Matthew 15: 21-28
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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." 23 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." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Here we are, having spent roughly a year together, a year that has included baptisms, confirmations, funerals and one famously broken water pipe. However, it seems to me that, during this year, there has been no more difficult a task than trying to squeeze a childrens’ sermon out of the gospel reading we just heard. Indeed, if the movie-rating system were around during Jesus’ day, this reading would probably merit a PG-13 rating. This simply put, is not the stuff of Sunday school curriculums. So then, let’s get right to it, shall we? Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, take one: Jesus and the disciples are in Tyre and Sidon, that is, Gentile territory, the territory of the impure and the unwashed. As if that weren’t bad enough, a non-Jewish woman comes shouting after Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. The disciples, though not exactly all-stars at keeping the law, know well enough to try and keep this woman from Jesus, men and women don’t exactly talk openly in public, after all. All good and well, thus far. Up to this point, the scene feels familiar. We have seen Jesus break all sorts of social boundaries, including those that would separate Jewish from Gentile, male from female. None of this appears all that novel. Then, things take a turn for the scandalous. Jesus rebukes not the demon who has possessed this woman’s daughter, but this woman herself, saying that the ones to whom he was sent do not exactly include her. So, she tries again, and it is only after being insulted by Jesus and sticking with it nonetheless that this woman gets what she wants, and more. And end scene.
The questions, here, far outpace the answers that are immediately present, and like one of my seminary professors said about the prophet Jeremiah, if hearing Jesus portrayed in this way does not make you uncomfortable, odds are you are not paying attention. And that is perhaps what is so frustrating about the text; we are given absolutely no justification for Jesus’ behavior which does not exactly strike us as inviting. It is not as though Matthew tells us that Jesus had a massive headache, or that he had just gotten into a fight with one of the disciples, or even that he was simply having an off day, even the Messiah should be allowed as much. What we are given, instead, is a Jesus who insults a woman and appears to be manipulated into healing her daughter. Anyone uncomfortable, yet?
But it is, I think, precisely that discomfort that can lead us to joy and consolation in the face of this story. For let’s reset the scene, this time from a wider perspective. Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, take two. First of all, the question needs to be asked, if Jesus is not interested in attending to the Gentiles, at least not yet, what exactly is he doing in Gentile territory? Also, while we are at it, why, then, has he healed the men of Gerasene, that is Gentile men, of their demon possession, and further more, what about the soldier’s son? All three Gentiles, all three cured. Also, how exactly is it that this woman, this woman who refuses to take no for an answer, understands who Jesus is well before the disciples will get to this point? How is it that a Gentile, not one of the lost sheep of Israel, sees and understands that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah? She, after all, calls him “Son of David” and “Lord.” All of which is to suggest that she knows Jesus to be the Son of the living God, while the disciples, who now consider themselves to be part of Jesus’ inner circle, part of the privileged few, are yet to come to this understanding in a lasting way. In short, she, this gentile, this outsider, this, to quote a phrase, “dog,” understands who Jesus is, and this, perhaps, is the way the story turns.
For in understanding who Jesus is, that he is in fact the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Christ, she embodies a radical reversal to which Jesus himself has given voice. Spiritual purity is not a matter of what you eat Jesus has just told the disciples, but rather a matter of who you are as a person, and if you think that eating your way into purity is somehow not a contemporary issue, I would ask to take a stroll through the magazine aisle at Whole Foods sometime. Regardless, though, the point is that what Jesus has just said, has said about righteousness being a matter of the heart, and not a matter of belonging to an ethnic group, a political party, a particular tax bracket is embodied in this woman. This woman cannot approach Jesus with anything but her desperation and her faith that he is capable of doing something about her situation. She comes to him knowing that she is an outsider in basically every conceivable way, but this does not stop her, for she knows this fact desperately, that Jesus is the Messiah of God.
And while we are not given the answer as to why Jesus treats her as he does, this question we must leave unanswered, painful though that may be, what we are given is a commendation of faith, in its most raw, most honest form. What we are invited to see in this story is not some speculation on whether Jesus was some sort of racist or given to the occasional fit of grumpiness. Rather, what we are invited to see is the singularity of his purpose, of his mission, and that is creating faith in him as the Savior, as the Messiah, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. The twist, then, is that the woman catches on a bit quicker than was expected. While the disciples continue to fumble around and the religious authorities continue to despise and reject, the woman sees Jesus for exactly who he is: and she will not let him forget it. That, dear people, is why he calls her faith great, for ironically enough, in the great Jewish tradition, one that includes Abraham, Jacob and the psalmists to name but a few, this outsider has faith to argue with God, to get into a bit with him, to, in a sense, remind this Jesus of who he is. Great faith, indeed.
And when you get right down to it, what is true of this sainted woman is true of us. When it comes to the divine, no matter if we have been Christians since birth, have wandered in and out of the faith for years, or have just now decided to come to the church, we are all, in a sense, outsiders. We are all utterly dependent on the mercy of God, or in the last recorded words of Martin Luther, “we are all beggars, it is true.” And this is not cause for desperation, but rather a source of deep and abiding peace. For to admit that we are outsiders is to hurl ourselves finally on the one place where certainty may be found, Jesus the Christ, and to know that he has accepted you and made you his own, and has given you the strength and kindness to welcome all those who cry desperately for a word of hope or a bit of peace. And it is with this knowledge that you may enter into this unknown woman’s boldness of faith. In your baptisms, Christ made you his own and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, gave you everything that he shares with the Father. And in so doing, he gave to you the right to pester him as much as you please. Indeed, he gave you the right argue and berate, to take all that troubles you and, just as this woman of great faith, to shout after him until a response is given. I do not know how long that will take or how deep the silence will be until an answer emerges. But I do know this: the boldness of faith you were given, indeed the boldness that Christ asks of you, will not take no for answer. In Jesus’ name, amen.