Readings: Genesis 32:22–32 1 Thessalonians 4:1–7 Matthew 15:21–28
The Christian faith has recently been in the media more than usual. In addition to the usual disparaging voices by various loud atheists, several benign outsiders have come to the defence of the faith. Newspaper columnists and even one atheist philosopher have given their support to the positive effects of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular—at least in its tolerant and woolly mainstream Anglican forms. At first glance, this is a nice change from the usual cynicism and scepticism. However, the party was very quickly spoiled by the atheist Times columnist and former politician Matthew Parris. He argued convincingly that these new defenders of the faith were hardly desirable company for genuine Christians. Above all, they want a social Christianity for the sake of social harmony and stability, without Jesus. Although he does not believe in the teachings of the church, Parris argued that it’s hard to doubt the existence of Jesus of Nazareth for the simple reason that if he did not exist, the church would never have made him up. Jesus is far too disturbing and unlikely a character to have been fabricated by people who were out to invent a religion out of their own heads.
There are few Bible passages that confirm Matthew Parris’ judgement better than today’s Gospel. How many times have you heard of, and told others about, the loving Jesus who does not turn away those who turn to Him? Of the loving Jesus who fulfilled the prophet’s word about not destroying a broken reed or snuffing out smouldering wick? The one who came to care especially the weak, the powerless, and the outcasts? You can imagine someone inventing a Jesus like that. But it’s hard to imagine anyone inventing a Jesus who ignores a woman who personifies the powerless and weak, who in her desperation turns to Him for help. And when He finally does open His mouth to reply to her, we hear these harsh words that have caused so much embarrassment for Jesus’ subsequent disciples: “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.”
No, no one would invent such a Jesus. But there is a good reason why not: because such a Jesus seems to be of little comfort or benefit to us, especially to Gentiles such as ourselves. If a desperate Canaanite woman from near the borders of Galilee who is able to address the Lord in His mother tongue is called a dog, what do you call a twenty-first century Briton? If a woman whose daughter is demon-possessed cannot get sympathy from the Lord, what hope do we have of getting a favourable hearing with our petitions?
Whatever else may be said about the Jesus of today’s Gospel, we can’t get away from the fact that His behaviour is puzzling and potentially worrying.
But just as Jesus’ behaviour in this passage is remarkable, so is the behaviour of the Canaanite woman. It is remarkable that she approached Jesus at all. As a near-neighbour to Jews in Galilee, she must have known about the general Jewish attitude to Gentiles such as herself, how Jews were loathe to mix with Gentiles and liked to keep their distance as much as was practically possible. Being a woman, she was at a double disadvantage, since in that region in general and among the Jews in particular women occupied an unenviable position in society. Even as the word spread, as it must have done, that Jesus was performing great wonders amongst His own people, for this Canaanite woman to approach Jesus with her plea was extraordinary. She was breaking any number of unwritten rules of decent behaviour in order to get the help she needed. She was a Gentile—so what, her daughter was demon-possessed and needed help. She was a woman—so what, she had nowhere else to go. Jesus was a Jewish man. So what: He was able to help, so she had to procure His help, even as it cost her her dignity and risked complete rejection and humiliation.
This is a picture of true need putting faith to work. In Finland there’s a saying that someone is hanging on to a thing like a pig to a loaf of bread. Our Canaanite woman was hanging on to Jesus like a pig to a loaf of bread: she knew what she needed, and she knew that Jesus was her only hope. And so she hung on, forgetting everything else. She ignored His silence, she ignored the embarrassment her commotion was creating, she ignored the exasperation of the disciples and simply would not let Jesus go: I need a helper, you are the helper, so have mercy on me. She would not let go until she received a favourable answer. Like Jacob, she wrestled with the Lord, and was willing to endure any hardship and pain in the process—but she would not let go until she received His blessing.
This is how true, living faith works. It hears nothing and sees nothing but its own need and the mercy of the Saviour on which it calls. To us, too, the Lord’s behaviour may seem puzzling, indifferent and even hostile. Like Job, we are left sitting in some ash-heap, bewailing our fate and scraping at our sores. Where is God while we suffer? Why is He silent? In earthly hardships, in spiritual battles, it can seem that the Lord’s countenance is not lifted up over us but turned against us.
