So I was reading the common lectionary earlier today for some inspiration, when I saw that the upcoming reading for August 20th was from Matthew 15:21-28. I’m planning on speaking on this passage that week during our Sunday morning gathering, but I want to share a few initial thoughts with you here!
First, the passage:
Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”
But He did not answer her a word.
And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.”
But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.Matthew 15:21–28
Can we just admit how odd this passage is? At first, Jesus, who always shows compassion to the crowds (including a Gentile in Matthew 8), doesn’t seem to even notice this woman at all. The disciples start to get annoyed with her, which is similar to the story in Acts 16, and Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
What about the prophecies that talk about God including the foreigners, such as the Egyptians and Assyrians, in the kingdom of God? What about the passage that says that “God so loved the world?” What about the later texts which say that Jesus dies for all men and that the disciples were to go to every creature?
Why does Jesus basically justify his inaction by claiming he wasn’t sent to people like her?
Great questions. I think that’s the point, actually! This is meant to be puzzling, as it was to the disciples and to the woman. These are the questions the Spirit wants us to ask because asking them about Jesus forces us to ask these same questions about ourselves. Why do we pass by on the other side? Why do we discriminate?
So, to start, it’s important to notice where this woman is from. She is identified as a Canaanite woman living in the regions of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon did not have a good reputation among the prophets. Isaiah in Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel in Ezekiel 27 and 28 have some really nasty things to say about them. They would be destroyed, their people would weep, and they would “cease to exist” (Ezekiel 27:36).
So Jesus, knowing what his disciples know, states the obvious, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Surely, out of all the people the gospel needs to go to, surely it doesn’t include these people right? I mean her daughter probably deserves that demon! They are lawless, condemned, and cursed.
Yet, we serve a God who promises to set things right (Acts 3:21). All things are summed up or recapitulated in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Grace gets so out of hand that one might accuse God of throwing the children’s food to the dogs. All of us “good” people deserve it, and all of those “bad” people aren’t worth the effort. But God desires all to be saved.
In a beautiful demonstration of God’s grace and the scope of the gospel, as well as what it means to really be clean or unclean (Matthew 15:1-20), Jesus challenges his disciples by uncharacteristically following conventional wisdom to prove a point about the unrestrained, non-discriminatory good news of the kingdom.
The sun shines on the just and the unjust. The blessing of rain waters the crops of the good and the evil. God is not willing for any to perish.
God’s plans were much bigger than Israel. Abraham was chosen to be a blessing to all nations, not to hide behind his election.
Similarly, we are to not lock the gospel away behind our prejudices and judgments. How far do we go in proclaiming this good news of love?
Until we are accused of taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs because that’s who our God is. Until we are accused of eating with sinners because that’s what our God did. Until people beg us to send these kinds of folks away because they are bothering them because our God refused to send this woman away.
Grace got out of hand in the life of Christ. Could we be accused of that today?