A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON).
When it comes to their children’s health and well-being, parents can be desperate creatures. There is little they will not do, going to great, even absurd lengths, in the attempt to bring comfort and relief to their sick child. Parents know all too well the plight of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel reading. Here is a parent who is desperate for her child to get better, going so far as to stalk, yell and beg at an out-of-town teacher and faith-healer from a different religion. This is desperation at its fullest.
Prior to being pestered by the Canaanite woman, Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees. The problem was that apparently Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating. To our modern ears, it is easy to assume that the Pharisees were rightly concerned with personal hygiene. However, this is not the case; the Pharisees were actually concerned about ritual purity. You see, according to the Pharisaic interpretation of the Torah, hand-washing before all meals was mandatory. Those who did not wash their hands were considered symbolically unclean and, therefore, were in violation of both the Torah and covenant.
Jesus insists that this accusation is nonsense because it has nothing to do with honoring God and everything to do with honoring the Pharisees who had created a rather large list of rules that they felt helped people follow the Torah. You see, the Pharisees saw themselves as the religious elites; they were the truly faithful Jews, the ones who kept Torah and were, therefore, the ones who truly deserved God’s favor.
However, Jesus tells them that their additional rules have nothing to do with keeping Torah; their additional rules actually miss the point of Torah entirely. Of course, the Pharisees were offended at Jesus’ response. Yet, Jesus’ point sticks. Consumed with following their own rules, the Pharisees were completely blind to the fact that keeping Torah is not about being ritually pure; keeping Torah is about protecting one’s heart against evil and directing it toward the worship of God. Their faith in their own piety and morality kept them blind to recognizing Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah and Lord of the universe.
Unlike the Pharisees, the Canaanite woman knew exactly who Jesus was – shouting that he is both “Lord” and the “Son of David”. It is not unlikely that she had heard of Jesus. However, is her address an authentic expression of faith or is she, as a desperate parent, simply trying to get the attention of a person who might be able to help her daughter?
Jesus’ response to her is silence; he ignores her shouts. This is not the response we expect from Jesus, who is known for showing compassion to those in need. After all, he recently fed over 5,000 people!
Jesus’ silence is born of his experience growing up as a Jewish boy in Galilee where Jews were an ethnic and religious minority who were often economically exploited by the Canaanite majority. Furthermore, we know that the rivalry and even hatred of Canaanites by the Jews goes back to the story of Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land. Old antagonisms do not die easily.
Remember, Jesus is in “the district of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt. 15:21), which is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is in pagan territory. Once again Jesus finds himself in a place where he is amidst old adversaries, a minority in the midst of a powerful majority who exploit minorities for their own gain. Jesus’ silence is a kind of prayerful reflection, a discerning of this woman’s intent: is she truly expressing faith in him or is she trying to exploit him for her own ends?
But the woman persists with her shouting to the point that the disciples ask Jesus to send her away. It is at this point that Jesus breaks his silence. However, his response is nothing short of offensive: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26). What are we to make of this response, particularly when Jesus himself said earlier in Matthew that ““Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6)? What are we to make of this response, especially when Jesus just finished telling the Pharisees that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person (cf. Matt. 15:11)?
Jesus’ abrasive words are meant to get the attention of all those who are within earshot, including those of who read and hear them today. His response to the woman is directed to her as much as it is directed to the disciples. If we attempt to explain away Jesus’ response as a kind of ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ joke or as pure bigotry, we become deaf to what Jesus is trying to teach both the woman and his disciples. Implying that the woman and, by extension, all Gentiles, are dogs is offensive to our modern ears. However, we must be careful that we do not impose or project our modern sensitivities onto the text lest we tame Jesus in to a “gregarious social worker”, thereby concealing his claim “to being the truth of God” (Hauerwas). We need to hear Jesus’ words in the full context of the story and remain open to what Jesus is saying. The rhetorical force of Jesus’ words is meant to open our ears to the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom.
The Canaanite woman is on her own turf, surrounded by her own people, close to home. In his response, Jesus is teaching the Canaanite woman what it is like to feel excluded and marginalized.
The Greek word Jesus uses literally means a ‘house dog’. In other words, he is calling her a pet dog. Jewish people considered dogs unclean, so they were not kept as pets in Jewish homes. And yet in this image, Jesus is implying that the house of Israel has dogs for pets. At this point the disciples are getting a bit uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the sting of the insult remains; Jesus is saying, ‘OK, you can have a place in the house, but, remember, you are a dog – you have no status, power, or privilege. You do not get to eat the same food as the people of the household’.
