Materials for Worship at Home on 20th August

Nerys writes: Today’s short Gospel passage, Matthew 15.21-28, centres on a marginalised woman who was so desperate for help that she would – and did – do anything to get to Jesus. Once more this week, we have heard on the news stories of people who are just as desperate for our help, due to war or persecution, due to the effects of climate change, due to the cost of living crisis, due to social isolation. Matthew’s story isn’t straightforward, however. In fact, it has been described by various authors as one of the most unsettling, awkward, puzzling, shocking passages in the New Testament. Let us explore it together, taking our time to reflect on how it speaks to us as the ones through whom Jesus chooses to respond to desperate people today.

Jesus had left the province of Galilee after a major clash with the Scribes and Pharisees, travelling north into the hills. We can imagine him pausing with his disciples in a highland village to get some peace and quiet and a perspective on his work and its effect. But even there, his reputation has gone before him …

A local woman comes, desperate for his help. Her daughter is being tormented by a demon. ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!’, she cries, hailing him as the Jewish Messiah, but Jesus doesn’t answer her. The Greek suggests she is screaming continuously. Yet it seems that Jesus is ignoring her. We can imagine him walking on with the woman running behind him until his disciples, upset or annoyed by the disruption, urge him to send her away. It’s only then that he stops to explain his silence, speaking of ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ as the only ones to whom he has been sent.

This woman is described by Matthew as a Canaanite which is odd because in Jesus’ day, the Canaanites, the former enemies of Israel, no longer existed as a people group. The point Matthew is probably making by using this term is that she is a Gentile, belonging to a people who worshiped strange gods and didn’t observe ritual laws of purity, a people who had long been excluded from the chosen ones of the God of Israel. And this is the issue around which the whole story revolves. His mission, Jesus insists, is to the Jews only. It is limited to God’s chosen family of faith.

Upon hearing his words , the woman moves quickly to block their path by kneeling in front of Jesus. She pleads once more, ‘Lord, help me!’ as she prostrates herself before him. (The Greek verb can also mean, ‘to worship’.) In his third response, Jesus rebuffs her again and this time, what he says sounds like an insult: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs’. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain this response but there’s no getting away from the fact that the term ‘dog’ is dehumanizing. It is clearly meant to be offensive.
Despite his harsh words, the woman holds her ground and answers him back, challenging the notion that she is outside God’s promises, insisting that her life and that of her child, matter. Even if Gentiles are ‘dogs’, she says, a dog may come near enough to the table to gather up the crumbs that the children spill and so share the same food as the family. Matthew gives her the final punchline in the story and on hearing it, Jesus commends her great faith and her daughter is healed.

Jesus’ behaviour is clearly out of character, his words are undeniably insulting, but without seeing his body-language and his facial expression and hearing the tone of his voice, it is almost impossible be sure how to interpret this encounter.

Some readers see this story as a unique example in the Gospels of Jesus changing his mind. They hold that Jesus, born as a Jew, would have grown up with a certain worldview. It would be natural for him to accept that Gentiles were to be excluded from the family of faith and even from the circle of those deserving compassion. They argue that the woman in her desperation pushes Jesus to do something he had not intended to do. It is her, and not Jesus, according to them, who is the hero of the story. She challenges his views, confronts his prejudice, opens his mind to new possibilities. It is her persistence and the sheer force of her faith, they say, that shakes Jesus out of his narrow Jewish perspective and brings him to a fuller understanding of the scope of his mission. He may have healed her daughter but she taught him what it meant to be God’s Son – not just a Jewish Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel, but the Saviour of the people of the whole world,

Others assume that Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use this chance meeting as a teaching moment for his disciples. He knew that this desperate woman had recognised something in him that even his own disciples had failed to see. So he set out to be deliberately provocative, challenging her by his hesitancy and his disparaging words, to display the quality of her faith. He reflects society’s attitude towards her but not his own, playing devil’s advocate with her with a twinkle in his eye, in the knowledge that she is a match for him. And she responds magnificently.

In the church for which the Gospel of Matthew was written, there were those who believed that Christianity was not for everyone, only for God’s original people. Conversely, in today’s Epistle, Romans 11.1-2, 29-32, Paul addresses the Gentile churches in Rome, who saw the Jews as a lost cause. In both these churches the Christian faith was at risk of being limited by cultural and racial boundaries. It continues to be at risk in our churches and in our lives today. It doesn’t matter how we interpret the conversation, this is a story about faith calling us, to widen our vision, to push old boundaries. to enlarge our hearts.

In today’s Old Testament passage, Genesis 45.1-15, we see Joseph’s faith in God being finally revealed as he forgives his brothers. It is this faith that enabled him to grow in wisdom and compassion to such an extent that he could embrace those who had plotted to kill him and sold him as a slave to Egypt. The call of faith is insistent like the Canaanite woman who wouldn’t leave Jesus alone. It led Jesus to the cross and beyond. It keeps after us, calling us by name, challenging our limited thinking, transforming out hearts so that we are prepared to respond to all who are in need of God’s love.

Loving God,
enlarge our hearts to see others as you see them,
engage our minds to remember that we are all your children,
encourage us to bring your love to others, especially those in need,