Years ago F. F. Bruce published a book titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. That title prompted a friend of mine to comment, “Hard sayings? I didn’t know there were any easy ones!”
But, of course, it is true that some of what Jesus had to say was easier to puzzle out than some other things. Jesus was prone to uttering some powerfully surprising things, and perhaps nowhere more so than right here in Matthew 15. Preachers and theologians can get into swift trouble when it comes to parsing Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman. The whole incident is only eight verses long, but it takes far more space even to begin addressing the issues raised here.
In recent times various scholarly articles have been published that have suggested that this is a rare (and, for some, a wonderful) story that clearly depicts how a woman actually became Jesus’ teacher. Jesus had been carrying around in his head some incomplete assumptions about who should, or should not, receive his ministry. So this lowly Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, called him on the carpet, and then, amazingly enough, Jesus changed his mind.
In many churches, such a claim could be a bit blood-warming and the cause of considerable theological nervousness. Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning? When Jesus was in Kindergarten, did he only pretend to learn his ABCs for the sake of his teacher (when really he already knew every language in the world)? Could he ever really have been startled or surprised? We’ve all had those times when we’ve been so lost in thought that when suddenly the phone rings or someone taps you on the shoulder, you about jump out of your skin! Could that ever happen to Jesus? Or did he always know ahead of time when someone was going to knock on the front door or quietly come up from behind?
These are sticky questions. And, of course, we should admit that it’s one thing to wonder about whether Jesus really did learn math when he was in school, and it’s one thing to ponder whether or not a loud noise could ever make him jump. But it is quite another matter to wonder whether Jesus could have learned a new thing related to something as vital as the very scope of his own ministry. Yet Matthew 15 foists this issue before us.
Verse 21 tells us that Jesus, for some unexplained reason, wandered into the area of Tyre and Sidon. To most of Matthew’s original readers, that was the equivalent of saying that Jesus had now entered Paganland. He was outside of any recognizably religious area and had entered a kind of spiritual slum, a veritable ghetto of unbelief. This was the kind of place “good” folks did not visit. The disciples were probably nervous being there. To their provincial minds, trotting around Tyre and Sidon felt spiritually downright dangerous.
And it didn’t take long before their worst fears are realized. Suddenly a crazy woman (a crazy Canaanite woman) runs up, screaming at the top of her lungs about her demon-possessed daughter. Unwittingly, she probably played right into every stereotype the disciples harbored. She was shrill, overly direct, presumptuous, and her family had a problem with a demon. “Well, don’t they all!” Peter no doubt thought to himself.
Jesus himself said nothing, which probably made the disciples assume he was thinking the same thing they were: how can we get out of this highly uncomfortable situation?! Since Jesus’ silence gave the disciples an opening, they say to Jesus, “Let’s ditch this woman now! Her screaming is driving us crazy.” And Jesus then says, either just to himself or to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
In the ears of the disciples, that was the equivalent of Jesus’ saying, “I agree! Let’s get rid of her because when it comes to our ministry, this woman doesn’t count.” We don’t know whether or not she heard Jesus say that. Even if she did, it did not deter her in the least. Instead she assumes a posture of worship (the Greek verb for “kneeling” used in verse 25 is the typical word in the Bible for worship), and she then again begs Jesus to help her.
And that’s when Jesus says it. In the previous chapter Jesus fed bread to 5,000 people. Immediately following this story he will do something similar, feeding bread to 4,000 people. Jesus is the bread of life. His ministry is a kind of extended heavenly feeding. This woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life. “It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed children to dogs.”
Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, an epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.
The woman does not protest her spiritual canine status but instead actually plays on the image once again to press her point. “OK, so I’m a dog, but even they get crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table, don’t they!?” Jesus then expresses what appears to be surprise. “Woman, you have great faith! You’re right, and so your request is granted.” And it was. The daughter was released from her demon at that very moment, Matthew says.
However, that is all Matthew says. Tantalizingly enough, there is no follow-up of any kind here. There is no commentary from Matthew, no subsequent discussion between Jesus and the disciples as to why Jesus gave in after all, no hint as to why Jesus acted the way he did. At first Jesus pretended like he didn’t even see the woman. In fact, this is the only time in all the gospels when Jesus ignored someone’s cry. Then he claimed this woman was outside the scope of his concern. Finally, Jesus went further still by saying that the reason she was outside the scope of his ministry was because she was a lowlife, a dog.
