Based on Matt 15: 10-28  

This is a most interesting scripture reading from Matthew—very earthy writing, don’t you think? Jesus is talking about bodily functions and sewers, ignoring a woman’s request for mercy, and calling a whole ethnic group of people dogs!  Not the sort of thing one expects to hear read out loud in church, is it?

Also interesting is that Matthew paired these two stories together.   In the first story, Jesus is berating the way some of the people of Israel interpret the Law of Moses.  Jewish “dietary laws placed a high premium on the purity of the individual, and … Jesus is turning expectations on their head. While most of the religious community was preoccupied with what would defile and hurt the body, Jesus was more concerned with what come out of our bodies that can defile and hurt the world.”[1]   He even used a parable to explain it, but that didn’t help much, so he got very graphic in his explanation.   Adhering to all the dietary purity laws in the world do not make for a pure person, essentially saying that the traditions to which they fastidiously adhered to make them right with God really wasn’t cutting it. What is in our hearts is what really dictates who we are, what kind of person we are, and that’s what should guide our behaviours!   Their focus was on the wrong things.  It was as though Jesus was tossing their traditions into the sewer!    I’m sure this would not have endeared him to the traditionalists and purists among his own people.

In our second story for today, we hear of an incident that causes Jesus to re-consider the traditions of the community in which he was raised, turning those notions on their heads!  And by a woman to boot!   Matthew tells about Jesus’ journey into the non-Jewish territory of Tyre and Sidon, an area we today call Lebanon.   According to one source I read, this is of significant interest because it’s the only time that Jesus was ever outside of Palestine and outside of Jewish territory.[2]   But even in alien territory, Jesus’ reputation has preceded him, and he is confronted by a Canaanite woman to perform a healing, the woman’s daughter is ill.

Now, good and decent women in Jesus’ time —even Canaanite women — did not come up to unfamiliar men in public and demand their attention as this woman did—and they most certainly did not accost strangers on the street shouting at them with personal information!  Highly improper, almost scandalous, this public display—she probably put herself at some personal and maybe even lawful risk to do so!

And in return, good and decent men, especially Jewish men–did not have public conversations with unfamiliar women, and especially not Gentiles—non Jewish women.  There was a clear delineation, clear boundaries and defined laws about appropriate behavior between the genders in a public space.

I wonder if Jesus was thinking about this when he didn’t respond to her demands at first, I wonder if he was a bit taken aback, or maybe simply chose to ignore this most unusual, untoward public display, not to make it worse than it already was.  But the Canaanite woman keeps shouting, “Lord, Son of David have mercy on me, help my daughter”.  She knew who Jesus was; she’s addressing him as son of David, thus acknowledging that she knows who he is within the Jewish context. She knows of him, knows he can heal her daughter.  She is not letting go of this opportunity.  Imagine her distress, her love and concern for her daughter, to embarrass herself in public in this manner—a Canaanite woman, begging a Jewish Rabbi Healer; and how firm her belief that Jesus can do this healing. This is one strong and determined woman!

The disciples are mortified at this public spectacle, and tell Jesus to send her away.  But Jesus doesn’t respond to that request, he doesn’t say to try and quiet the woman or get rid of her; he seems to ignore his disciples’ suggestions.  So Jesus addresses her directly, telling her he was sent only to minister to the lost people of Israel, certainly not an especially politically correct thing to say, you’d think, considering he was in foreign territory.    Kind of like saying that she wasn’t good enough for Jesus to tend to.  The woman is not to be deterred, and further demeans herself in public, kneeling before him… on the street and says; “Lord help me.” (v. 25) And Jesus says to her, even more un-Jesus-like it seems:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Ok, this most definitely could be construed as a racial slur  — kind of shocking to hear that from Jesus! And to call her a dog, wow—even if there was long standing animosity between the Canaanites and the Jews.  Now in fairness, the word that is translated in English to ‘dog’- kunaria in Greek– is better translated to something like ‘puppy’, as in a little household pet type of dog, not the feral, wild dog of the street.[3] But still……

Well, our determined Gentile mother is not to be put off, she’s come this far in her mission to get Jesus to heal her daughter, she has his attention now, she’s so close… she’s risked much to get this far.   So she takes another risk and responds back, she boldly challenges Jesus, using his own argument to make the point and nails it!  Yes Lord, she says, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.  Well, to quote Sheldon Cooper from the TV show “Big Bang Theory”, that’s a  ‘Ba-zinga!’

Smart woman, brilliant reply:  In this one sentence, she acknowledges Jesus as Lord and master, realizing and accepting that Jesus was called to minister to his own people, but her response hits the nail on the head:  Yes, but are Gentiles not people too?   Are we too not children of God?   Even if she and her daughter are not God’s chosen people, this woman knew who Jesus was, she was absolutely convinced — or desperate enough to believe, to hope, that Jesus’ powers and abilities could not, would not be limited by political, racial, gender or religious differences and boundaries.

