From despair to delight - Matthew 15:21-28

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 21st May 2006.

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Here is an interesting question for you: Did Jesus ever smile? The Gospels never actually tell us. In fact they give us very little information, if any, about Jesus physical appearance. We don’t know if he was tall or short, fat or thin, long haired or short haired, blue eyed or brown eyed. We can make some educated guesses. He was Middle Eastern and so probably had brown eyes. He had spent most of his life sawing wood and hanging doors and so he was most likely muscular with rough hands. There are occasions when we are told that Jesus wept, that he was angry, indignant, frustrated, compassionate, rejoicing, tired, even terrified in the Garden of Gethsemane. But did he smile? He certainly had some sense of humour. After all, he drew some of the most absurd mental cartoons of people straining gnats out of their food whilst unintentionally swallowing camels which would have tickles pink the ordinary people at the expense of the stuffy religious leaders he was poking fun at. But did he smile? I ask the question because it might make all the difference in the world to our understanding of one of the most perplexing, and on the face of it, callous things Jesus ever said and did and it is recorded for us in Matthew 15:21 and the story of the Canaanite woman.

Now let me sketch in for your something of the setting. Jesus has been busy working in his own region of Galilee. He has been teaching and healing, and as his reputation grew so did the crowds and his work load. But those were not the only things that grew- so did the opposition. This mainly came from the religious hierarchy based in Jerusalem. Sensitive to any messianic claims which might upset the political applecart, a delegation of some of the chief theologians of the day had been dispatched ‘up North’ to check out what was happening. The result? An immediate clash as we see in the first 20 verses of this chapter. They didn’t like the way Jesus’ followers were being lax towards established religious etiquette- not washing their hands before eating; not in order to counter any gastric bugs which were rife in that culture at that time, but to make sure no ritual defilement took place. With razor sharp logic, Jesus points out that it is not what goes into a person that causes them to be cut off from God, but what comes out- vile, hateful language, sexual promiscuity, cheating, lying and one hundred and one other things which betray the wickedness of the human heart which needs a miraculous remedy. Was that well received? Hardly! In verse 21 we are told they were ‘offended’. You bet they were! They hated Jesus for it. Not exactly the reaction God would have been looking for from the leaders of his own people towards his Son. And so Jesus decides to take a break from the crowds and the conflict and head out of Jewish territory altogether, going North West towards Tyre and Sidon, what is now southern Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. So it could be that Jesus and his disciples are now recuperating along the foothills of the mountains which make a welcome change from the hot, arid and frenzied atmosphere they had left behind in Galilee. So even the Son of God has to take time out – a lesson to learn, I would suggest, for those of us with workaholic tendencies. You can’t keep going on for ever!

And that is when she came-v 22, A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession."’  She appeared to come out of nowhere and at the end of the encounter disappears back to where she came from-nowhere. We don’t know her name, we don’t know her looks, we don’t know her home town. But we do know she is desperate. Like any mother, she cares about her little girl-and how she cares. To have your little baby tossing and turning from a fever is bad enough; to have her tossed and tormented by a demon would have been more than any sensitive soul could bear. What she literally says is my daughter is cruelly demon possessed. This is so malignant an evil spirit that it almost defies description. The effects are unbearable to watch, let alone for a fragile little girl to endure, day in day out. And who knows, maybe the night times were the worse. Now which parent here would not go through hell and high water if there were even the slightest chance of changing all of that? Of course you would. And so does she.

