her love for her child overcomes her fear of the “other.” Love overcomes fear.
The woman pushes beyond all of her own acceptable boundaries! She risks being ostracized by her people and losing all that she has. She’s heard about Jesus and recognizes who Jesus is, when so many of his own people don’t. In fact, she is so sure of his identity, this “city-slicker” Greek-speaking woman comes shouting at the top of her lungs “Lord! Son of David!” She pleas for mercy on behalf of her daughter…but then Jesus is silent! Jesus ignores her!
Well, maybe the woman overhears when the disciples urge Jesus to make her go away. Maybe she overhears Jesus tell the disciples that he’s come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But in this absolutely astonishing moment, in the face of divine silence the likes of which we’ve all experienced sometime in our lives, this most unlikely yet faithful follower of Jesus kneels down at his feet humbly, and prays what is without a doubt the most profound of all prayers: “Lord, help me.”
Lord, help me! My God, that prayer is pure! It is so honest, so unadorned, so authentic!
Then comes the divine “no”: “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman is undaunted. She takes no apparent offense at the slur, or if she does, she doesn’t let it derail her. It’s as if her words call forth from Jesus the word for which she is so hungry; as if she believes in the wideness of his mercy before he’s even discovered in himself.
The woman presses on: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Yes, Lord, she seems to say, you are so right. I am unworthy. But you are merciful, more merciful than you know, and I’m so, so hungry for what you have that I would greedily treasure even the crumbs from your table.”
It’s just incredible how clearly this woman knows her need and knows Jesus is the One who can meet it! Jesus, who is as much the “other” to her as she is to him. But in her willingness to risk being vulnerable, her willingness to embrace the other in Jesus, she calls forth from Jesus the compassion and mercy that was there all along.
I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what makes this woman so compelling to Jesus, and what makes her so compelling to us. Because I want to remember this woman when my prayers run head-on into a cold wall of divine silence. I want to remember this woman when my prayers are answered but the answer is “no.” Most of all, I want to remember this woman when my heart is heavy and my need is great, so her heart can fill my heart with the most profound prayer of all: “Lord, help me.” Amen.