My guess is that there are a number of people here this morning that are experiencing a bit of whiplash because you have never heard the story I just read from Matthew’s gospel. That’s because the church is not very comfortable with the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman, so we often choose to skip this story. I’m not very comfortable with the way Jesus treats the Canaanite woman. The church I grew up in, and the Bible studies I attended tried to spin this story. I heard that Jesus was testing the disciples to see how they would react, essentially using the words they would have used. Once I heard that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. Several times I heard that Jesus used a word that really means “little dogs,” or “puppies”—like that was somehow not so offensive. When I hear that many different defenses, I recognize spin—the art of telling you that you didn’t hear what you’re sure you just heard, or that it didn’t mean what you know it meant. I’m not interested in spin. I’m interested in knowing Jesus—knowing the real Jesus, or as much as we can know about him—because I want to follow him.
So I’m going to start with the beginning of the reading that the church has chosen to attach to this awkward story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The reading should be longer, but it’s so long that it doesn’t fit nicely into a Sunday service. That’s one of our problems reading the Bible. When I got to seminary, I was very confident that I was a good Bible scholar because I had spent so many years in Bible study and taught Sunday school for over 30 years. But I learned that is it important to understand how a particular passage fits in with what has come before and how it changes the direction of what comes after. We Protestants have a long history of studying snippets of scripture. We study stories and parables as if they stand alone and ignore the narrative trajectory of the gospel writers. For several centuries we lost the literary devices the gospel writers used to direct their readers to the good news, instead reading the scriptures as if they were the daily news. We have pushed, shoved, pulled, and twisted distinctive books to create a single straightforward narrative.
So let’s see where Matthew is going. After Jesus fed the five thousand men and uncounted women and children, and after he walked on water and saved the impulsive Peter from drowning, and after he had healed an untold number of people as his reputation spread throughout the region, the Pharisees and the scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked him, point blank, why his disciples broke the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before they ate. Even today not washing your hands before you eat is a health code violation, as we can read in every restaurant rest room. Yes, it was about health, but more, it was about purity, the idea that one could only come into God’s presence, whether in prayer or in the temple, after one had thoroughly washed and was ritually clean. Every time Jesus touched a sick person, or they touched him, he became unclean and had to purify himself before worshiping or even praying. The disciples had been observed praying a blessing for food without first washing their hands. Jesus takes on the Pharisees and scribes by criticizing the way they neglect the care of their elderly parents by giving their support to the temple, honoring the tradition instead of the word of God. He quoted Isaiah, saying,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Jesus turned to the crowd and addressed the issue of ritual purity and hand washing. He said that it is not what goes into the mouth (food touched by hands that have not been washed) that defiles a person. It may make them sick, but it does not make them unclean, and therefore unable to approach God. It is what comes out of the mouth that can make a person unclean if it comes from evil intentions. The heart is the source of the evil in the world and all the things that make a person unclean.
And in a moment, Jesus was going to trip on his own words. A woman from a culture that was unclean because it was not Jewish was going to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus had been arguing persuasively for Kingdom values within his own temple culture. It was the only culture that he knew. He was a part of the people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen. He was a part of the people who lived under the Law (with a capital L); who wrestled with the correct interpretation of the Law. The Canaanite woman was unclean by virtue of her birth into a people who did not live under the Law; who Israel did not consider to be the chosen people of God. She was unclean; she was the other; she was a foreigner. In the world that Jesus inhabited, she was not only unimportant, she was invisible.
There is something very enticing about thinking of yourself and your people as chosen or especially blessed by God. It is one thing to believe that you are a child of Abraham, therefore a child of God, and to believe that you are loved. The dark side of that belief is to understand other tribes, races, or nations to be unclean or defiled or less than human. We may feel loved and have trouble sharing that love with others, but to believe that we are chosen above others breeds arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and even contempt. A poster hangs in our conference office that addresses cultural arrogance. It reads "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit." The world that forms us establishes our sense of reality. We are each a product of our culture and we learn our culture’s assumptions, fears, and prejudices along with its blessings. Jesus was a product of his culture.
Even though the Caananite woman cried out for mercy, even though she called Jesus “Lord,” even though she added the messianic title “Son of David,” her intrusion was unwelcome. She was unwelcome. And Jesus dismissed her out of his understanding of his call to the house of Israel. But she persisted because her daughter was so ill. And Jesus said what I think he really believed, that his time and energy and prayer belonged to the house of Israel. And he said it in the cultural words of his time, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” We’d say it a different way, using any of the racial epithets of the last two centuries—they all sting and diminish a person’s humanity, the image of God in which they are created. The Canaanite woman, a remarkable debater because she was a desperate mother with a very sick daughter, accepted the slur, but refused to be turned away from the table of God’s blessing. She knew that crumbs are still bread and she reminded Jesus that God feeds all of God’s creatures. I believe that in that moment of looking into the human eyes of this creative woman, Jesus saw for the first time, the image of God in a person outside his culture. He saw the woman with the eyes of his heart. In that moment, the Kingdom of God became greater than the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of God took precedence over the culture in which it had grown. Jesus acknowledged and praised her faith and granted her plea for healing.
You know why I think that this is an accurate reading of this story? Because in the next three verses, even greater crowds came to be healed and they didn’t praise God, as we would normally read, they praised “the God of Israel,” indicating they were praising a God that was not their culture’s god.
This awkward story tells us two important things. The first is an example of what the church affirms, but that we have a hard time believing (or choose not to believe)—that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. He grew as we grow and he learned as we learn, through trial and error and through his experience. In spite of knowing the Law and knowing and loving God with his whole being, God could, and did, surprise him. Jesus remained open to the voice and movement of God. In spite of the Psalm that we heard this morning and the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus was caught unprepared when God lived up to God’s own prophecy, “Behold, I do a new thing.” I’m not sure that means that God actually does something new for God, but that what God is doing is new for us; that we see the great love of God in a new way. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we should also be prepared to be surprised by God.
The second thing this awkward story tells us is that the Kingdom of God critiques every culture. Culture is a human construct. The Kingdom of God critiques every culture, not only the temple culture of Israel, but also our own. Like Jesus, our first allegiance must be to the Kingdom of God no matter how entrenched we are in our culture, how much sense it makes to us, how “right” we believe it to be. The Kingdom of God calls us to a higher authority and a greater love for all of humanity—for all those created in the image of God. Living in the Kingdom of God demands that we see beyond what our culture has taught us; to see with the eyes of our hearts; to see as God sees; to love as God loves. May we also be agents of healing in the name of Jesus.
Let us pray.