A Tough Text…

Matthew 15:21-28

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

 This has always been a problem text for believers. The disciples of Jesus are rude, racist, and impatient. Worse still, Jesus himself seems cold and unkind to put it mildly.

  • One traditional interpretation is that Jesus was simply testing her. He didn’t really mean those cruel things that he said to the Canaanite woman. He was drawing the disciples, crowd, and woman along to a teaching moment.
  • Another view is that Jesus – as fully God and sinless, was also fully human and part of his environment, context, and history – and therefore displaying blindspots similar to all Jewish men and rabbis that may have lived in that period. His meeting and conversation with the Canaanite woman change Jesus, allowing him to grow in his own understanding of his mission and role – not just as minister to the lost sheep of Israel but indeed to all people. He is challenged by this outsider, woman, and gentile – to go deeper with his own words about “clean” and “unclean” which he had spoken to the Pharisees and crowd earlier in chapter 15 while still in the Jewish territory of Galilee.

In considering this last interpretation I was reminded of the often-used phrase “white privilege” and its implications. While it’s not a sin to be one who has white skin (who can choose that?), it may be a sin to continue to deny, defend, or ignore the obvious implications of often being at a great advantage to one whose skin is of color. In the same way, can we see Jesus as representing a male of his historic context – while still “growing in his faith and obedience”? (see Hebrews 5:7-10)

My intent is not to attempt to solve this issue. Regardless of which way you understand Jesus in his deity and humanity, or choose to deal with this difficult conversation he had with the Canaanite woman, I think it’s clear that certain things can be learned from this text:

  • Jesus and the disciples had crossed over from Galilee (Jewish territory) into Tyre and Sidon (Gentile territory). They were NOT in their usual element. They were outside their comfort zones.
  • The gospel that made sense in Israel (vs. 1-20) now had to make sense in Syria. Jesus had just taught that one didn’t become unclean from not following Jewish rules – but from what comes out of the mouth and heart. Was the Canaanite woman “unclean”, a nuisance, unimportant, because she wasn’t Jewish? Is she really a dog just because she was born in Tyre??
  • When we look at the book of Acts we see the early church growing as it crosses cultural barriers – Hellenistic vs. Hebrew widows (chapter 6), Philip and the Ethiopian (chapter 8), Peter and Cornelius (chapter 10), Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles (throughout)… Could this be the real pattern and context for kingdom growth?
  • Is it possible that we, too, change when we interact with people who are NOT like us – different language, a different religion, different culture. The gospel tends to flow and strengthen when these boundaries between “us and them” begin to disappear. Either the gospel is good for all of us, or it’s not much good for any of us. Can we really trust the power of the gospel to save all? Are we able to change and adjust our own understanding in order for this to happen?
  • When Jesus was confronted by this foreign woman – he evidently changed, praising her faith, and healing her daughter. Should we not do the same?

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our JCC Zoom Worship session on Sunday, August 16th…)