This sermon was preached on Sunday August 20th (10th after Trinity) by Rev Canon Debby Plummer.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:10–28
Isn’t that an embarrassing story about Jesus? OK, the woman’s daughter is healed by the end – but it doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love. It seems to include a couple of the hard sayings of Jesus. Things we wish he hadn’t said.
In fact it is exactly the opposite. I am grateful to Kenneth Bailey’s Book “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” for what I am about to say. Christine Hardy has a copy! He spends a whole chapter on this encounter.
Jesus is spending time away from the Galilee down by the coast near Tyre and Sidon. The people there may not even speak Aramaic but we can assume that like most Mediterranean people, Jesus spoke everyday Greek and this Gentile woman and he would have had some language in common.
He is with his disciples and every encounter is an opportunity to train them up for the kingdom ministry. So the conversation doesn’t take place in private. There will have been a crowd too – there always is with Jesus. And people come with their inbuilt attitudes and their prejudices as well as their expectations and hopes. And this unnamed local woman turns up because she is at her wits’ end. Her daughter is mentally ill or demon-possessed. The mother is distressed and exhausted.
The first thing she shouts could be a beggar’s cry “Have mercy on me” but she uses a title for Jesus that means she knows about Jewish belief and believes he is the Messiah – Lord, Son of David. So Jesus knows she has faith in him. And he is impressed straight away. But the crowd are mostly anti-Gentile or anti-Jew and the disciples are typical men who are prejudiced against women and Gentiles. They will have grown up with the prayer “Lord I thank you that you did not make me a Gentile, a slave or a woman”. Everyone watches to see what Jesus will do.
He stays silent but he is not ignoring her. The disciples say “send her away” because that is what they are programmed to do. Jesus begins to treat the woman as a disciple – he gives the woman a tough test, you could even call it an exam! He answers her “ I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. She could have felt humiliated and got angry, spun on her heel and left. Instead she kneels humbly and says “Lord, help me”. She has passed the first test! Jesus replies ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But he doesn’t use the word for street dogs or guard dogs, who are loathed by Jews. He uses the gentle word that means little dogs, puppy-dogs or lapdogs. She could retaliate – but there is in her such faith that she senses that Jesus cares about her and maybe even intuits that this is a test. She replies ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ All she needs from Jesus is a crumb from his table and that will be enough. And he is delighted with her faith and says, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. And I believe she was too – of her stress and distress over her daughter’s condition.
We do not know her name – but we know that she passed Jesus’ test with flying colours!! So great was her faith in Jesus and her perseverance and her humility and her love for her daughter. So she is one of the saints even though we don’t know anything about her except this lovely story. And there she is in an icon in Edwina Gateley and Robert Lentz’ book “Christ in the Margins”. Look at the icon. She looks so foreign…. but she is regarded as a great believer.
But I believe this conversation changed the attitudes of the other people present too. This would have broken down the prejudices of the disciples and other hearers. By halfway through the conversation the disciples would be embarrassed by the normal natural way women were treated by men. They would want the best for this woman. When she and her daughter are healed they rejoice with Jesus. They have changed. Their minds have altered. The word for this is ‘metanoia’ – it means conversion. Women could be taken seriously as disciples. Gentiles could be taken seriously as disciples provided they believed in Jesus and that he was God’s chosen one the Messiah.
Jesus included women in his travelling company and had deep friendships with women like Mary and Martha. And within a few years St Paul would be trained by Priscilla and Aquila and writing greetings to women in leadership in the early church – like Phoebe a deacon, and Junia an apostle.
And in 2000 years of Christian history people of every nation and every culture have accepted Jesus as Lord and Messiah, Son of God. Today we have brothers and sisters all over the world. We are all equally loved and valued by God but we often clash culturally. History has seen us split more easily than we unite. We fall into “US and THEM” mode. And sometimes it is 2 steps forward and one step back. The two prejudices that today’s gospel story exposed – racism and sexism – have dogged Christianity …..
Yet it remains true that what Isaiah prophesied … God said “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” is our aim.
And still we do move on. Since I retired women have become bishops and the new Archdeacon of Manchester was once a young mum in my Mother and Toddler group in Northolt!
How does this story affect us? Do we still have “US and THEM” issues? To find out, use your skills with Lectio Divina or Ignatian meditation. Get inside the story. Be the woman … what do you discover about yourself? Become one of Jesus’ disciples … what do you discover now about yourself? When we know ourselves a little better, what can we do to make a difference in the church and the world?
Pray. For people like US – peacemakers, …..and for THEM – people we cannot easily like or empathise with (this week for me Donald Trump, the Ku Klux Klan, the killer in Barcelona. For those who suffer and those who relieve their suffering …. And for those who cause it ….. For people who look like us …. And for those who are different in any way. For those who are friendly towards us … and those who are difficult and scratchy but make us look at ourselves with God’s eyes.
Talk. Don’t just talk about the things we all agree about. There are always elephants in the room. Grow the courage to dialogue and listen respectfully to other points of view.
Be like the woman in the gospel. Cultivate faith in Jesus and perseverance and humility and love not just for close family– but for all you bring to the Lord in prayer. And maybe you will pass Jesus’ test with flying colours too! Amen.