Lent 2, 2019
The Epistle - 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
The Holy Gospel – St. Mathew 15:21-28
You know it kind of goes without saying that we live in a time of political intensity. Fighting amongst both sides over various complex issues. One of those that is certainly at the forefront in our day is race. So it’s interesting, perhaps troubling would be a better word, for us to hear the words of the Gospel this morning from Matthew. I’ll just say it: In this passage Jesus appears to be racist. Can you imagine the reaction? If a president or other governmental leader were to send somebody away, looking for help, saying that it’s not right to give the bread to the dogs?! Not only does he not seem to want to help her, but he calls her a dog, a pejorative ethnic term
So just what exactly are we to make of this? Is Jesus a bigot? Well, as usually happens with Jesus, you have to dig deeper, in order to really understand what’s going on, you have to dig, and you always end up amazed at what you find. It’s unfortunate that people don’t do this, both inside the church and outside of it. We caricature and misrepresent Jesus and the teachings of the Scriptures for our own ends. Jesus says a lot of things that on the surface are incendiary and provocative, but he’s trying to draw us into a deeper reality, and it’s really important that we do this, especially in the case of our gospel passage this morning. Because what we find underneath is the central biblical narrative of God’s plan of redemption for the world.
And simply put it’s this: God chose Israel to save the world. In the beginning God created everything and it was good. But then sin entered in and man chose to disobey his creator. God, however, in his mercy, did not give up on his creation. He had a plan, and this plan was to make a people for himself and enter into relationship, enter into a covenant with them. He did this in Abraham, back in Genesis. God essentially says to him, “I will be your God, and you and your offspring with be my people.” “I will bless you and your seed, and through your seed, all nations, all ethnic groups, all peoples will be blessed.” Israel was supposed to be a light to the world by her faithfulness and obedience to God, she was to bring others in and extend the blessing of God out into the world. In this sense, Israel has always had a very special place in God’s plan. Unfortunately, however, Israel constantly failed, and actually it turns out that they started to do the opposite. They had begun to look inward on themselves, and tried to block Gentiles from coming in. They who were supposed to usher out God’s blessing, actually hindered it.
So with this, God’s plan in mind, let us now take a look at our Gospel reading this morning. Matthew lets us know that the woman who comes to Jesus is outside of Israel, she is, a foreigner. Not only is she a foreigner, but Matthew says that she was a Canaanite. This is intentional and incendiary on his part. This was a loaded ethnic term that was not in use in the first century. If you’ll remember, the Canaanites were the people that God drove out so that Israel could possess the promised land. They were also, often times, a very constant and dangerous threat to the purity of Israel in the Old Testament narrative. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the Canaanites were perhaps Israel’s worst enemy.
Ok so this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, begging him to help her daughter, who was oppressed with a demon. At first, Jesus doesn’t even respond. Then when he finally does, at the pleading of his disciples who want Jesus to tell her to take a hike, Jesus responds and says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is an unexpected response from the Jesus we’ve come to know and love, it seems dismissive and exclusive. But in this response, we, and the disciples are supposed to understand with more clarity and precision the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ mission was indeed to Israel. He was sent first for his people, and the disciples and Israel needed to know that. They needed to know that the long awaited Messiah, who would return to save and vindicate his people had arrived, that their God was acting, that his promises to his people were now being fulfilled, that the kingdom for which they were waiting, was arriving, and all of this in the person of Jesus.
Ok so they needed to know this, but it still strikes us as exclusive, what about everybody else? We see that Jesus and his ministry is actually inclusive, if we understand correctly that nature of Israel’s election, the nature of God’s plan for the world that I spoke of earlier. God elected Israel, he chose her, but not for herself, but rather for the whole world. Remember that? “Abraham, through you and your seed, all nations will be blessed.” Jesus has now come to gather Israel and will be in himself the Israel that Israel could not be, he will bring all nations into himself, thus fulfilling the divine mission.
So that’s Jesus’ first response, and his second, at least on the surface, is even more unexpected than the first. After his first response, the Canaanite woman persists, saying “Lord, help me.” And he answered and said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” I think there are a few different things going on here. In a way, I think that he is testing her, testing her faith, but he’s also using the situation and interaction as a moment of teaching and catechesis, for us the readers, but also for his disciples, who are still and will continue to fumble about in ignorance, not know what’s going on, even though they are so close to Jesus.
What then is Jesus trying to teach? Well I believe that it is wrapped up in her response, which is why he praises her, and why he is intentionally drawing this out of her. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This response is absolutely brilliant. We might be tempted to take this as a meek, timid answer, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the opposite: it’s a fiesty, in your face, refusal to accept what Jesus is saying. She turns this around on Jesus, and uses his own analogy against him. And her answer encapsulates this notion of divine election that we’ve been speaking of: Israel’s election for the sake of others. Even the dogs eat the leftovers. Meaning, evening the shameful, the lowly, the ones whom society rejects, even the most dishonorable will be blessed by the great feast. And remember all of this from a Canaanite woman, the point couldn’t be more clear: Now, in Jesus, God is on the move, the whole world, even the Canaanites and the outcasts and the rejected ones will benefit from the blessing of the great banquet table.
I can almost see Jesus, smiling, as he praises her faith, “O woman, great is your faith!” He knew that she knew, and was drawing it out of her. Nowhere else in Matthew is the adjective “great” used to qualify faith. But this Canaanite woman gets it. She understands God’s plan to bless the world.
In fact I believe that the entirety of Matthew chapter 15 is structured in such a way to make this point. First Jesus argues with the Pharisees, who have distorted the law of God, something that was supposed to bless others, and have turned it into something for their own personal gain, Jesus then goes on to explain, that it’s not about the ritual, it’s not about being Jewish, it’s about your heart, and what flows out of it. Then we read about the faith of the Canaanite woman, and her deep understanding of God’s purpose, and then the chapter closes with Jesus healing many and feeding the four thousand, all in a Gentile context. The blessing of God, which the Jewish people were trying to hold on to, is going out to the whole world.
So in Matthew chapter 15 our takeaway is found in the Canaanite woman, in her actions and in her faith. She articulates the purpose of Israel’s election. That they would be blessed to be a blessing. As God’s new covenantal people, all those who by faith, through baptism have been incorporated into Christ’s body, this same principle remains. God’s people have been redefined in Christ, but we have the same mission: to be a light to lighten the nations, to extend the blessing that we have received out into the world. It’s fitting that we read this story as we commemorate St. Patrick, who understood this, which is what energized and empowered him to embark on the mission that he did. He showed love to those outside, even potential enemies, and through this love and his faithfulness, many hearts were converted.
Perhaps this is difficult for us, I think it’s more difficult than we care to admit. That the church in many ways has become like the Jewish religious elite in the first century. We have failed to extend God’s blessing to others, we have rather turned our faith into a way in which we can keep others outside and feel good about the fact that we are inside. Think of the people that you don’t like, those who rub you the wrong way, those who you see as impure and sinful...our God and his redemption is for them too. We must remember what the Canaanite woman understood, that even the dogs, even the most unworthy will be blessed by the banquet. We have to find our place in this story, remembering that we are called to faithfulness, to prayer, and to extend love to all people, praying that God would continue to convert hearts in our midst.