But despite all that, Jesus in the end approves of this same woman. But we have no clue as to the whys and wherefores of any of it! Was Jesus at first merely toying with her (and the disciples), purposely playing into prejudices as a prelude to undermining those same prejudices? (This is a real possibility in that part of Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel was to help Israel re-appropriate the tradition, which usually meant rolling back old stereotypes and prejudices against outsiders.) Or did Jesus really think at first that it was God’s will that he limit himself to Israel? Both options raise questions.
Is it possible that this encounter did help Jesus to widen his own perspective (as some commentators and preachers suggest)? And was Jesus, as God’s only Son, capable of ever harboring attitudes that were not just erroneous but actually sinful? It is very important to make some distinctions here.
It is no sin to make an honest mistake, no sin to get startled, and no sin to be unaware of something. So if Jesus really did think at some point that he was supposed to limit himself to Israel, that was no sin. Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn, that he willingly allowed limitations to be placed on his own knowledge even as, for the time he was on this earth, he allowed himself to be limited to being in just one place at a time (instead of being everywhere at once as is normally the case with God).
We know for sure that by becoming human, God’s Son introduced possibilities into his existence that had not been there before, chief among which was the possibility of suffering and, finally, even of dying. Jesus shared our sinful situation without himself being sinful. That was true in terms of his vulnerability to suffering, and perhaps it was true also in terms of his ability to learn through experience the same as we all do in life.
But as interesting as all of that may be, the real lesson of this incident–the main reason why Matthew made sure to record this story in the first place–is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner allows that Jesus maybe really did learn something through this Canaanite woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Matthew wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
To Jewish ears, the very word “Canaanite” smacked of all that was hostile to Israel, all that they (since the days of Joshua) were supposed to root out and steer clear of if they were to be faithful to God. But here even a Canaanite becomes a beloved character in a story about the Messiah. Certainly for us, and maybe even for Jesus, she becomes an instrument of teaching by reminding us that in the end, the love of God needs to be available to all people.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in the Greek of this pericope, after verse 21 Jesus’ name does not occur until verse 28. Until then, Jesus is referred to only as “he” or “him.” He said . . . . He answered. But then in verse 28, when he extends love to this woman, suddenly the text says again, “Then Jesus answered.” It’s almost as if Matthew is saying that when the words of love and inclusion come into this story, that’s Jesus talking! Now we are hearing from the true Lord Jesus Christ! Maybe at first Jesus had been mouthing the conventional wisdom of his day–and maybe at first even he thought his ministry needed to fit into that somehow–but when the woman’s faith is approved of and healing is granted to her daughter, that’s finally Jesus talking for sure!
Some years ago when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became the now retired Pope Benedict XVI ignited a firestorm of discussion when he issued the declaration Dominus Iesus or “The Lord Jesus.” This document, which received the endorsement of Pope John Paul II, re-affirmed the doctrine that salvation comes only through Jesus. That central thesis did not receive much press, however. Instead the section which grabbed the attention of so many was the part which dealt with the Church. If only Jesus saves, where can you meet this Savior? Jesus is encountered through the Church, which proclaims the gospel. But to the great disgruntlement of many, Ratzinger refused to call any group outside Roman Catholicism a “church,” opting instead to call non-Catholic denominations only “ecclesial communities.”
There’s just one true Church, Ratzinger claimed, and it’s the one headed up by the pope in Rome. Other groups of Christians “are not Churches in the proper sense.” The closer you are to Rome and to the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church,” the closer you are to the true Body of Christ. The farther you are from all things Roman Catholic, the farther you are from being in any sense a “church.”
Well, this angered many people, including a good many Roman Catholics. My guess is that it set a lot of people off. No one who attends the “First Baptist Church” of Wichita wants to be told that the name has to be changed to “First Baptist Ecclesial Community” of Wichita on account of not being a true church after all!
Insiders and outsiders. Who’s in, who’s out? Unhappily, it is religion that has long been associated with making such distinctions. Historically, religious distinctions have led to a tragic amount of conflict. Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims versus Christians in the Crusades, Christians versus Jews in the Inquisition–on and on the list goes. Lines get drawn, in the name of God walls are built up ever higher, and as a result the idea that religion is mostly about love gets ever more difficult for some people to believe.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2020
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 Commentary