The disciples would have agreed with Jesus’ insult toward the woman. But the sting of the insult is also directed at them and their rush to get rid of her. Remember, the Israelites were the descendants of Abraham, the one from whom God promised to make a great nation that would be a blessing to all people. Throughout the Old Testament we see God’s chosen people forget their calling to be a blessing to the nations. Moreover, this is exactly what is at the heart of Jesus’ earlier criticism of the Pharisees – they were legalistically obeying Torah as a means to their own ends rather than following Torah as the foundation for what God was calling Israel to be in their relationship with other nations. Jesus is saying that dogs actually do have a place in the house of Israel.
Time and again, Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, get caught in the trap of thinking that the gospel is for them alone, that they alone are the people chosen for salvation. Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, have a tendency to exclude and marginalize those they assume that don’t belong as ‘one of us’, those they assume don’t deserve to hear the gospel because of a moral fault.
In his response, Jesus is testing the disciples to see if they will speak out against his insult, to call Jesus out; their silence implies their agreement with the insult and they fail the test.
However, it is the woman who speaks up.
Though his initial silence and abrasive response, Jesus was discerning this woman’s intent; he got his answer in her response.
Not only does she endure the experience of being marginalized, she sees an opening in Jesus’ metaphor and uses it to push back, turning the insult into a blessing. Seeing that she, a Canaanite, is in the house of Israel, she responds: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27).
She completely turned the tables on Jesus, leaving him with nothing to say but “Woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:28).
What is also remarkable about the woman’s response is that she specifically identifies the food to which Jesus refers as bread. Whereas Jesus makes no mention as to what kind of food she is referring to, the woman, who has arguably heard of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000, makes an explicit connection to bread.
Remember, the wider context of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees and the Canaanite woman is two miraculous feedings: the feeding of the 5,000 occurs previously and the feeding of the 4,000 afterward.
After the feeding of the 5,000, which took place in Jewish territory, there were 12 baskets of leftover bread, which symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel.
The feeding of the 4,000, however, takes place in Gentile territory, the home of the woman who is identified as a Canaanite, the ancient enemies of the Israelites. There were seven baskets of leftover bread, which symbolizes the seven Canaanite tribes that God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to “utterly destroy” in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 (7:2).
Do you see what has happened? Do you see the picture St. Matthew is painting of God’s Kingdom?
God’s kingdom is one in which all people are invited to feast, Jew and Gentile alike.
God’s kingdom is one in which there is a reconciliation between nations, where enemies are transformed into friends.
God’s kingdom is one in which there is movement from rejection to embrace and affirmation, where the Canaanite woman is initially excluded only to find that she, and her people, are embraced and welcomed into the kingdom.
God’s kingdom is one in which those who are outcast and marginalized are invited to find their true identity as God’s beloved children.
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is rooted in a long history of hatred. However, by the end of the story, there is healing, not only for the woman’s daughter, but for all of Canaan as indicated by the symbol of the seven leftover baskets of bread.
The bread that Christ offers is for both Jewish and Gentiles because all are God’s beloved children.
The Pharisees were blind to Jesus’ identity. However, through her faith, the Canaanite woman saw Jesus as the one who provides bread for all people; she saw him as the bread of the world.
Whereas Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was chastised in chapter 14 for being “of little faith”, here in chapter 15, a Canaanite woman is praised for her “great faith”.
Her faith is great because it is audacious. She is not concerned with personal decorum; rather, she persistently and desperately follows Christ, shouting after him, and unafraid to get on her knees to beg for help – “Lord, help me!”
Her faith is great because she knew that Jesus Christ is the one who is able to feed and heal the world.
Her faith is great because of the one in whom she places her complete trust, the one who welcomes outcasts, feeds the hungry, and transforms enemies into friends.
Faith in Christ is not for the proud, the morally self-righteous, or self-sufficient, self-made people who rely on themselves; faith in Christ for those who recognize their need for God’s healing and forgiveness and desperately pursue it in the one who is ready and willing to turn the tables on us in order to invite us in to God’s up-side down kingdom.
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you for the great faith of the Canaanite woman and the example she sets for all those who follow you. Help us to recognize our need for your grace and salvation; help us to follow you persistently and desperately with an audacious faith through which we see your kingdom where all are invited, all are fed, and all are loved.
With appreciation and thanksgiving for the work of folks whom I am privileged to call friends:
Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat (and Grant LaMarquand) – http://www.thebanner.org/features/2011/01/genocide-or-healing
Dr. Nik Ansell – http://www.thebanner.org/features/2011/01/jesus-on-the-offensive
Shiao Chong – http://3dchristianity.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/going-to-the-dogs/