Day Twenty-two: Tuesday, July 7th, 2020
Bible Lesson: Matthew 15:21-39
Reflection from Pastor Wayne Eberly:
We encounter a troubling passage today. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus. She cries out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Unlike so many previous examples Matthew has presented us with about how Jesus responds, responses that include compassion, immediate attention, words of comfort, words of healing, in this encounter with a Canaanite woman, “Jesus did not answer a word.”
Things become more complicated. His disciples come to him and urge him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying after us.” Now Jesus does answer. He does not speak to the Canaanite woman. He speaks to his disciples. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” His answer seems to imply his ministry is for the tribes of Israel, the children of Abraham, the Hebrews, the Jews. The word “only” is narrow. The word “only” is exclusive.
And then things become extremely difficult. The woman comes and kneels before Jesus. Speaking directly to him she says, “Lord, help me!” Everything we know about Jesus prepares us to hear him respond with the help she requests. Instead, Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” To the dogs? To the dogs?
The woman is a Gentile. In some ways what Jesus says to her is exactly what we might expect a Jewish man to say to a Gentile. The Gentiles were unclean. Peter recoiled at the mere mention of visiting a Gentile’s home and eating with him. (Acts 10 and 11) Jesus had just been criticized for allowing his disciples to forego the cleanliness command about the washing of hands. (Matthew 15:1-20 in our reading yesterday) After making such a strong statement in the previous passage about cleanliness not being something external but something that comes from the inside, from a clean heart, we are primed to hear Jesus respond with grace and mercy, with compassion, and yes, with healing to this Gentile woman as she makes a heartfelt plea for her daughter. What we are not prepared for is the answer Jesus gives. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
A few years a theological journal I receive dedicated several pages with different commentators wrestling with just what was going on in the passage. The passage is not only troubling to me. Some of the greatest biblical scholars struggle to explain this seemingly indifferent, even harsh response from Jesus to a Canaanite woman, to a Gentile.
Without offering an explanation for what is obviously a very challenging passage of scripture, I do find myself defending Jesus. Whatever he intended to accomplish with his unexpected response, whether it was irony, whether he was voicing the thoughts of the disciples and calling for them to broaden their view, whether there really was a time when his ministry focused only on the lost sheep of Israel, or whether he was testing the resolve of the Canaanite woman, I have no doubt about the ultimate purpose of Jesus. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and that means not only the lost sheep of Israel, but the lost sheep from all nations, from all tongues, and from all tribes. I am curious what you make of this passage.
The passage ends on a note that is much more in line with our expectations of Jesus. When Jesus makes his comment about the dogs, the tenacious woman answers back, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Now Jesus says to her, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” In his own way, through a passage filled with words that seem shocking, it is the faith of a Gentile woman that Jesus calls great.
When the Canaanite woman is initially turned away, Martin Luther asks, “But what does the poor woman do? She does not give up, she clings to the Word although it be torn out of her heart by force, is not turned away by this stern answer, still firmly believes his goodness is yet concealed in that answer, and still she will not pass judgment that Christ is or may be ungracious. That is persevering steadfastness….And her reply is a masterly stroke…she catches Christ with his own words…Truly, people let the dogs have the crumbs under the table; it is entitles to that. Therefore Christ now completely opens his heart to her and yields to her will, so that she is now no dog, but even a child of Israel.” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Volumes 1 and 2, p. 152)