Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
My first question about our Gospel reading today is, “What the heck was Matthew thinking? Why is the second half of our reading even in the Bible? Especially when we read it with the first verses when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. At the beginning of Chapter 15, we hear the religious leaders and Jesus arguing about what rituals are important. The religious leaders complain that the disciples are not washing their hands properly before eating. Jesus responds that they are focusing on the wrong thing. The discussion becomes a public debate, when Jesus calls the crowd together and explains that it “is not what goes into your mouth that is the problem, but what comes out of your mouth!”
We are pretty obsessive about washing hands these days. Not for religious reasons, but to prevent the spread of viruses. We have learned over the past few years how important it is to have good hygiene. Then we read that Jesus and the disciples travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon, two largely gentile areas. This is where the second part of the story takes place. As they arrive, a Canaanite woman sees Jesus and begins to shout at Jesus about her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. Jesus ignores her and keeps walking. Jews do not speak to Gentiles, especially Gentile women! But she shouts louder and louder, following them. Finally, the disciples ask Jesus to send her away.
Jesus responds to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” – again, not acknowledging the woman. When she hears this, she runs to Jesus. She kneels at Jesus’s feet and says, “Lord, help me!” We might have expected Jesus to respond the way he did with many people, by lifting her up and granting her wish for healing for her daughter. But what Jesus does is insult her and call her a dog. Jesus makes clear that this woman is not worthy of his attention. For the Israelites, Canaanites were the squatters who came to live on the land the Israelites claimed as their own when they returned from exile in Egypt. Okay, so that was hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Why does he hold onto old ideas of who is worthy of God’s love? We can tell ourselves that Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith. Or that Jesus didn’t call her a dog, but a puppy. Neither of these ideas are anywhere in the Bible. So, what the heck is going on here?
Remember what Jesus had just said to the disciples? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Was Jesus setting up boundaries on who could be saved? Or was Jesus reacting with the prejudice against Canaanites and Gentiles that was pervasive in his time? The woman persists, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” I imagine there was a long silence. Everyone watching must have been leaning in, waiting anxiously to hear what Jesus would say. Remember, Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. This woman and her people had no standing in the realm of God. She was nobody, an idol worshiper, according to the Law. I imagine Jesus standing there – Jesus, who was both human and the Son of God, raised in a community that saw the Canaanites as the lowest of the low, not even worthy to be acknowledged. Finally, Jesus speaks, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” We cannot know what happened in Jesus mind or heart at that moment. But we do know what Jesus said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the result of those words was amazing. The woman’s daughter was healed!
So what are we to make of this Gospel? And how can this message call us to act out our faith today? Through Jesus, God is calling us to reach out in love, even to people that are strange to us, people who have different beliefs than ours. Whether Jesus was moved by the woman’s faith or because of the love for her daughter shown in her persistence in entreating Jesus to heal her suffering child. We do know that we are called by God to love all people. The ones who are just like us, and those who are not at all like us. Sharing that love through our actions. This is why we collect school supplies for children in need, and make sandwiches for the homeless. This is why we, even in these troubled financial times, continue to support our First Fruits ministry.
We are called by God, not just to feel love for our neighbors, but to act out that love through what we say and do every minute of our lives. Amen.