TEXTS: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 and Matthew 15:21-28
There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. (Romans 11:30-32, The Message1)
If you take time to read the lectionary selections for Proper 15, Year A—especially the Epistle and the Gospel—you might notice some details which are at one and the same time interesting and disturbing.
In the gospel lesson, we hear Jesus say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 11:24). At the beginning of his ministry, it seems that even Jesus himself believed his mission was for the Jews only.
Yet, some 30 years later, when Paul is writing to the Christians at Rome, the church has become so predominantly Gentile that the apostle feels he has to speak up in defense of the Jews, reminding his audience of non-Jewish Christians, “There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God.”
Yes, there was indeed such a time. When the Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, he tried at first to send her away. He said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26).
To the dogs? Ouch.
I wonder how many of you are familiar with that series of children’s books by C.S. Lewis, called The Chronicles of Narnia. In one of those volumes—Prince Caspian—there’s a scene that reminds me of today’s gospel passage.
Reepicheep, the bravest mouse in all of Narnia, loses his tail in battle. And as he bows to Aslan, the Great Lion, the King of Narnia, he suddenly realizes his loss.
“I am confounded,” said Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion …”
“But what do you want with a tail?” asked Aslan.
“Sir,” said the Mouse, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honour and glory of a Mouse.”
“I have sometimes wondered, friend,” said Aslan, “Whether you do not think too much about your honour.”
“Highest of all High Kings,” said Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense …”
“Why have all your followers drawn their swords, may I ask?” said Aslan.
“May it please your High Majesty, “ said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honour which is denied to the High Mouse.”
“Ah!” roared Aslan, “you have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people … you shall have your tail again.”2
Let’s face it: in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is distressingly unkind. Our informed, tolerant, accepting selves curl up at the edges when Jesus puts the Canaanite woman in her place.
Matthew doesn’t even give her the dignity of having a name. Jesus refers to her as a “dog,” making her the most unclean, unworthy, undesirable person imaginable.
Not only that, but she is a woman. She has no authority, no social standing, no property—no status whatsoever. Even Reepicheep the mouse has higher stature in Narnia than the Canaanite woman has in ancient Palestine.
She should count herself lucky that Jesus pays any attention to her at all. Any other rabbi would have had absolutely no time for such an impertinent woman. Another teacher would have taken great offense at her audacity. Certainly, the disciples find her cries irritating. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting after us.”
Finally, Jesus is forced to deal with her. So he turns to her and draws the line: “Look, I was sent only to the Jews—only to the lost sheep of Israel. I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You’re not my department!”
We’ve all done that, haven’t we? Sometimes we think we need to do it. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the energy. There is too much at stake, too much to do. Our lives are crazy enough. We can’t get involved. We can’t afford to open that door.
We all know what it’s like to be stretched to the limit, don’t we? So we can sympathize with Jesus. And you know, in this fast-paced society where we all feel so over-worked, perhaps we need a Saviour who can draw the line, who can say, “NO!” Jesus isn’t trying to be a superhero. Why should we?
But look at what happens next in this story; it is one of the most remarkable dialogues recorded from Jesus’ public ministry.
Matthew has spilled a river of ink telling us about how Jesus’ message was completely misunderstood. Even the disciples usually could not grasp the meaning of his parables. The Pharisees were confounded and annoyed at Jesus for challenging their system of rules and regulations. And the ordinary people … well, they swarmed around him like a crowd at a three-ring circus, hoping to witness a miracle.
Then along comes this Canaanite woman, shouting at him, “Have mercy on me, Lord … my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The disciples say to him, “Send her away. Get rid of her. She’s been bugging us all day long.”
So he says, “Look, I’m sorry, but you’re not my problem. 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.”
And then—right away, just like that—she comes back at him, saying, “Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Wow. This upstart Gentile woman—this Canaanite who doesn’t know her place—she gets him! She understands Jesus completely.
In her pithy little statement about dogs and tables and crumbs, she makes her own bold claim to grace. She even embraces Jesus’ metaphorical language—something the disciples can never quite seem to pull off. Instantly, this Canaanite woman—this outsider—stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.
The assumptions she makes are both simple and insightful. She knows Jesus can heal her daughter, and so—despite her third-class status—she states her case. She makes her plea. In all the humility of her station, she demands her place in the Kingdom of God—however small a portion that might be.
And the Son of God is thunderstruck. Jesus is amazed. This Canaanite woman gets it! No matter how unimportant 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 daughter. And in this way, she assumes her rightful place in the Kingdom.
As someone has said, she is one of the first drops from the waterfall of Gentiles who will be welcomed into Christ’s loving arms. He gives her what she asks for. “Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Today’s Gospel is not about faith in what we deserve. No. It is about faith in the grace we need.
It is about our struggles for justice, and righteousness, and dignity. It is about a persistent, stubborn faith that pursues the truth, no matter what. It’s about contending with God—directly! Most of all, it is about a God whose head we can turn. It’s about a God who does listen to our prayers.
We are a people who constantly utter the words, “Thy will be done,” to a lofty Lord enthroned in heaven above. Our theology wonders about how our prayer can change the mind of a God who knows everything—who knows our needs before we ask. We realize we’re dealing with a God who says, “My ways are not your ways.” And we know we’re reckoning with a God who, all-too-often, allows suffering to run its course.
Let us take seriously the faith of the Canaanite woman—a faith that stands far above our own. Let us indeed put our faith in a Creator who made the stars and the galaxies, a Spirit who is active in the deepest parts of our being, a Saviour who knows our beginnings and our endings.
But let us also remember that we worship a God who made creatures that are capable of surprising Him. That’s why our own personal dialogue with God is so very important. That’s why we should never give up on prayer. If we are faithful in prayer—and persistent, and honest—we may be surprised by how completely our deepest needs are satisfied.
And—if we listen—we just might hear a voice saying to us: “Ah! You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Let it be done for you as you wish.” Amen.
1 The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson.
2 C.S. Lewis, The Chronciles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (New York: HarperCollins, 1979) pp. 208-209.