The expectancy that hopes great things of God is the passport to the kingdom. Jesus didn’t heal the child – he said it was the woman’s faith that brought healing. It is only within that welcome that Christ can work the wonders of his love.
For August 17, 2008
Matthew 15: 21 ff.
From the beginning of Matthew’s fifteenth chapter Jesus had been pushed to think some new and unsettling thoughts about who he was and what he was about. In a way he had gone where he had never gone before. Some have even called the beginning of this chapter the crux of his career, his Rubicon, if you please. And one thing is certain, this story will come up again in the memories of his followers as they wrestle with the question of whether the good news was for more than just a Jewish constituency.
Several things lead up to the climactic moment. First, the Jerusalem brain trust had come out to where Jesus was involved in his ministry. It would be like Arthur Roberts, Paul Anderson and Howard Macy showing up here from Newberg some Sunday morning to do an audit of our orthodoxy. They ask Jesus: ”Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders?” Tough question! The quarrel they were picking wasn’t just over a matter of personal hygiene, such as hand washing, it was over scribal interpretations of Moses Law; rules that had been set up as a hedge to protect the faithful from accidentally breaking a law that could bring the wrath of God down on the whole community. This issue has hung around for a long time – does the transgression of one member of the community make liable the whole community. This is the issue that caused the Puritans to hang Mary Dyer and some other Quakers in Boston: the fear that one person’s sin would bring divine judgment on the whole community. The case in point was a person’s avoidance by religious regulations of a their responsibility to their parent – literally a transgression of God’s commandment by maintaining a religious tradition. Then there was the matter of the Pharisees getting upset when Jesus said that it was the things which came from a person’s heart which defiled him – not what one had consumed. As far as the Pharisees and Scribes were concerned, Jesus was way out of bounds, dangerously out of bounds.
So now let’s look at the text from Matthew 15, starting with the 21st verse.
“Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Was Jesus just being rude? Was he like the people who, unfortunately, have to listen to unhappy customers vent on the telephone about unacceptable business practices and then not respond because they started shouting? Fascinating, even after last week’s lesson in inclusiveness, it is like the disciples hadn’t learned a thing, they urged Jesus to “Send her away!” – that seems to be a very human response to people in extreme circumstances, people desperately in need, people not like us.
There are several preliminary questions this story brings to mind. What, for instance, was Jesus doing outside his own country? Now he was literally ‘out of bounds’. He was in gentile territory. The woman Matthew identifies is a Canaanite. For the Jews, she was of a people of ‘reproach’. Then if you sit with the text a minute the question occurs, just who it was to whom Jesus was speaking as this exchange begins? Was it is to the woman or to his disciples or to himself that he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?” Though I know I will have some detractors I think it was the latter.
Luke is the only Gospel that deals at all with this matter of whether Jesus’ awareness of his role and of his identity was at all open for discussion. One of the better known paraphrased editions reads like this: “There the child became a strong, robust lad, and was known for wisdom beyond his years; and God poured out his blessings on him.” Such editorial liberties, trying to fill the absolute void on information regarding Jesus’ childhood, have led to the notion that Jesus was not just gifted but was perfect, complete and omniscient. There was no room for him to grow into his vocation. It is what has given rise to the wild tales of Jesus the miracle child. In the infancy narratives of the Gospel of Thomas we are presented with the wonder boy of Nazareth. In these stories Jesus is extraordinary but not lovable. One great story is that on a Sabbath Jesus crafted a dozen sparrows out of clay the making of which violated the Sabbath. When corrected he instructed the sparrows to fly away – which they did. Weymouth, in his version of the New Testament gives us a rather literal translation, but I think a better one, with these words: “And the child grew and became strong and full of wisdom, and the grace of God rested upon him.” This better understanding comes from seeing that the Greek uses a form that doesn’t say that he was complete or ‘full’ as a child but that he was in the process of being filled with wisdom. His mind as well as his body were subject to all the same laws of maturation and growth as every other human child.
Let me ask you this question: When and where did Jesus learn of his vocation, his calling? Where, in fact, do we learn of Jesus’ commission? Later, the disciples will be told by Jesus to go into all the world – that is our great commission found in Matthew 28. The call of several of the Old Testament prophets are quite clear about theirs. One’s call was a vision another occurred while he was herding the family livestock in Tekoa. The call of Moses leaves little in doubt. Of course there is the story of Jonah. John the Baptist evidently identified himself with the Nazarite priest hood and the school of the prophets. His work was limited to the Judean wilderness. We know that Paul had a difficult time, as did Peter and the Jerusalem counsel, in taking the good news beyond the house of Jacob. Do you think the church received its universal commission through some such instantaneous christophany, or was it learned gradually by experience like we find described in Acts 10:1- 11:18? But where do we find Jesus’ commission? Was his call limited, like was John the Baptist’s, to run a franchise operation under the exact same call to repentance, for, “The kingdom of God is upon you” – and where the ‘you’ consisted strictly of Jews? Some would find his call in Jesus very name – by the way a very common name in his day – but the ‘Jesus’ we are accustomed to is a transliteration of a Latin version of the name. His name was Joshua. It meant ‘Yahweh is salvation’.
Have you considered George Fox’s call. It started in a sense of emptiness and abandonment when all his hopes were gone and he heard a voice which said to him: ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’. That is a pretty important starting place. Later he wrote that his desires after the Lord grew stronger, without the help of any person or writing. He spoke of how the Father of life drew him to his Son by his spirit. “And then”, he writes, “the Lord did gently lead me along, and did let me see his love, which was endless and eternal; and that love let me see myself as I was.”
Contrast that humble understanding of a God of love and mercy with commercialized evangelism with its self assurance and frightful God of wrath and vengeance. Thomas Kelly said that in spiritual matters Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders.
Matthew puts Jesus was in a different place – literally and figuratively. And this new place was pregnant with meaning and possibility. He has broken with tradition! In this person Matthew calls a Canaanite, Jesus sees a mother’s love desperate for her child. In this foreigner, Jesus sees faithfulness greater than what he had witnessed in the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. He sees in her persistence and wit. Jesus, the master of retort crosses rapiers with her- and she wins! But more by love and faith than quickness. She was still humble and the event gave opening to his grace.
Where Jesus had found no openness to his message within the received faith of his own people this woman showed more than faith. The harshness we hear in Jesus’ apparent conversation with the woman are clearly not what we expect as being ‘Jesus like’. They are a reflection of his own struggle with a changing understanding of his call from God! Does this raise questions about our persistence, our genuine openness to God’s grace, to our willingness to find our sense of vocation changing as our understanding of who we are and who God is changes?
For us we can’t miss the emphasis on faith in this exchange. The expectancy that hopes great things of God is the passport to the kingdom. Jesus didn’t heal the child – he said it was the woman’s faith that brought healing. It is only within that welcome that Christ can work the wonders of his love. For us we can’t miss the truth that in this little exchange in a little resort town on the Mediterranean coast, with a woman considered beyond reproach, Jesus reaches out to us. Are we persistent in our calling out “Have mercy on me Lord…”Have mercy on me….