BIBLE READING:† Matthew 15:21-28
If I wrote this gospel story, things would have come across differently! I would have had the Canaanite woman approach Jesus, make her request, then perhaps after a bit of banter back and forth as he did with the woman at the well in Samaria, he would have gazed lovingly upon her, said a few saving words, and she would have gone away filled with faith, she would have headed straight home to tell all her people about a new Messiah. But that's not what we get, that's not what we get at all. The woman asks for healing, not even for herself but for her daughter. The disciples try to brush her off, Jesus denies responsibility, but when she presses her case, saying simply, "Lord, help me," in a loving and pastoral way he turns to her and says, "It's not fair to the chosen people to take time out to work with dogs." And that's about the nicest way you can translate it. There are alternatives that sound much worse!
If this passage disturbs us, the good news is that the Holy Spirit usually disturbs those who are about to discover a new thing, so perhaps God has a new thing in store for us. I suspect that long after we are through with this passage it won't be through with us.
Leaving our speculations about the inner workings of the mind of Jesus aside for a moment, we've got to agree on one thing, and that is that this Canaanite woman is one special person. After all, most of us would have given up after the disciples attempted to brush us off. "Well, I tried, now there is nothing to do for my daughter but go home and get ready to lock her in Psych hospital." The especially bold among us might have ignored the disciples - who seem not to have known what Jesus was up to most of the time anyway, and we would have stepped right up to him. But then we might have given up after he turned from us as though we weren't there and said to his disciples who had just tried to run us off, "I was sent only to Israel."
And if somehow we had not given up in our hope of achieving his healing by then, when he turned to us in our direct appeal and said, "It is not fair to throw the children's bread to the dogs," well surely we would have given up by then, wouldn't we? How long are we going to stand around being called dogs before we have heard enough? Not too long, I'd say. But this women isn't like us, and maybe that's why her story is here for us, to challenge us into thinking about our situation in ways we hadn't considered before.
Martin Luther once preached a powerful sermon about this passage.(This sermon of Luther's appears in Church Dogmatics, Vol. I.1, by Karl Barth, T&T Clark, 1936, p 177) He discovered that all of the first three responses from Jesus sound very much like "no", but a person with such an accurate understanding of the very depth of her own need, who had not a shred of hope left apart from this one standing before her, such a needy one could manoeuvre inside the tiny openings left in each response if there was even a chance for hope of a "yes" remaining. All three of Jesus' initial responses sound like "no", but leave open the tiniest possibility for a "yes" that might yet be spoken. The passageway through which that yes might be found becomes tinier and tinier with each response, but it is still there each time.
Matthew says that when she first approached him, Jesus did not answer her a word. He gave her the silent treatment. Many of us would take that as an implicit "no". But remember, this woman was desperate. He was perhaps her last hope. Silence is not "no", not definitely. Maybe he hadn't heard, maybe he was distracted. Maybe "yes" is hiding inside that silence. So she persevered.
Matthew says the disciples "begged him" to send her away, probably suggesting that he should go ahead and give in to her request so that she would just quit bothering them. The disciples whined at Jesus, but he was apparently inflexible in what continued to sound like a "no": "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he said.
Now we read at the beginning that this was a Canaanite woman, not a Jew, not even a Samaritan, so this surely shuts the door, doesn't it? But though it is a tiny thing on which to base a hope for a "yes," he didn't so much as say that she could not one day be of the house of Israel. Maybe a slim chance for a "yes" still lurks in this remark. Is there any way that a non-Jew can be made a part of the people of the promise? Those of us who know the history of the church after the resurrection know that indeed, it was Jesus' sacrifice that made possible our being grafted into the tree of Jesse, the stock of the chosen people. What seemed impossible became possible. Indeed, there must be a way for non-Jews to become part of the house of Israel if there is to be any hope for us!
When she gets his attention for a direct response at last, we really do expect a "yes", since he has given her two more or less open-ended responses already, and everyone knows that good stories come in threes. You know the sort: "There were three men in a life raft, a lawyer, a doctor, and a politician..." The punch line, the good news, always comes on the third item. But not here. Just as she appeals to Jesus in an abject, even pathetic tribute from one not even of the house of Israel, "Lord, help me." He turns to her directly at last, but instead of saying the word she desired, he said "It's not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
Well if you are going to go calling people dogs, surely that is a "no", firm and definite, isn't it? But Luther found that even here, language was being stretched out of all its accustomed shape. He didn't say "You are a dog and shall not be given the children's bread." His remark was not aimed, it was generic. The tiniest thread of hope can still be found in this response, even after this a "yes" may still be spoken.
So the woman, keen about even this last remaining opening to hope for herself and her daughter, accepts Jesus' comment for what it is - OK, so I come from a people that your people call dogs - and responds, "Even dogs eat crumbs dropped under the tables of their masters." Think of the impact of this comment. Anyone desiring to learn from this story must learn at least this one thing. The woman did not reject Jesus' label, did not quibble about her tribal affiliations, was not put off by his initial silence. She accepted each response on its face value, and said, in effect, "Yes, Lord, it is true that I am a sinner, I am a person who certainly is not worthy of your grace, but then your gospel is not about my worthiness but yours, not about grace I may earn but grace which you are prepared to give. I am not worthy, but you have promised to pardon sinners, so by your own promise I must ask to receive the crumbs of your grace which are better food for sinners than banquets of our own deserving.
Not on the expected third response, but on the unexpected and surprising fourth response, Jesus exclaims to her, "O woman, great is your faith!"
If there is a lesson for us to draw from this exchange, I think it has to do with persistence, and probably hundreds of other things beside, but at least persistence. Do you feel separated from God? Don't give in, keep praying to God with all your misery, your loneliness, your fear, your guilt, your desire for healing! Has your life backed you into a corner from which you see no escape? Let the Canaanite woman be your model, and look for that possibility for grace which lurks in the background of even the most hopeless-looking circumstance - and work that little bit of a crumb of hope until it becomes a whole loaf to nourish your spirit.
Now there was once an old sinner who had lived a wild and loose life too much in love with gambling and the bottle. When he died the local minister, who was something of a tyrant, insisted that the man be buried outside the fence of the church cemetery. The consecrated ground inside the fence was only for good and upstanding Christians.
Years later the minister was long gone and the man's daughter came to the church to pay her respects. She could not find the grave outside of the fence. She went over to the old caretaker and asked him what had happened to her fatherís grave.
The caretaker took the man's daughter to a grave inside the fence. The woman was somewhat abrupt "Why did you move my fatherís grave?" The caretaker smiled and said, "We didn't move your fatherís grave. We moved the fence."