Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile [Greek: Canaanite] woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”Matthew 15:21-26 (NLT)
But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”
But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”
We might be surprised to find that Jesus gave this woman the silent treatment. Then to make matters worse he denied her request with a put-down! As surprising as this might be, this incident had a much greater surprise for the earliest readers of Matthew’s account of Jesus.
What shocked people then was not what shocks us now. In fact when Jesus gave this woman the silent treatment, he did what anyone in that time and place would have expected Jesus to do. There was a common belief that God had given the land to the descendants of Israel. Here, however, was a descendant of Canaan. Beliefs lead to attitudes, and while there was an attitude of disgust toward foreigners generally there was an even worse attitude toward the indigenous peoples. This Canaanite was a reminder of the failure of the descendants of Israel to completely take the promised land.
That Jesus gave this women the silent treatment was not a surprise. Indeed the disciples thought she should be driven away, betraying the belief that her people should have been driven out hundreds of years earlier. What was shocking here is that Jesus engaged in conversation. What was even more shocking is that Jesus commended her faith and granted the miracle.
She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”Matthew 15:27-28 (NLT)
“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.
Let us take note that this descendant from Canaan gave no hint that she wanted to break with her people and identify with the descendants of Israel instead. The faith that Jesus commended was not faith in the Jewish religion, but in Jesus himself. That was truly shocking!
Let us take note also, that Jesus did not instruct the Canaanite woman to become Jewish, to identify with the descendants of Israel, to make their, and his, religion hers. Rather he does a good deed, an act of love; he healed her daughter. As shocking as Jesus’ cold shoulder might be to us today, the positive engagement with Jesus, and the affirmation of a Canaanite woman’s faith in himself is what was truly shocking at the time of the incident.
Some of our church members are following along with me in reading through the New Testament using the OneYear Bible. In our readings this past week there have been a lot of surprises on top of this incident with the Canaanite woman. Jesus walked on water leading the disciples to connect Jesus with the divine: “You really are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:2 NLT). Jesus taught that character was more important than ritual purity leading the Pharisees to be offended (Matthew 15:1-20). The word for offence in the Greek is a word that has come into our English language; scandal. Jesus was not just full of surprises, he was full of scandal too. In a further surprise for the earliest readers, Jesus brought clarity about his identity with Peter’s confession that he is the Christ, the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-19). So surprising, so scandalous, and so dangerous, was this idea, that Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone (Matthew 16:20). Then there was that weird incident we call the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) where it was made evident that Jesus is greater than the law, represented by Moses, and the prophets, represented by Elijah. What, or who, can be greater than the law and prophets other than God? Again another surprise, another scandalous thought, another dangerous idea. Matthew will go on to tell us more shocking things than these, such as Jesus being killed, usually a sign that one is not the Messiah, and that Jesus rose from the dead, a sign that Jesus is not your usual idea of a Messiah. And never mind healing a Canaanite women, the Book of Matthew ends with a huge surprise:
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)
Everyone is invited to this party, including Canaanite women!
So what does this have to do with us today?
First, do we feel the shock, the scandal of Jesus? Or have we become rather blasé about it all?
Have we become so accustomed to the stories of Jesus that they have lost their shock value? Have we become so accustomed to the teaching of Jesus that nothing surprises us? Perhaps we need to put ourselves back into the shoes of the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, or the people actually there with Jesus at that time, and be shocked.
Or are we not shocked by Jesus because he is not at the centre of our faith? Perhaps some of us need to pay less attention to Paul, or Calvin, or (insert your favourite Christian teacher here), and pay more attention to Jesus?
Or is it possible that we have just fallen into Christianity because we are Canadian and there happens to be a lot of Christianity in Canada? Or our parents and grandparents just happen to be Christians so we just happen to be Christians too? Is Christianity a religion we subscribe to, a box we tick off in a census, or is God the God who has shocked us and rocked our world in Jesus? If Jesus has truly shocked us we will not want to hold onto Christianity as a religion we practice, but to Jesus as the anchor for our souls, the wisdom for our lives, and the hope for our future.
Have we experienced the scandal of divine love?
Some think the idea of divine love is crazy and scandalous because of suffering. With all the troubles of this world and this life, how could anyone believe there is a God who is for us and not against us? Yet beauty has a habit of breaking through. There was great ugliness when hateful people strung Jesus up on a cross. Yet beauty broke through. That was a surprise.
Some think the idea of divine love us crazy and scandalous because divine judgement might seem to be more important and makes more sense. But in Jesus “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” becomes “’this is my body broken for you,’ and I’m not going to break your body. ‘This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins’ and I’m not going to shed your blood.” That was a surprise.
Do we have the audacity to believe in divine love, that God is, and that God is for us and not against us?
Second, do we continue the shock, the scandal of it all?
Does it ever surprise people that we are for them and not against them?
It is possible that we have made Jesus, and Christianity, boring. What has been shocking in our society is not Jesus and the idea of divine love, but unmarked graves in religious residential schools and pastors whose sins have found them out.
Let us get back to the most surprising, the most shocking, the most scandal ridden person in all of human history – Jesus. Let us follow in his footsteps with some surprises of our own.