A sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28
Taken on its own this passage seems clear enough, but yet something doesn’t quite ring true in my mind. Unless there is something more to it I see a contradiction here between the Jesus I believe in, who was all about reconciling sinners to himself, who proclaimed loving one’s neighbor as oneself as second only to loving God with all of one’s heart, mind and soul and the Jesus depicted here, one who seems harsh, insensitive, prejudiced and rude, someone I would tend to shy away from rather than trust with my very soul. Hmm – when it comes to acceptance of those who differ from society’s norms this latter Jesus sounds like some of the Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and cultists in the news lately.
Recalling sermons and teachings I have heard on this passage over the years in several Churches or have seen in several Bible Commentaries I note that it isn’t uncommon to hear things like “Jesus was testing the woman’s faith” or that “Jesus really didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter but it was her perseverance that won out in the end”. I believe there is an element of truth to these interpretations. To be sure, being sure of one’s faith and persevering in the face of opposition are absolutely necessary attributes for anyone who takes being a Christian seriously. Still, I can’t help thinking there is more to this than that, especially since we Christians have been called to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to love our neighbors as ourselves and we are told that all peoples and nations will bow before Him. Let’s take a closer look.
Here we have Jesus and the disciples trying to get away from the crowds for some well-deserved rest. Please note, Christian ministry can be grueling at times and those who participate in it do need a break once in a while. But now, breaking the calm that they sought, here comes this pesky woman messing up their plans. We hear the disciples fussing about her, saying stuff like she’s an inconvenience to us, get rid of her! She’s not one of us, she isn’t of our culture, she doesn’t live by our rules and besides that it’s not our job because we’re sent to the Jews only. Then after being silent and seeming to agree with the disciples Jesus takes up the same theme. Many of the commentators also seem to agree that she wasn’t one to whom Jesus was called to minister and many believe Jesus was justified in saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” either to try and dissuade her or as a test of her faith. In many cases they say this was to be a lesson to her and to us about perseverance yet here is where I think the real truth lies.
We know from other passages that Jesus knows the hearts of all persons – In Luke 19 we learn that He knew Zaccheus the Tax Collector longed to see him and was up in the tree waiting for Him to pass by. Jesus knew well enough in advance of the encounter to have already made dinner plans at Zac’s house! In another passage Jesus knew that virtue went out of him when the woman with the bloody flux came and touched the hem of His Garment and was healed. In several other passages Jesus always seems to know just what the disciples are whispering or thinking about and often calls them on it – so to say the Jesus had to test this woman’s faith is a very weak argument. Jesus, being the son of God, always knows the minds and hearts of those around him. Jesus knew she was coming and what she needed before she got there and He knew her heart.
In Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary (1706) the notes on this passage start out this way: “The dark corners of the country, the most remote, shall share Christ's influences; afterwards the ends of the earth shall see his salvation. The distress and trouble of her family brought a woman to Christ; and though it is need that drives us to Christ, yet we shall not therefore be driven from him. She did not limit Christ to any particular instance of mercy, but mercy, mercy, is what she begged for: she pleads not merit, but depends upon mercy…” and he closes with “…From hence let such as seek help from the Lord, and receive no gracious answer, learn to turn even their unworthiness and discouragements into pleas for mercy. ”
This woman came humbly to Jesus in faith seeking mercy, showing a depth of knowledge about who He really was – she even called him “Lord, Son of David” proving that she wasn’t just seeking any old magician or spiritual healer – she knew her place. What she did by being persistent was turn the prejudice of that day back around on the disciples who wanted to get rid of her. This gave Jesus the opportunity to make an object lesson of the religious prejudice of the day by voicing what the woman knew to be prejudice to anyone who happened to be in earshot – and especially the disciples who had succumbed to that religious rhetoric much like well-meaning religious people today fall on the same old foolishness regarding Gay, Lesbian and Transgender people.
Have you ever been bantering with someone and said something that to a casual observer would seem outrageous, mean-spirited or prejudiced knowing that the one you were bantering with would get the joke? Sometimes when I am bantering with another transgender person I parrot the prejudice shown to them or myself in some situation and we understand that it isn’t prejudice on my part but an acknowledging of what one has had to endure. Words in print alone fail to convey the full truth of a situation like that but I think this is what Jesus was doing with that faithful woman as she was coming to Him seeking mercy for her daughter’s desperate need. Yet to us it is another example of not judging things by mere appearances – even the Scriptures!
I think Jesus was simply acknowledging that this woman was, by faith, enduring prejudice on the part of His disciples, knowing full well that he was going to heal the daughter and by doing so He would be chiding them for their lack of faith and compassion in the process. It was the disciples who had again forgotten who Jesus really was, coming as this event did on the heels of loaves and fishes, and Peter walking on water and then sinking in the previous chapter. I can hear echoes of Jesus words to Peter in the previous chapter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
This is far more in character with the Jesus I believe in than if it were meant to be a test or a lesson to the woman. I can imagine that when Jesus said those harsh words to her that there was a twinkle in His eye or maybe a wink or a nod to her indicating that He knew what was up. The reality is that God isn’t going to reject anyone who turns to him in faith seeking only mercy and that is the only qualification.
Anyone who comes to God by faith is welcomed into the family of God. By faith this woman was already counted as one of the House of Israel. We know from Scripture that “the house of Israel” includes more than just Jews born that way even though it seems that the ultra-religious ones looked down on anyone who wasn’t just like them. Look at Isaiah 56:3-8
3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
4 For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”
I know I am beginning to repeat myself but this is of life-changing importance for everyone to grasp. The lesson today, especially for those who are faced with the prejudice of religious people is that God already knows our hearts, our crises and our anguish and when we come to Him by faith He accepts us. He sees us when we are far off and He rushes out to meet us and draws us into the fold. He cares not one whit for what the religious people say or what the bigots and ignorant people say. Just as we are regardless of what those others say about us, even if it happens to be more of Jesus’ disciples trying to get us to go away because they see us as inconvenient, we can persist and succeed if what we seek is God’s mercy. For we are all humans who have fallen short of His Glory – this is the lot of every living soul – and His mercy is freely given to all along with the grace necessary to arise renewed.
May The God of Heaven and Earth richly bless you all.