Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28
Each time we read this passage from Matthew I’m struck by the different ways we might interpret it. My wife hears it as a woman winning an argument with Jesus, but I hear it as Jesus challenging the woman’s faith before healing her daughter. It is not to say Jesus would not have healed the child, regardless, just that Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. That is what he did with Peter, in last week’s lesson where Peter is walking toward Jesus on the water, gets distracted, and starts to sink. Jesus says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Discussing one’s faith is done by Jesus quite often. When a blind man near Jericho asks Jesus to restore his sight, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” When a woman in a crowd touches his cloak and is immediately healed, Jesus knows that power has come from him and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” The woman comes forward and says it was her, to which Jesus also replies, “your faith has made you well.”
In today’s passage, Cathy hears the strength of this Canaanite woman’s argument. It is her faith that gives her the strength to make this argument. Jesus has said he has been sent to “save the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then adds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman responses with, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Upon hearing her response, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
I do like this way of understanding of this passage. The woman is from a different tribe and Jesus initially ignores her, but she is persistent. She confronts him. He listens to her, and after he listens, he does what she asks. I like this because it presents a picture of a real relationship with God – one that allows for give and take. Too often, God is presented to us as dictatorial. God’s Will is sited as the reason things happened, and bad things need to be accepted as part of God’s plan.
I prefer to think of God as we see Jesus is this passage. The woman gets Jesus’ attention, and engages him in a conversation. He listens and he responds. His response is one of compassion. There is a lesson here about faith. But there is also a lesson about how we are to respond to people we might classify as “other.”
In the first verse of this passage, we are told that Jesus has left “that place,” that place is in the heart of the Jewish settlements on and near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon, where the Gentiles are settled. It is reasonable to assume he went there to get away from all those coming to him for healing. A place where there is less talk of his power to heal.
Then, this Gentile woman from the Canaanite tribe, one of Israel’s ancestral enemies, approaches him and begs for his help. She is definitely an “other.” Jesus tries to ignore her, but can’t.
The two of them talk and Jesus is amazed by her faith and responds with compassion. There are many “others” in our world – during football season for many of us in Arkansas there are the Razorbacks fans and there are the others. In politics, there are the people who are a part of our party and there are the others. In religion, there are Christians and there are the others. In churches, there is St. Paul’s and there are the others. The list goes on and on. It is in our nature to classify people by groups and to join the ones with people who believe what we believe, who like what we like.
We invest our time and energy in our groups and may even avoid being with people who are not part of our groups. We might even consider these others as less than, inferior. We make assumptions about the others and we build walls and put up fences to create separation. The Canaanite woman ignores all this and approaches Jesus. She initiates a conversation which breaks down the wall that separates his and her people.
Walls that divide are broken down when we entered into conversations that build relationships. Yet, more often than not, we avoid sharing our feelings with others. Think about how we approach others on the street or in the store. Think about when and where we share our concerns with other people.
In public, most of pretend everything is alright when someone asks how we’re doing. We know they are being polite by asking and we assume they don’t really want to hear we are stressed and worried. If our dog was hit by a car, a close friend or relative has disappeared from our lives, or someone we love has a problem with addiction – they don’t want to know. So, we are polite and we do not burden them with our problems. We say instead, “I’m good, how are you?” We think they don’t want to hear our concerns because we don’t really want to hear what they are struggling with either. We have enough problems of our own.
If we share our burdens with others, it is typically done in private. We certainly don’t fall down on our knees in public in front of someone and ask for help, as the Canaanite woman does. She does not pretend everything, and as result, Jesus shows her compassion.
I’m not suggesting you should start sharing whatever troubles you with anyone who asks how you are, but I do believe we need to build some genuine relationship with people we can trust. And, we certainly do not need to pretend with God that everything is okay. Being able to express our frustrations and anger is a necessary part of building a healthy relationship with God and with each other. How we do it is important, but not being honest about how we feel is isolating and often leads to lying to ourselves. It creates one-sided relationships that insincere and unsatisfying. It leaves us feeling guilty inside.
Today’s lesson teaches us it is okay to argue with God. After we express our feelings to God, we then need to be prepared to listen and open ourselves to receive God’s compassion in whatever form it might come. Healing stories suggest that if we have enough faith, those we love may be healed. Not all healing is physical; however. Life as we know it here and now is temporary and God’s compassion is found in the spiritual realm more often than in the world of flesh and bones.
Sharing our hurt, our frustration, even our angry with God can enable us to experience the healing power of Christ’s love for us. It can fill our hearts with the peace that passes our understanding.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you are present with us when we struggle, help us, we pray, to open our hearts that we might experience your love and compassion and share it with others. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.