It is tempting at such times to despair, to tire of pleading to the Lord and instead hang our heads and go home. Perhaps we hear in our ears the accusing voice, calling us dogs not worthy to eat with the children. We sang just before the Gospel these words from Psalm 106: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” If that’s the case, it’s little wonder that I’m not so blessed, since I don’t do righteousness at all times, not even nearly.
No such worries hindered this poor woman. She pestered Jesus until her daughter was freed of the power of the demon. She did not consider her own status, her own character, her credentials or lack of them: she only fixed her eyes on Jesus until she received mercy. She neither saw nor heard anything other than that which only Jesus could supply: His mercy. This is indeed a great lesson for us in faith: not to examine ourselves, not to ask for the world’s opinion on our chances of success, not to look to the appearance of our circumstances before God, but only to look to Jesus, the fount of mercy. He may be silent for a time, His face may seem turned away—but He will not be silent forever, but at the right time He will grant His mercy to those who in faith turn to Him.
But why did He behave in such a hard and uncharacteristic manner? Is it true, as one preacher recently suggested, that Jesus wasn’t free from the prejudices of His time and had to be taught a lesson in open-mindedness by this Canaanite?
Certainly not. Rather, Jesus was silent at the beginning for the same reason that He acted in the end: out of His great mercy. Jesus did not simply heal this woman’s daughter: He also healed her faith. It’s true that she showed faith in Jesus from the beginning. But she had to learn to rely on Him for the right reason. Perhaps she was aware, after all, that she approached Him from a position of disadvantage, as a Gentile woman. And so she wished to plead for His mercy by presenting to Him the best possible case. First, she used His Jewish Messianic title: “O Lord, Son of David! ” Perhaps she wished to pass herself off as a Jew. Or perhaps she tried to flatter Him by using a title that she knew was highly esteemed among His own people. Whatever her motives, Jesus remained unmoved. It was as if He was saying, ‘You think you can flatter me into helping you. Try harder! ’
And so she tried harder, pestering His disciples in order to enlist their help. If Jesus wouldn’t listen to her, surely He wouldn’t refuse His closest friends. But again, Jesus rebuffed her, as if to say, “You think you can change my mind by manipulating my friends? Try harder! ”
And so she stopped trying. She stopped flattering Jesus. She stopped attempting to manipulate His friends. Instead, she knelt before the Lord and simply begged for help. The moment she did that, the moment she gave up trying to win His favour by making herself more appealing or by mixing with the right crowd, Jesus’ silence was broken and He spoke to her. One final hard word, to see whether she had really been stripped of her pretence of being entitled to His help: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” You don’t deserve anything from me!
Now that she had been stripped of her sense of entitlement, her efforts to appear a worthy cause, the Canaanite woman was left face to face with the true facts for the first time: she, the unworthy, before Jesus of Nazareth. And only then, did pure faith speak: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” ‘Yes, Lord, it is true that I don’t deserve to be called a daughter of Israel. Yes, Lord, it is true that I am not entitled to your favour. Let me be a dog. But if you would have me as a dog, then you cannot deny me the portion of the dog in the master’s house.’ And so she had Jesus trapped in His own words—and there is nothing that gives Jesus greater pleasure.
God is beholden to no one—but He has freely chosen to speak many and great promises to us, His children, and has fulfilled those promises in Jesus Christ. Now we are called to hear Him speak and to call Him to task over His word. As many of you as were baptised were baptised into Christ Jesus, and in Him you are now sons in God’s household. If the dogs are entitled to crumbs, you are entitled to sit at your Father’s table and enjoy the feast with Him. When He sees you, your heavenly Father looks not to your sin but to Christ’s righteousness. Should you be tempted to doubt or to forget your place in His family, He feeds you today with the food of heaven in the Supper of His Son’s body and blood. These are no scraps for dogs, but the fatted calf and the delightful wine from the heavenly high table.
Don’t look at your own worth, don’t think you can or ought to earn the Father’s good pleasure: it is yours in Christ Jesus. If for a time He is silent, it is to teach you to rely on His pure mercy and grace, so that in the end He can reward you not in proportion with your merits but only in proportion to His righteousness and His love and mercy towards you, His beloved child.