Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus’ meeting the Canaanite Woman is considered one of the most difficult of all the stories recorded of the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ response and retort at the woman request, a woman who had came to plead on behalf of a daughter who was suffering from demon-possession, seems so out of character for one who’s compassion is for all and extends particularly to those pushed to the margin of society.
It might be helpful to remember that Matthew is writing mainly for a Jewish readership and I think we must weight heavy on personal motives for including the words, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ in this text. There is a very similar story recorded by Mark Chapter 7 (24-30), but in Mark’s Gospel the story is addressed to a woman of Greek origin.
Every commentary I referred to, in preparing this sermon, made heavy going that this is the only time Jesus travelled outside the Jewish territories. That Jesus was driven there to escape the wroth of the Jewish Authorities as the result of their criticism of his teaching and breaking with ritual traditions.
But if we read this passage again paying close attention to who says what and to whom; it is the disciples’ prejudice that is being exposed here. Jesus is silent!
Jesus did not answer a word. So the disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
And it is to the disciples, not to the woman that Jesus replies “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The text confirms this as it continues, ‘The women comes and kneels before him.’
How many of us have responded with the same prejudice expressed by the disciples? How many times have you wanted to reject and dismiss those who are outside the membership of the church? How often has our hearts hardened against those who would otherwise not give the church a second glance but in their time of need seek to reach out and latch-onto Jesus?
We must never forget that Jesus came to dwell among God’s people in order to teach and reveal the love of God, our Heavenly Father.
Jesus, better then anyone, knew that our need of God is universal, that the church, like the Jewish Nation is to be a light through which God’s love is revealed; not a barrier.
More then anything, the church’s role is to awaken faith beyond God’s chosen people; to welcome all who seek, not just a chosen few.
Placing this text in its context, Jesus, so to speak, had been run out of town because he had broken with tradition and the Law of Moses. I can not believe for a moment that Jesus is sitting there and sulking with a sense of rejection when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Mark’s Gospel records Jesus’ as saying, ‘Let the children first be fed’. Here Jesus explicitly implies a salvation history first for the Jews but included the Gentiles, and the woman picked up this imagery in Jesus’ words.
I believe Jesus looked into the very heart of the Canaanite woman. He knew the depth of her compassion, of the love she held for her daughter, and also the depth of her faith for she called Jesus ‘Lord’ using the same Greek word used by the disciples when they acknowledged Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God’.
I also believe Jesus is using this opportunity to teach: to teach and open the eyes of his disciple and to teach us too by taking our prejudices and turning them onto ourselves.
The common association of the expression ‘dog’ was that of a scavenger, unclean animals always fighting among themselves for whatever scrap is thrown at their feet. The Jews often used the term ‘Gentile Dog’ or ‘Infidel Dog’ as a way of insult and later added ‘Christian Dog’ to refer to those who walked the ‘Way of the Cross’.
But when Jesus used the term and looked into the woman’s eyes she knew these words were not from his heart for Matthew records her amazing words in reply, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This was no second-class faith and Jesus response was no second-class healing. “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
Jesus is telling us that we need to examine our hearts for those times when we offered only scraps to those, with a fragile faith, who came in search of God
To examine our hearts for those times when we are too ready to criticise the faith of our neighbour as being second-class.
Only Jesus is able to judge, – and as he judges others so too he will judge each one of us.
We are all God’s children, there is a place for each one of us at His banquet table. No one need eat the crumbs that fall to the floor. There is room enough for all if we but create space in our closed hearts and welcome others in.