But initially on the face of it she doesn’t seem to have a lot going for her. For a start she is a Canaanite. Matthew deliberately uses the ancient OT term to describe one of the deadliest, sworn enemies of God’s people- a title synonymous with idolatry, immorality, cruelty and decadence. It is not an ancestry to be proud of. She is an outsider then, a foreigner, a square peg in the proverbial round hole- she just did not fit. She is not a disciple. She offers no money to help support Jesus’ ministry. She makes no promises to give herself over to God’s service if this one request is met, no bargaining at all, just pleading; ‘Crying out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.’ Now there is the surprise. Jesus had just been battling with those who thought they knew their Bibles-the Pharisees. They could quote chapter and verse, they had their theology neatly tied, they knew what was what, except they didn’t know who Jesus was. Whereas here is this pagan woman, coming from a long line of pagans, centuries of them, and she speaks of Jesus as Israel’s King- ‘Son of David.’ Where she picked that up from, who knows? But it is not the quantity of information that really matters; it is what you do with what you do have. The scribes and Pharisees had theology coming out of their ears but they refused to act on it, to follow it through in the light of what they were hearing and seeing with Jesus. By contrast this woman had but a scrap and she clung to it as if it were her only lifeline in a drowning situation-she wanted mercy. Now I don’t know how much knowledge you have about Christianity. But I am quite sure of this. Even if you have been coming to St John’s for just a short period of time, say a couple of weeks, you know enough to get saved and have your life turned right around. Sure, there is room for getting to know more- we are all doing that- but what are you doing with what you do know? Are you stepping out in faith, saying, ‘Lord Jesus there is so much more to learn, but I am willing to learn. I may not know everything about you, but I do know that you are my Maker, you came to rescue me, you are alive and I want to follow and serve you.’ You can at least say that, or at least ask God to enable you to say that. 

But then comes the shock- v23ff,Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."  24He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."   We are so stunned by the reaction or to be more precise, the non-reaction of Jesus that we wonder if it can be the same person? Is he so tired that his mind is distracted so he can’t hear the woman? That is highly unlikely for the disciples say she ‘keeps crying after us.’ At least she is getting a rise from the disciples even if it is the response of the ‘She- is- becoming- a- pain- in- the- neck- Jesus- just- give- her- what- she- wants- so- she- will- go –away’ rebuff. At least some response is better than no response. But is it? Just what do we make of what Jesus does say in verse 24, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’. That can only cut you off at the knees. Talk about ethnophobia! Hatred of foreigners! Is Jesus really saying he has no time for non- Jews? That because of an accident of birth this woman does not even appear on his radar?

And so the commentators scratch around for some sort of explanation.

Some say Jesus was trapped. He couldn’t help the woman because his primary mission was amongst the Jews, the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’ The reaching out to non-Jews would be the business of the apostles after Pentecost, but it is not part of Jesus agenda now. Nice idea, but wrong solution. Jesus had dealt with non-Jewish people before without batting an eyelid- the Samaritan woman, the centurion, and a few verses later he is going to be teaching, healing and feeding several thousand of them.

Others think that Jesus was being plain rude. Who could blame him?  After all he was probably tired. It had been a long trip. The disciples were not exactly the smartest students in the class. The crowds had been demanding and the religious leaders nauseating, and so is it so surprising that Jesus snapped and had had enough? But that hardly fits the picture Matthew has been steadily building up of the one who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering candle. Do you honestly think that Jesus would snap at a woman who was so obviously as desperate as this one? No, and neither do I.

The most popular theory is that Jesus is testing the woman. Notice how the conversation develops, v25, ‘The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. 26He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."  Silence followed by a racist put down is now backed up with an outright insult- the woman being likened to a dog. How low does Jesus want the woman to stoop before he will listen to her? Whatever it is she will do it, get down on her hands and knees and crawl if that is what is necessary to cure her little girl. So is that it: Jesus placing hurdle after hurdle to see if she is sincere enough to keep on and then if she is, once the sincerity of her faith has been proved, Jesus acquiesces to her request? While there is some truth in the saying, ‘Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind’ it is very difficult to see how such outright obstinacy on the part of Jesus, if that is what it was, could serve any purpose here. The woman has already shown how serious she is by coming out to Jesus in the first place, and  persistently calling to him, refusing to be fobbed off by the disciples, calling him David’s Son no less – more than the Jewish leaders or even the disciples have done- and then falling at his feet- what more could Jesus want? Testing faith is one thing, torturing it is something else entirely.

So is there another way of understanding what is going on which is not so severe and is more in keeping with the portrait of Jesus painted for us by Matthew and the other Gospel writers? I think that there is and that is why I asked the question: did Jesus ever smile?

