Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
TEXT: Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left [Gennesaret] and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” But he did not answer her at all. (Matt. 15:21-23a)
Let’s be honest: in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is distressingly unkind. This poor Canaanite woman comes to him seeking help for her daughter, and Jesus … our Jesus … gives her the brush-off! First he tries to ignore her—and, when that doesn’t work, he turns to her and draws the line:
“Look, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You’re not my department! I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. I only have time for my fellow Jews. That’s why I came—to help them. It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.”
Then—right away, just like that—she comes back at him, saying: “Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
And the Son of God, apparently, is gobsmacked. This Canaanite woman sets him back on his heels. No matter how insignificant she is from the Jewish point of view, she is willing to argue with God himself! She will do whatever it takes to obtain healing for her beloved child. And in this way, she assumes her rightful place in the Kingdom. Jesus gives her what she asks for. “Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
So, a happy ending, I guess. But this is an unsettling story, isn’t it? It is disturbing to consider Jesus’ behaviour at the beginning of this passage. Where is our familiar, loving, compassionate Saviour? And as the story progresses, even more unsettling questions get raised.
What happened here?
Did the Canaanite woman change Jesus’ mind?
Did her clever answer open his eyes to her humanity?
Did this encounter alter Jesus’ plans for his own ministry?
My inclination is to answer “yes” to all those questions. Yes, she changed his mind. Yes, she caused him to see her as a fellow human being. Yes, because of the Canaanite woman, Jesus suddenly realized his mission was to all humanity, and not only to the Jews.
And yes, I know the questions that come next: if Jesus was God incarnate—the Word made flesh—how could anything change his mind? How could any mere mortal reveal something new to him?
Well … Simply put, I believe Jesus was fully God—but I believe he was fully human, as well.
And—despite the inherent paradox—being fully human, being human as we are human, implies limitations. When you say, “I’m only human,” you’re pointing to a universal truth about the human condition: real human beings have real limitations. A huge one is death. God is not mortal as we are. God cannot die. But all human beings die—and Jesus died, also. As the apostle Paul put it, “he became obedient unto death—even death upon a cross.” (Philippians 2:8-18)
If God in Christ was so completely human that he could actually die as we die, then surely it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to consider that maybe, just maybe, he was also sometimes confused or unaware or even ignorant about some things. He would have been influenced by his culture, just as we are influenced by ours.
That’s how I explain this passage. But, in fairness, I have to admit that there’s another way of looking at it. According to my colleague Richard Fairchild, my way of interpreting the passage is “nonsense.”
And he’s not just being petulant. On his sermon website,* Fairchild reminds us that “the scriptures are full of passages saying how salvation will proceed from the Jews to the Gentiles—and Jesus was well aware of them.”
He also makes clear the fact that—by this point in Matthew’s gospel—Jesus has already performed at least one miraculous healing for a Gentile: the Centurion in charge at Capernaum, telling his disciples as he did so:
“I say to you many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven …” (Matt. 8:11).
Richard Fairchild’s view is that—from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus had no intention of proclaiming the good news only to the children of Israel. Here’s what he says in his sermon for this day, from that same website:
I think that Jesus was testing the disciples—the disciples who were so eager to send the Canaanite woman away from Jesus and who in fact begged Jesus to send her away … and yes—I think that perhaps Jesus was testing the woman herself. I believe that Jesus was trying to make a point about faith, and about the barriers that people place in the way of salvation—barriers of race, barriers of culture, barriers of sex, barriers of wealth, even barriers of morality and religion. As it says in Isaiah—the prophet that Jesus quotes the most—“Is not the House of the Lord of Israel, the House of God, to be called a House of Prayer for All Nations?”
Fairchild makes some good points here. Truth to tell, most evangelical Bible scholars would agree with him. And I would agree with him and them on this point: the important thing about this story has to do with the outcome. Jesus does heal her daughter.
Whether he was testing her or testing his disciples—or whether he was just having a bad day—Jesus rewards her persistent faith. She believes this Jewish Messiah can help her, and she won’t take “no” for an answer. No matter how difficult it is, no matter how embarrassing it is, she is resolved to plead her case. She pours out her heart. She hides nothing. She asks for what she needs.
Most importantly, she knows where to turn.
How about you?
When the chips are down … when you’ve come to the end of your rope, the end of your courage, the end of your endurance … Do you know where to turn? And do you have the sort of courage this woman had, to persist in asking for help?
As I started working on this blog, I remembered that nine years ago this month, on August 11, 2014, the American actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead at his home in Paradise Cay, California. It was death by suicide. He was 63.
That news shook me up when I first heard it. Despite his well-publicized battles with depression and addiction, this beloved performer (from all that the public could see) had seemed to overcome his personal demons. To be sure, he had—after some 20 years of sobriety—relapsed in 2003, but it certainly appeared that he had gotten his life and his career on track again.
With three films still unreleased at the time of his death, he seemed to be as busy as ever professionally. And the depth of his love for his family—especially for his three children—has never been questioned by anyone. More than that, Williams had this persona—this manic, joyful, upbeat persona—that, on the surface at least, betrayed no hint of melancholy.
Yet, in private, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Williams struggled with despair, anxiety, and increasing paranoia. Apparently, he could see no way forward for himself.
Peeking from behind Patch Adam’s big red clown nose, a Scriptural truth reveals itself: The state of a person’s heart may not be visible to others. Or at least, not obvious.
As the Book of Proverbs says: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10). Our human tendency is to hide our pains and sorrows and sins. Because someone else may take advantage of our weaknesses and use them to manipulate us … or simply to hurt us … we shield our innermost parts. Instinctively, we want to protect ourselves. Above all else, we try to disguise our vulnerabilities. And that is why wounds in need of healing are too seldom revealed. They remain buried in the recesses of our overprotected souls.
In the secret places of our hearts, we harbour the bitterness caused by years of neglect and abuse and sorrow. And, desperately, we try to ignore these feelings while in public we smile bravely. As the Book of Proverbs also says: “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief” (Prov. 14:13).
The fact of the matter is this: the wounds we hide can only be healed if we expose them. And if we do not pour them out—to God and to trusted friends—they can metastasize like a spiritual cancer gnawing away at our souls.
Apparently, something like this was true for Robin Williams. While making us roar with laughter at a father dressing in drag in order to be with his children—and at a professor who misses his own wedding while experimenting with flying rubber—deep within, the man who brought us “Mork from Ork” hid an aching heart. Many people we meet from day to day do the same thing. And the more skillfully they hide their anguish, the more urgently they need someone to tear down their walls; someone who can burst through their defenses with Christlike compassion.
Certainly, it is wise to protect ourselves from as much injury and evil as we can in this fallen world. Yet it is even wiser to pour out our hearts and our hurts to Jesus—and to those who will offer his comfort. “Come to me,” he said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
At Jesus’ feet, we can remove our clown noses. We can take off our masks and make our true feelings known to him. We can say to him: “I’m angry,” “I’m scared,” “I hate the way I’m being treated,” “I’m tired of being alone,” or, “I can’t take any more of this!”
As One who was mistreated above all others, who beheld more pain than anyone, who faced the most terrible fear in the universe—and who forgave those who betrayed and murdered him—Jesus can bear whatever emotions we throw at him. He will not break our trust. He will not exploit our pain. But he will, with sympathy and with empathy, bind up our deepest wounds.
Jesus offers the joy of his love, and he wants us to abide in it. He will rescue and heal us, if only we will pour out our hearts as the Canaanite woman emptied hers. If only we trust in him. If only we will persevere in asking him, we also will hear him say: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28).
May God grant us holy courage … and spirited persistence. Amen.