If you ever read a book in bed at night, or the Sunday paper on a Sunday afternoon after lunch, it isn’t that unusual for our eyes to get heavy and we may find ourselves reading and rereading the same bit of text over and over again and we simply can’t take it in. Reading the Bible can be a bit like that sometimes. We can read something and miss the subtle and even not so subtle points that a passage contains. Our reading today is no exception.
Initially, when Jesus sent the twelve disciples out he said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6) At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the focus was clearly on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the people of God. Today’s gospel reading is one of several that serve as a stepping stone in the way in which Jesus’ ministry subsequently unfolds. It points to the outreach of the gospel beyond Judaism; God’s people had had an opportunity to hear the Good News. The reading provides us with a glimpse of the Gentile mission which would soon prove so widespread and so successful – a mission which ultimately would be summarised by ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18-20)
In the reading, Jesus and his disciples were miles away from Jewish land – in Tyre and Sidon – a gentile area. It would have been unlikely that Jesus would even have been heard of in this area, and that was one of the reasons why he went. And then a Canaanite woman approaches him and begins to cry out. To do this she had to overcome three barriers that would have very much placed her on the fringe or even beyond the society in which Jesus lived. These barriers were:
a) She was a Gentile, someone who coming into contact with would make an Israelite unclean or defiled
b) She was a Canaanite, a people who led God’s people astray who the Israelites had been told to wipe out
c) She was a woman
Her motivation was simple – that of the deep love a mother has for a child, and a heartfelt desire of a mother yearning to see her daughter healed – in this case her daughter who was “tormented by a demon.” There are few other motivations that can be more powerful than the love a parent knows for a child.
She overcame these barriers in three ways – probably without consciously thinking of how:
a) She acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah
b) She acknowledged Jesus as her King and Master by calling him Lord
c) She poured out her heart and threw herself upon Jesus’ mercy
What she said was very specific “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” It is incredible that anyone in that region would recognise Jesus, never mind acknowledging him by calling him the Son of David which was a title reserved for the Messiah.
The surprises don’t end here though. The passage goes on to tell us that initially Jesus “did not answer her at all.” People can say a lot by simply not replying can’t they? What was Jesus trying to achieve by his lack of a reply? I wonder who it was that had to come to faith – the woman, or Jesus’ disciples? Jesus broke through the Jew/Gentile wall of hatred and separation. Jesus dealt with Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering the caste system of His day—and shocking His Jewish brothers. What Jesus was about to do would be as an anathema to them…they had to be in a place where they could accept what he was about to do.
Despite Jesus’ lack of a reply, the woman persisted. She “kept crying out after them.” I wonder what were the disciples expecting Jesus to do when they said to him “Send her away”? So Jesus is presented with two conflicting requests – have mercy on me, and send her away. He is pulled in two different directions, and yet he initially ignores both. Then, and only then, does he answer by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) It is likely that this was a half question rather than a statement of closure, along the lines of ‘Was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?’ His statement invites further dialogue rather than closes it.
And then something incredible happens. We are told that the woman “came and knelt before him.” (Matthew 15:25). This literally means she ‘began to worship’…and what a dialogue unfolds.
It reminds me of the prayer of humble access from our communion services:
We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus’ heart was moved, and he responded with love and grace. ““Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
We KNOW Jesus is the Messiah, we KNOW he is the Lord; let us come before the Lord just as that woman did; with hope and expectancy, with persistence and faith and with all that we are. Let us pour out our heart in silent prayer and throw ourselves on his mercy.
Let us take a few moments in silence to offer up our own prayers to the Lord now. Come just as you are, and share with him what is on your heart.