August 20, 2017/Matthew 15:21-28
This Jesus is hard to like.
This Jesus is not the one we learned about in Sunday school, not the one who opened his arms in compassion and fed five thousand people, or sat on the mountain and blessed the poor in spirit and the mourners and the hungry and the persecuted.
That Jesus would not ignore a woman, a mother, who approached him, pleading for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. That Jesus wouldn’t cast her aside, calling her a dog. Would he?
She is a Gentile woman – a Canaanite, Matthew calls her, probably to stress just how much of an outsider she is. She is pushy and brazen. She shouts at Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” Kyrie eleison. Have mercy, Lord! The disciples urge Jesus to send her away. Who does she think she is, shouting after us like that?
And Jesus seems to agree. He seems to nod his head as he answers them, “I was sent only the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
When he sent the disciples out into the mission field, he clearly told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.”
But his message hasn’t been going over too well with the Jewish elite. The Pharisees and scribes challenge him at every turn. The constant sniping and arguing is probably why he went into the region of Tyre and Sidon in the first place. Didn’t he tell the Pharisees that the people of those cities would have repented long ago if they had heard his teaching?
Besides, this woman is not the first Gentile to plead for Jesus to heal someone dear. In fact, when the centurion appealed to Jesus to cure his servant, Jesus told him he would cure him. When the Roman soldier told Jesus that he only needed to “speak the word, and my servant will be healed,” didn’t Jesus declare, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith”?
So why does Jesus respond so harshly to the pleas of this Canaanite woman?
This text is a difficult dialogue that reflects social stigmatism, racism, and religious discord. In Mark, the woman is identified as “a Gentile, a Syrophoenecian.” By calling her a Canaanite, Matthew reminds his hearers of “ancient Israelite-Canaanite conflicts, dating from Noah’s condemnation … to slavery.” Jesus, a Jewish man, ignores her shouts, reflecting centuries of animosity between his people and hers, exhibiting a cultural prejudice that we find hard to stomach.
“Jesus is God’s Son, and yet he is raised in a culture that had strict rules about contact with other cultures. … [He] initially denies the woman’s request based on religious and cultural differences. His abrupt response to the woman is startling yet expected. He has been raised in a culture of separation by race, gender, class, and ethnicity.”
By framing this story differently than Mark, the writer of Matthew helps “his readers grapple with the tension between those members of his community who understood the gospel of Jesus to be the way for Jews to be faithful Jews and those members who believed that the gospel was intended by God for the whole world.” Jesus’ response to the woman names that tension and claims the truth of both viewpoints. It also causes us to reexamine our own understanding of Jesus and God. We hear this story about Jesus, and we are reminded that “Jesus’ life and words, his death and resurrection, speak the truth about God perfectly accurately; yet Jesus does not completely or exhaustively speak the entire truth about God.”
So we wonder, “How do we imagine God, all the while knowing that God is by definition beyond human imagination?” Is God distant, disconnected, immovable? That is not the image we see in the Bible. In the Old Testament we read of God’s ongoing relationship with Israel, of God’s endless grace in the face of Israel’s disobedience. In the New Testament, the “very presence of Jesus in the world and the nature of Jesus’ relationship with the world would have us image God incarnate in the movement and flexing of time. … In this image of the divine nature, God … cares and suffers, loves and forgives.” This God changes God’s mind in response to the cries of God’s people. This God hears our prayers.
Theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote, “Prayer is not to bring the petitioner’s will into submission to the unchanging will of God, but prayer is to move God to do something which he otherwise would not do.”
Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. There, he met a Canaanite woman – a Gentile. Ignoring all of the social taboos about approaching a Jewish man, this woman shouted at Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” And though Jesus ignored her, though he insulted her and called her a dog, she persisted. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she declared. And Jesus, despite her lack of status as a woman, despite her Canaanite origins, changed his mind. “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
 Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, 152
 Teresa Fry Brown, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, 35
 Michael L. Lindvall, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, 34
 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 185