I wonder if this woman’s challenge gave Jesus pause, challenging his traditional thinking; the traditions with which he would have been raised; centuries long traditional animosity between Jews and Canaanites!   It does seem as though her argument actually causes Jesus to change his mind, doesn’t it?

One writer I read put it this way:

“Some recent commentators see this as a moment where Jesus is ‘caught with his compassion down’ and forced to confront his own prejudice; in a reversal of the usual roles, the respected teacher learns from an outsider ‘the need to broaden his ministry of hospitality to those outside the house of Israel.’ ”[4]

Another commentator I follow put it like this:

And through her person and her plea, (the Canaanite woman) teaches Jesus something about himself and his mission that is crucial for him to learn. I realize that we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus “learning,” but I can’t think of another term that better captures Jesus’ expanded sense of mission at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel that ends with the commission to take the good news to the very ends of the earth.

And you know what I also find remarkable, Jesus doesn’t berate her, Jesus doesn’t call her out on her socially inappropriate behaviours, and you’d think he would be well justified to do so, wouldn’t you!  But, he sees the truth in her statement, her understanding of the bigger picture, sees the truth in what she has said, and recognizes her great faith, and tells her: “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And the gospel writer tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.

What a remarkable pairing of radical and shocking stories Matthew is giving us today.  First Jesus challenges the Pharisees to re-look at those traditions that are not longer really meaningful, that are no longer useful, but are even dangerous and hurtful.  They do not truly touch our hearts or change our way of being.  Adhering to tradition for the sake of tradition can easily lead to a false sense of being right with God, because we’re doing it the traditional way, the way we’re sure is the ‘right’ way.

And then Jesus himself is publically challenged to look at his own traditional thinking, his exclusionary thinking, by a foreign woman and in a foreign land.   Why would Jesus seem to be so callus, so un-Jesus like—ignoring a desperate call for help, then refusing to help a sick child, and calling the woman a dog —not just the woman but inferring the same to her whole nationality!  This doesn’t seem like the same person who told the children to come to him, who healed the child of the centurion, a Greek centurion; the same man who asked for a cup of water from a Samaritan woman at a well, who wasn’t afraid to challenge the Pharisees, the keepers of Jewish law, who told the story of the good Samaritan.  It is difficult for us to think that Jesus Christ had to be taught to be more open minded, to challenge the traditions, the prejudices that he was taught.  But challenged he was, and indeed he learned, his thinking was expanded and his mind was changed because he listened and considered the argument of a Canaanite woman.  In a time when racism has once  again raised its ugly head, this is a good story for us to hear.  We all carry prejudices of varying degrees and levels within us—some of which we don’t even consider as such.  We say things—they may even just pop out of our mouths without us even realizing the prejudice in them, kind of like Jesus’ comments comparing Canaanites to dogs.  It often takes someone else to point out erroneous thinking to us, to challenge our discriminations.   Our gospel story for today is a good reminder for all of us.  God uses all kind of ways, means and people to challenge us to more God-like thinking, urging us on to coming more closely to God’s inclusive and loving way of being.  We are all God’s sons and daughters, and the Gospel is for all nations.

Holding to tradition or long-held prejudices for their own sakes can become a barrier between us and God, it can actually get in the way of being truly Christ-like.   The fact that Jesus even stopped and listened to the request of a Gentile woman in his day was quite remarkable on its own.  But for Jesus to engage her in conversation like he did, allow her to challenge him–she gently berates him for his narrow-mindedness, well that is truly amazing and noteworthy enough for it to be written down and passed on for generations to learn from.  Jesus accepted the viewpoint of someone his tradition held as an inferior person, and realized that it was valid and that he needed to re-think his response to his own long-held ideas and change his view.   And the child was healed, her suffering and her mother’s anxiety abated because of it.  There is a great lesson for us all in this.  Suffering for so many would be alleviated if we all accepted each other as sons and daughters of God, that none of us or inferior or superior to another, race, creed or class.

It also occurred to me, that as the ever changing reality of this Covid-19 world presses upon us, forcing us into new ways of being and doing and thinking, the model of an open-minded Jesus is a good example to keep in the fore-front as we move forward in a new and changeable church and world.  Amen.

Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] Dock Hollingsworth in ‘Homelitical Perspective” for Matt 15: 10-28 in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 3.

[2] Wm. Barclay-Diocese of Brandon website from 2011

[3] Barclay, ibid

[4] Iwan Russell-Jones in Theological Commentary for for Matt 15: 10-28 in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 3. p. 360