By The Rev. Sherry Deets
August 14, 2011
Brian Stoffregen hit the nail on the head when he said that Matthew 15 is all about ritual purity: Who’s clean? Who’s not? What makes them that way? On the one side we have the Pharisees carping and complaining that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. On the other side, we have this poor Canaanite woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter.
It’s an age-old question: Who are the saints and who are the sinners? The answer is not as simple as you might think. In keeping all the rules, the Pharisees thought they were the righteous ones; while, if there were anyone undeserving of God’s mercy, well, it would be this Canaanite woman.
So, who are these Pharisees and scribes, anyway? They’re the moral police force of Jesus’ day. They’re the keepers of the Law. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the ticket to ritual purity.
But let’s not be too quick to criticize. The Pharisees and scribes were the ones who took faith seriously. In today’s parlance, they were the pillars of the church. Their attentiveness to detail reflected their devotion to God.
And that’s the irony: Seeking to be righteous, pure and holy, they created a barrier that separated them from God. Religion can do that.
Truth to tell, some of the most difficult people to love I’ve ever known were religious people. They’d trump your kindness with their morality every time. You could never do enough to please them. If you came to church every Sunday morning, you should’ve been there Sunday night. If you gave a tithe, you should’ve given more. If you don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with boys that do, you probably need to cut back on your carbs and lose some weight.
In contrast to the Pharisee and scribes, Matthew juxtaposes this Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon, way up to the north of Capernaum. She’d obviously heard about Jesus and was desperate. She cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (Matthew 15:22)
What follows is an exchange between Jesus and the woman that’s, frankly, a little embarrassing.
So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew, the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, now leaping into the fray, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff. On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. “Lord, have mercy,” the dog’s solo bleating cry. “Get rid of her,” the “lost-sheep chorus” barks back in reply.
And what of the master, the Messiah? Do our ears deceive us when this harbinger of good news now seems to join these “bouncers,” not only refusing to answer her pleas, but even seeming to join in with a few sharp licks of his own. As Matthew’s story makes clear, Jesus’ reply “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24) is addressed not to the woman but to his disciples. And when she is not put off by Jesus’ silence, she persists in her pleas for help, addressing him again as “Lord,” – still Jesus seems to add to the rejection.
Now he addresses her directly with a comment about the injustice of throwing to the “dogs” what belongs to the children (15:26). It is a troubling response.
And here the stage is set for an astounding reversal. Here we meet the climactic focus of this story, that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord’s help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the “master’s” table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God’s Messiah.
Matthew’s Jesus has elsewhere chastised the “little faith” of the disciples (8:26; 14:31; 16:8), but here, in the only occurrence of this adjective in the whole New Testament, Jesus praises the “great faith” of this woman and commands that her plea be granted. No sooner are the words spoken than it is done. We are told that the woman’s daughter is healed instantly.
And what of us who hear this story? Can it be that its subtle reversals and surprises intend to work some transformation in our lives as well? To open us up to see the wondrously extravagant reaches of God’s mercies? This is the gospel’s call for all Jesus’ followers, constantly at risk as potential “unfaiths,” not to assume the role of greedy bouncers at the door checking IDs, but to take our places on our knees as ones who cling for mercy with that same persistent faith that turns us around and plants us shoulder to shoulder with this woman, side by side with all the outcasts, the wounded, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.
You see, according to the definitions of the world in which Jesus lived, most of us are more like the Canaanite woman than we are the disciples. We live in an unclean land. We come from gentile families. We eat unclean food. We are no better in their eyes than the dogs that eat the scraps respectable Jews will not put in their mouths.
I close with a confession from a cyberspace Christian. I don’t know his name, but I understood what he was saying when he said these words, “I’ve been a disciple for fifty years, brought up in a very strict tradition. I have taught all the old arguments for many years. Yet, I have recently discovered God’s love and I can assure you that I have begun to breathe the fresh air of freedom in Christ.” Sounds like he’s discovered that there’s more to faith than washing hands before eating. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Any fool can make a rule,” to which we might add, “but only God can give life.” We can sit at the table, because God let the dogs in. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.