Tenth Sunday after Trinity, Year A
Sermon at 10am
20th August 2017

Ian Leitch

Readings: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28

A Dog’s Breakfast
When you feel in need of Divine help, do you sometimes hesitate because of the choir of voices in your head singing, “Why am I bothering God with a petty thing like this?”, or “Who am I to ask this of God?” or “Do I really believe God will help me here?”. I suspect that many of us experience such an internal chorus from time to time. In our extraordinary Gospel reading this morning Jesus encounters a Gentile woman with the determination and humility to ask Jesus for precisely what she needed. It’s a story from which we can learn.

Jesus had travelled throughout Israel teaching and working miracles. His popularity with the ordinary people grew, and they thronged to him wherever he went. Even when he and his disciples withdrew to isolated places to pray, he was pursued by huge crowds. But in marked contrast, the people in power in the Jewish community rejected Jesus and what he had to say. From the outset, some of their leaders had challenged what he taught and how he acted. They questioned him, drilled him, took his words out of context, and generally let him know that they completely disapproved of all he said and did. All these little rejections piled up. But it was soon after Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been beheaded, that the aggravation from the Jewish leaders began to get really out of control.

Just before this morning’s reading the Gospel tells how the Scribes and the Pharisees had thrown out another challenge {“Why do you and your disciples break the ancient Jewish traditions?” (Matthew 15:2)}. They were referring to all the rules that had been added on to the Law over the centuries and elevated to the status of Scripture. They were convinced that all Jewish rabbis should focus on teaching their own people these practices. But Jesus taught that God looks into the heart; that he is not pleased with mere observances; that he requires a new way of thinking, of praying, and of being. Jesus told a parable, calling those Pharisees hypocrites and blind guides. The hostility of the leaders of the community, together with the constant press of the crowds, was becoming very wearing. Jesus needed a quiet time to be with his disciples, so that he could prepare them for the future. And so, he went north, out of Israel into present-day Lebanon, in the region of the towns of Tyre and Sidon.

It was not that Jesus could expect a friendly reception. Indeed, a Jewish historian of the time wrote, “The people of Tyre have the most ill-feeling towards us”. However, Jesus’ relative anonymity might allow him the quiet time he sought. Mark tells us that {He entered into a house and did not want anyone to know it (Mark 7:24b)}. But he could not escape being noticed, and a Canaanite woman heard about him- a description intended to express disapproval and contempt for her. The term “Canaanite” had long since fallen out of use, but it still had meaning for the Jews. All the way through the Old Testament, the Canaanites were seen as thoroughly pagan and corrupt – fit only to be the lowest of all slaves. The continued presence of Canaanites in the land of Israel was regarded as a threat to the purity of Jewish religion and morality. A long history of spiritual and military conflict meant that anyone dubbed “Canaanite” was automatically regarded by Jews as wicked and godless. By his description of the woman, Matthew labels her an outsider – an alien – someone best avoided, even though, as Mark explains, she was culturally Greek; Tyre and Sidon having been under Greek rule for the previous three hundred and fifty years.

The quiet time sought by Jesus and his disciples is interrupted by the Canaanite woman. She is well aware of their national and religious differences, but she is undeterred. She must have heard about Jesus even before he entered her city, and what she heard about him, she believed – because she is ready for him. Although she is not a Jew, she is uses language that is familiar only to Jews of the time, as she comes up {shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ (Matthew 15:22)} “Demon possession” was a common diagnosis in those days for illnesses about which nobody had any real idea of the cause or cure. Severe epilepsy was the most common condition to which it was applied – indeed, some people in this country referred to it that way even within living memory. Imagine living during Biblical times and your child goes into convulsions? You have no idea what causes it. Daily your child suffers severely, and there is nothing you can do about it. Unless something can be done, you know that she will be ostracised by society for the rest of her life and become an outcast. You have tried all the doctors and pagan priests, and they are no help. And you hear that a Jewish miracle worker has arrived, and so you passionately seek a cure from him.

But her passion is lost on the disciples as she shouts to them – indeed the Gospel describes her as croaking like a raven – and so they {urge Jesus, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” (Matthew 15:23)}. They are certain that, because she is not a Jew, she doesn’t have the right to ask Jesus for anything. Notice that there is no love or compassion in their response; they’re just saying, “All her shouting is bothering us. Do what she wants, in order to get rid of her!” But that is not Jesus way. Sensing the disciples’ exclusive attitude, Jesus reflects back to them the view that the Jewish leaders had tried to project onto him, and he {answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)}, meaning the whole of the Jewish nation. But, clearly, in his mind he is examining how far his earthly ministry extends beyond turning his own people back to God.

She falls on her knees in front of Jesus, {“Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25)}. Jesus’ reply tests those national and religious difference between Jews and others: {“It is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26)}. Equating a person with the family pet sounds an extraordinarily harsh insult to our ears, but scholars tell us that this sort of repartee is common in Middle Eastern cultures, and is not regarded as offensive. With great humility, the woman accepts that she is an outsider with no claim on Jesus, but she responds, {“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27)}. This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good for all people.

This is what faith means. She knows who Jesus is, and she knows that he can heal her daughter. She trusts Jesus totally and will not be turned away. She is driven by love for her child and the need to get something done. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud, but she is determined. She trusts in God’s mercy and in the abundance of his grace.

Jesus responds to this faith instantly. He knows that God’s mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well”.

This woman approached Jesus with humility. She could not claim anything by right. She depended entirely on his mercy. His healing of her daughter would be an unmerited act of grace. The love she had for her daughter fuelled her passion, and she understood that the abundance of God’s mercy extended to all people.

So, when we worry about what we should include in our prayers, we can remember both that Canaanite woman and Jesus assurance, {“You may ask for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14)}. When we empty ourselves of our own wish to control events, we can become receptive to God’s will. Then we can approach him in humility, knowing that we deserve nothing, and be guided by our faith in his mercy and in the abundance of his grace. For we know that God’s mercy covers us all. Amen.