I preached a sermon last week on the story in the Gospel of Matthew about Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman—an aboriginal woman, who asks for her daughter to be healed and will not take ‘No’ for an answer. (Gospel of Matthew, 15. 21 – 31.)
Here are some of the basic elements to what I had to say about this really confronting passage.
The story is a challenge to see, to see who Jesus is.
Here, Jesus is a teacher, a person engaged in conversation with this Canaanite woman: and she who was more than any other person pushed to the fringes, silenced even more than those mute people, blotted out even more than the maimed and the blind, she is placed centre stage and she is allowed to speak.
Feisty, she is, according to many of the commentaries. She won’t be brushed off by the minders. And Jesus himself seems to give her a rejection such as we may find hard to take. He sounds like a typical male political leader: ‘This is not my concern, don’t ask me to deal with that. I’m not responsible for this situation.’
‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ he says.
This sounds like the kind of nationalistic protectionism that would have filled the media, the teachings of the dominant classes. We have to look after our own people, keep the home base strong and secure. I have come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Then she has another go, kneeling —and no doubt with the tears as well— Lord help me. And this time Jesus is even more tough: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
What do you think is happening here? Some think Jesus is pushing the woman, by spouting the common statements, to see how she handles them, to draw her out, to show what he already knows is in her, and what he already knows he will do for her.
If so, it looks to me as if he is playing with her feelings and her anguish. Even manipulating her, to prove his own point.
I don’t think so. But the alternative is, he is saying what all the people think, and maybe what he has been taught, and asking her: yes inviting her to suggest another way, to show him, so that together they can discover the way forward.
This story suggests that in relationship with others, in sharing struggles and facing difficulties together, Jesus is willing to learn, to discover things, to find out what God wills and how God’s way will lead him, and them, forward.
This is a challenging view of Jesus: and when the woman replies that even the dogs are allowed to eat from the crumbs that fall from the masters table, she is really taking it up to him, to the older ways of thinking: and this is the heart of it, the gospel within the gospel. This is what Matthew wants us to see: this attitude, this feisty woman and her bolshy confrontation, is what Jesus calls faith. Matthew’s gospel is full of a theme, of ‘little faith’, but this person, this aboriginal woman is presented as one of great faith.
What is it that she and Jesus discover and open out together? Well, it all has to do with the question raised by this woman and her very existence: who are the people of God? Who are the people God wills to love, to save, to welcome, to provide for? Who are the people of God, the people of the God of Israel? And so which people belong to the household, the family, the people of Israel?
Who are God’s people?
The ancient story set some in and some out. Race decided it.
Matthew’s story says all are, none are out. Grace has decided it.
This story sits right at the heart of a gospel which begins with the angels declaring ‘Emmanuel’: and a genealogy of the ancient Hebrews which includes four women, all fringe dwellers, three of them gentiles, foreigners, and shady ladies. That was the clue to how it would all pan out: and this story goes on till at the end Jesus declares that his message will go into all the world, with the assurance that he is with them, yes wherever they go, they have cosmic companionship.
And so Matthew presents these stories, of the aboriginal woman, and the healing of her daughter, and her great faith, and then the healing of the blind, mute, lame and maimed, all to declare the way of the God of Israel.
Matthew shows, as Jesus grows and learns and demonstrates: all are in, none are out. Grace has decided it.
This is ‘the God of Israel’ (v.31). Even if the leaders of the people have forgotten it, or not seen it. And Matthew’s reason for telling this story was precisely that in his own time, and with his own people, they too were in danger of forgetting it. Pride of race, pride of grace even, can make a church exclusive, and think that it has no more to learn. They were in danger of excluding people who were different. So Matthew sets before them this confronting woman, this learning developing Jesus, who now goes on to challenge them more, with his suffering, his call to discipleship, with the poor, the needy, the rejected. These are his people, the people with whom he finds faith, the people of ‘the God of Israel’.
This aboriginal woman had the courage to challenge that nationalistic religion, and assert her faith, even her need, her vision of God.
Jesus had the courage to listen to her, to think with her and to learn with her, about the way of God.
Matthew’s church had the courage to tell this story, even against themselves, and to face the constant need to learn, to grow, to become something new, in cosmic companionship.
And so, what of us? Is our Jesus up there on a pedestal, unable to relate, genuinely, knowing it all, but not really with us? Or are we able in fact to relate with Jesus, to learn with Jesus, and to allow ourselves to grow, to change, to discover in new ways the presence of God, and the people of God, in the most surprising places?