Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2023

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 Commentary

By going to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus enters a borderland—where the people of Israel give way to a more Canaanite population. Considering closely what the woman says throughout this pericope, it’s clear that she knows some things about Judaism, and she’s come to believe some things about Jesus. This borderland, this place of dialogue between two disparate groups (Jewish man, Canaanite woman), leads to rather terrific insights with cascading benefits.

In fact, even Jesus himself appears to reach a rather significant insight in this interaction—something that troubles some of our systematic theologies’ definitions about God’s unchangeableness. For some reason, many of us feel unnerved talking about Jesus the Christ learning something. But what could be more human than that? Most of us don’t have too much difficulty considering that young Jesus learned things in the synagogue, but adult Jesus? And then there’s the fact that he learns it from an outsider!

So what is it that Jesus learns from this suffering woman? To understand the significance of the aha! moment, we have to understand the foundational vision that Jesus has expressed for his own mission on earth up until this point. As the woman continues to shout (the verb is in the imperfect, implying continuous action), the disciples ask Jesus to do something that will end with her going away. (The verb they use is ambiguous and relates to being freed from situations of suffering or legality as well as physically being sent away.) Jesus replies with his sense of personal purpose: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (v 24)

If you’ve been following the gospel lectionary this summer, then this phrase should ring a bell to you: it is who Jesus told the disciples to go on a mission of compassion for in Matthew 10.6. Canaanites are not Israelites. This woman is not of the fold.

Or is she? Here in the borderland of people who clearly identify as the people of Israel and those who do not, here is a woman who does not fit one identity marker, but is in need of compassion and has come looking for Jesus. She believes in Jesus, the Son of David; at the least, she believes that he can help her and her daughter. She persists in her belief even though belonging is defined against her. She does this in at least two ways.

First, even as Jesus speaks aloud his boundary line, we see it begin to morph because the woman “came and knelt before him.” “Knelt” is Matthew’s code word for “worshipped.” Matthew uses this combination of “came and knelt” to describe what the synagogue leader (Jairus) did as he petitioned Jesus to save his dying daughter (9.18). It is what the leper does in Matthew 8.2. And last week, the disciples in the boat worshipped (the same word as “knelt”) Jesus as the winds stopped and Jesus joined them in the boat.

It seems to me that this act of coming and humbly worshipping touches something within Jesus’s heart, soul, and mind—both about himself and about this woman. This woman knows him and is persistently following his voice through the crowd, she believes in him: is her worship enough to show Jesus that she and her daughter belong to him?

Here in the borderland, the “lost sheep of Israel” is beginning to have fuzzy edges. In John 10 Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who gathers his sheep from many folds. He says that he knows his own sheep and that they know him—that he is committed to bringing all of these sheep and that they listen to his voice. Could it be possible that experiences like these informed Jesus’s own understanding of the compassionate and ever-growing mission of God for the world? This story is a foreshadowing of Jesus’s sense of mission growing to include the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew.

Secondly, the woman makes a significant—and rather brave—theological point in her conversation with Jesus. After worshipping him and calling upon his mercy yet again, Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be fair, using a rather uncomfortable cultural reference to prove the point about the boundary line between the people of Israel and Canaanites: Jesus likens her to a little dog when he has children to feed. The woman loses no persistence or nerve, and one has to wonder if it isn’t the Holy Spirit giving her the words to say in her moment of trial. She essentially says to him, “Yes, AND with God there’s always an overflow to the blessing.” Even if they had a prestigious place at the table, the eschatological hope of the people of Israel included the belief that God’s overflowing goodness would bless the other people of the world as well. Our woman knows her neighbour’s theology!

Does her reminder help Jesus realize that his calling is already all-encompassing of people of every nation and tribe? If nothing else, it affirms for him that there are people who have great faith that do not carry the identity of Israel in their veins. He describes her faith as incredible, great! I dare even say that this woman’s faith blesses Jesus and helps him understand something essential about himself as he fulfills the will of his Father through the insightful presence of the Holy Spirit at work in him and around him. We have all gained from Jesus’s growth.

Textual Point

The choice the lectionary gives in suggesting the addition of verses 10-20 in chapter fifteen is a decision that might help you pinpoint your homiletical point. Jesus says that our “defilement” (which is about being clean or unclean according to the cultic laws) is more about what comes out of our mouths than what we put in them. He says that this is because what comes out of our mouths reveals what is in our hearts. What the woman says to him reveals to Jesus that she has a heart full of incredible faith. And what Jesus says reveals an ever-expanding sense of his own mission: a heart set on not only blessing the lost sheep of Israel, but of every one of the lost sheep—no matter who’s fold they initially belonged to!

Illustration Idea

Mothers are a well-known advocacy constituency—especially when events or policies impact their children. Even in the case of our story today, where we aren’t sure how old the daughter is, we see a mother who cares about her child—adult or not. We also see a mother who is suffering for refusing to abandon her child; “Have mercy on me” she cries. Mothers are often the frontlines of those who suffer because of their love and commitment to caring for their unwell children. There is much to admire about this woman’s persistence as well as her honesty. In her poem, “Stubborn Blessing,” Jan Richardson describes our woman’s “hollering” this way: “I am saying / you can close the door / but I will keep knocking. / You can go silent / but I will keep shouting. / You can tighten the circle / but I will trace a bigger one / around you, / around the life of my child / who will tell you / no one surpasses a mother / for stubbornness.” Richardson’s poem also includes a lovely stanza about the abundance of the crumbs, so be sure to read it in full for some other ideas!


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