A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 20th August 2023
Some of you of a certain age might remember a sentimental hymn from Sunday School: “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Well, in today’s Gospel reading we seem to have “Nasty Jesus”: his response to this Gentile woman seems harsh, even rude. He, by implication, is calling her a dog, an insult in that society just as it is in ours.
This woman lived in an area which is now in southern Lebanon. Her daughter was in a terrible state mentally and no-one had been able to help. She had heard that there was a Jewish rabbi in Galilee who was a healer, and a bead of hope came into her heart. She could not leave her daughter, who was not well enough to walk the 40 miles to Galilee, but perhaps this rabbi would come close enough for her to get to meet him. Then she heard that he was in her area, and the hope in her heart grew. But when she got to him and begged for help, he did not reply. She was not going to be put off, even though the men who were with him, some of them tough fishermen, kept telling her to be quiet and go away. She managed to get past them and flung herself at the rabbi’s feet, crying for help. Instead of help, she heard him say that it would be wrong to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.
The word translated ‘dog’ is actually the diminutive form, a little dog. So perhaps it would be better translated as ‘lapdog’ or ‘puppy’. That would be much nicer. The woman sees an opening. She places these pets under the family table, eating leftovers. Indeed, anyone who has had a pet dog and a toddler will know how useful the dog is in clearing up the food that ends up on the floor round the toddler’s high chair! I’m sure Jesus must have smiled when she turned his image around, giving the dogs a place at the family meal as well as the children.
Why did Jesus behave in this hostile manner to a desperate woman? Mark also has this story, but Luke and John do not. What is going on?
The first clue is in the context. In both Matthew and Mark, this story comes immediately after Jesus criticises the Pharisees for their obsession with following to the tiniest detail traditional Jewish rules and rituals, while going against the purpose of God’s commandments. Then along comes this foreigner, an outsider to God’s law, who shows strong and persistent faith. Jesus’ mission was to bring his people back to God, but in this Gentile woman he found the faith lacking in so many of his fellow Jews.
The second clue comes from one of the main themes in Matthew’s Gospel; God’s kingdom. Over the last few weeks we have heard many parables about this kingdom; seeds sown widely, wheat and weeds, a lost sheep, a lost coin, buried treasure, a priceless pearl. From the beginning to the end of Matthew, Gentiles are clearly included in this kingdom: his Gospel starts with a genealogy of Jesus which includes Gentile women; Rahab, the Jericho prostitute, and Ruth. It ends with Jesus’ final post-resurrection command, to go to all nations and make them disciples. This inclusion of Gentiles is supported by today’s Old Testament readings from Isiah and the Psalms, which both include foreigners in God’s kingdom.
This Canaanite woman is not the only example of a Gentile being commended by Jesus for their faith. Earlier in the Gospel we have the story of the centurion who seeks healing for his servant. When Jesus offers to come and cure him, the centurion (probably well aware of Jewish purity rules) says, in words we will ourselves soon echo: “Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof. You only need say the word and my servant will be cured.” The centurion has recognised a spiritual authority in Jesus equivalent to his own military authority. Jesus and the crowd were astonished, causing Jesus to exclaim that he had not found such faith among his own people. He goes on to prophesy that at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven many from outside Israel will join the Jewish Patriarchs, while those born in the kingdom will be thrown out. By contrast, Jesus several times criticises his disciples for lack of faith; such as when their boat was in a storm. Perhaps he hoped they would learn from these Gentiles.
Matthew’s Gospel sees God’s plan of salvation as beginning with the mission of Jesus to the people who up to this point had been central to God’s plan, the Jews. They had been given the promises which pointed forward to the inauguration of God’s kingdom through his Messiah, the Christ. The primary role for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel was to show the Jews that he was the fulfilment of those promises. Only Matthew’s version of this story has Jesus saying: “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to them alone”. Matthew also records Jesus instructing the apostles when he sends them out on their first mission: “Do not take the road to Gentile lands and do not enter any Samaritan town; but go, rather, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
However, Jesus also makes it clear that the true people of God are those who hear his message, follow him and obey his standards of righteousness – purity of the heart rather than physical ritual purity. Just as the faith shown by the Gentile centurion caused Jesus to speak of foreigners being at the heavenly feast while those born into Israel were thrown out, towards the end of Matthew we find Jesus teaching that rejection of him by the Jews will lead to judgement and exclusion from the kingdom. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, almost certainly before Matthew’s Gospel was written, was the turning point. The destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians was understood as God’s judgement on Israel’s unfaithfulness; the destruction of the Second Temple was seen by Matthew’s community as God’s judgement on the Jews for their rejection of Jesus his Messiah. God’s promises were now to Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, with the Church as the new Israel.
What can we learn from this Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion? First, there is an important contrast with what we heard last week, the story of Jesus walking on the water. Peter at first accepted Jesus invitation to come to him over the water and got out of the boat. But as soon as he started thinking about the storm that was raging about him he lost faith and began to sink. He had to be physically rescued by Jesus. These two Gentiles also took Jesus at his word and went home; but their faith did not fail on the way. They got home to find that the words of Jesus that they trusted had come true. We can all see a bit of ourselves in Peter: we may accept a call from God but quickly start worrying about the consequences. Will it take us out of our comfort zone? Rather, let us be like this Canaanite woman, who, once she had Jesus’ promise, did not doubt and her faith was rewarded.
Second, note that what both of them were asking for was not for themselves, but for someone they cared about. The woman’s concern for her daughter is more expected than a Roman military leader’s concern for his servant, but obviously both cared deeply. The centurion, with his knowledge of Jewish practices, must have worried about rejection and probably had thought out his approach beforehand. The Canaanite woman may not have expected Jesus’ reaction, but in her determination to get her child healed she did not give up and gave as good as she got. These Gentiles did not need the physical presence of Jesus with the sick person, but accepted that his word was sufficient to heal. Faith is shown by persistence. We must persist in our prayers for those we care about and believe that God does hear, even when he seems silent.