Isaiah 51:1, 6-8 Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
How is everyone doing in these hot and bothered days of summer? I think that we are in good company this morning with our Gospel reading as Jesus seems hot and bothered too. Bothered by travelling around, the Pharisees and scribes are on his case in an attempt to catch him out, the disciples are slow to understand, hungry crowds that keep following him around! And now a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter has turned up and is shouting the place down with her demands.
What is up with everyone?! A question we might be asking ourselves about others these days too. I want to focus on Jesus and the woman for a few minutes. I think that we see Jesus at a point in his ministry where he is trying to test his disciples in their reactions (one explanation for his response to this woman). We also see something of his humanity as Jesus comes to understand his own ministry more deeply as well as the frustrations that being human brings.
The woman is looking for some good news, some help and relief in a deeply troubling time. At the outset, she does not receive the welcome that one might expect from Jesus! Anybody else a little short of love and goodwill these days?
We are living in a world that is hungry for good news, maybe even starving for it. It seems like all the news is bad – the pandemic carries on, the economy is failing, the planet is ailing, Beirut blew up, the migrants are washing up on our shores again, students are struggling with their grades, racism and injustice blight far too many lives. Where is the good news?!
As Christians, we are to be the bearers of, not the hoarders of the good news of a God who loves and cares for us. In every situation, no matter how bad and terrible it seems, we must share the promise that God’s liberating, saving and reconciling power is available for all people, in all places, all the time. This is a hard calling. It is easy to proclaim it theoretically, much harder to live it out in real life, which is the exact place where it is needed most. I think that in this complex and often confusing Gospel reading, we can find some hope in working out the call to share the Good News.
Jesus, like us, seems to be working out his calling. Jesus and the disciples have been sharing the message mainly with the Jewish people: ‘Israel’. They were God’s chosen people from the beginning, and this does not change in the New Testament. Israel had to hear the message first. Along the way, other people like the Roman Centurion, the Samaritan woman at the well, hear the message of Jesus too. The future is breaking into the present and it seems to take Jesus by surprise.
I wonder how she heard. The news of Jesus was spreading. Who told her about Jesus? Maybe someone who had been at the feeding of the 5000? Or at the Sermon on the Mount had told her and the neighbours about this Jesus? Clearly this woman has heard about Jesus even though she is a Canaanite – a Gentile, an outsider to the good news. Whatever she had heard obviously had made a deep impression and gave her some level of faith.
Jesus’ first response is silence and then when the disciples urged him to send her packing, Jesus looks to refuse to help her. She does all the right things, she addresses Jesus by his Messianic or Jewish title – ‘Son of David’ – so she acknowledges his Jewishness. When he finally does answer – it seems harsh. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ It helps to remember that Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels and he is trying to get his first readers – Jewish Christians to know and believe that Jesus really is the Messiah they have been waiting for. Jesus is trying to explain that he came for Israel first.
Then we have the interesting exchange about taking the children’s bread and throwing it to their dogs. The children here mean the Jews and the dogs are the Gentiles. I don’t think that many people would take kindly to being referred to as a dog! This would have been a derogatory remark – suggesting that she and her children were inferiors because of class and race.
Just a quick scan of the news these days and we can still how race and class divide us in our community and country. Black lives matter protests, migrants in boats arriving in the UK. I wrote about a same piece in the news sheet this week about migrants and being an immigrant myself. One of the great moral and cultural issues of the last hundred years has been racial identity. It is an issue that will not go away (nor should it) until we all see and treat each other as equal.
Anyway, the lady presses on and gives a brilliant rebuttal – ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Here she is saying that even if Israel is to be first, the promised people – then the Messiah (Jesus) will ultimately bring blessing to the whole world. The Isaiah reading: (v6-8) ‘and the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to love the name of the Lord, will be accepted on my altar’. This woman is joining herself to the Lord. Jesus’ countenance seems to change in her answer, he sees her faith and grants her request.
What is also so great about this answer – if we think back to the feeding of the 5000 – what do the crumbs of Jesus look like? 12 full baskets! This woman wants what she believes so badly that Jesus can do – she will take the crumbs off the table to help her daughter. She just wants a few crumbs – not the whole loaf bread. And for a few crumbs she is joining herself to the Lord. This is the faith that she is rewarded for. Back to mustard seeds and pearls – small things that get made large in the hands of Jesus. This is good news!
Sometimes we need reminding that even God’s crumbs can satisfy us completely! Her daughter was healed from that very hour. In our hot and bothered states, we too can lose sight of the bigger picture, the good news that we are meant to share, the promise which we have been given in the great love of God. What do we need to be reminded of today – what do we need a crumb for? Take a few moments to bring those things to the Lord and ask for some bread!
Lord God, we thank you that you hear our prayers and feed us with your bread of life. Thank you for your abundance of love and grace. Help us to have faith in every situation that we face – today and always. Amen.