Our difficulty often in reading the Bible is that we simply have the words recorded; what we don’t have is the tone in which they were spoken or the look on the faces of those who said them. And we know that can make all the difference in the world to their meaning. For example: take the words ‘You’re clever’ spoken to a friend. It could be ‘You’re clever’ (statement of fact); ‘You’re clever (praise) or ‘You’re clever’ (sarcasm)- same words, but different tones and so different meanings and both depend upon the context.

Now apart from the general character of Jesus which we have picked up elsewhere, there are four clues in this incident which suggest a different way of understanding what is happening in the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

First, as we have already seen, this woman is showing more nous in her attitude to Jesus than either the disciples or the Jewish religious elite by calling him, ‘Son of David’, the King who has the royal prerogative to offer mercy. That is a faith if ever there was and that is something Jesus will fan into a flame and not quench.

Secondly, verse 24 could legitimately be translated as a question so Jesus says, ‘Was I only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?’ That already begins to put a different complexion on things doesn’t it?

Thirdly, when Jesus states in v 26, ‘, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."  The word he uses for dogs, is not the wild packs which would roam the urban centres scavenging  or even the dogs you would have around the house as pets, it is puppies, and again we could render it as a question, ‘It is surely not right to take the bread of the children and give it to the pups?’

And fourthly, the clincher is the woman’s witty and playful response and Jesus joyous commendation: ‘Yes, Lord, but even the pups eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’ To which Jesus exclaims: ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.’

So here is the scene allowing a bit of room for sanctified imagination and you tell me if you think it doesn’t make sense.

Jesus is out walking along the cool foothills talking with his disciples, when from behind them they hear the distant voice of a woman calling out, trying to gain their attention- ‘Lord, Son of David.’. Would you believe it? Just when they thought they were away from the paparazzi and ready to take a small vacation –this happens! You can’t get away from them! And so the disciples become defensive of Jesus and the pace begins to quicken as they shuffled him along like some presidential secret service entourage. Still she calls but now she is running trying to catch them up. ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me. It’s my daughter you see, she is possessed by a demon and it is really bad- really bad.’ Well there is no way this woman is going to go away quietly, and that is when the first knowing smile begins to slowly spread across Jesus’ face. Of course he hears her, and the words ‘Son of David’ are like music to his ears- he thinks: ‘at last here is someone who knows who I am and is going to be rewarded, though she doesn’t know it yet’. The disciples now have a better view of her as she comes running up the path and that is when the horror of it all hits them- with a sharp intake of breath  in hushed tones they utter the distasteful words -CANAANITE! Ughh! They are the worst. Jesus smiling and shaking his head carries on and says nothing (he is as aware of the disciple’s discomfort as he is of the woman’s persistence). Now this is getting plain embarrassing for the disciples, it is like being harassed by a beggar following you down the London tube badgering you for money. Just give her something so she will get lost. That is what they suggest to Jesus- ‘Send her away- give her what she wants and then we can be got rid’. That the disciples were wanting Jesus to give in to her request is the only thing that makes sense of what he goes on to say in verse 26. And maybe she has just about caught up with him at this point gripping his sleeve, and with twinkle in his eye he says in mock indignation, ‘But wasn’t I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel? You know God only cares about the Jews-surely?’ And now she gets it. So she kneels in front of him, and looking up into his face says, ‘Lord, help me- go on!’ And with that knowing look and winsome smile, with folded arms he affectionately looks down at her, ‘Should children’s bread be given to pups then? Is that what you do where you come from?’ And picking up on the half derogatory, half affectionate reference to pups, quick as a flash the woman comes back with banter  full of humour and full of faith, ‘Yes, but even pups eat up crumbs don’t they?’ With the unspoken implication, ‘And let’s face it your bread is so wonderful, the crumbs will be just fine.’ And so in a spirit of exuberance and a voice crackling with mirth Jesus lifts his head back and bursts out, ‘My dear, you have great faith – yes, of course your daughter is healed’.

Doesn’t that scenario make more sense? This is not a contemptuous God who crushes faith, this is, dare I say it? a playful God who delights in faith – for we worship a Jesus who actually smiles.

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