I am not gonna lie this was a tough scripture to write a sermon on. A few weeks ago when I picked out my scripture’s I read this one and thought of a theme and thought I was all set. However, upon reading it and starting my sermon earlier this week I realized what was actually going on. I am sure this is an interesting to hear as well, but why? What is it about this scripture that makes us do a double-take at what is going on in it?
Well when we read it and look at it we see a Jesus that does not remind us of the Jesus we are used to hearing about in other gospel stories. We encounter a Jesus who is harsh, a Jesus focused on a specific purpose, and a Jesus who is initially unwilling to help somebody. This is not the Jesus we are used to hearing about. We usually see the change in the disciples or the people who are listening to Jesus. However, in this passage we see that Jesus ends up changing and in the process learns something. Then from that we can learn something too.
A few years ago I graduated from Randolph-Macon College. Now for those of you who don’t know Randolph-Macon is involved in one of the longest-running small college rivalries in the country. The rivalry between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney goes back to the 1890’s and is full of intense encounters. As one who has experienced it I would truly liken it to some of the most intense rivalries in college sports. There is much animosity between the schools, and it shows when any sort of competition occurs between them.
We have all kinds of rivalries and boundaries like this in our society and we are often forced to choose a side. These boundaries that have been created that we people are forced to make a decision about. Not just in college sports or even sports in general, but throughout our society boundaries are thrown up and create division and animosity among people.
Much like our present situations a division was in place in the first century between Israelites and Canaanites. This division did not start in the first century it was actually many centuries in the making, and this particular story is merely a dot on the timeline of this division. However, the animosity between these two groups of people was heavy. The Israelites worshiped the one true God and the Canaanites were considered idol worshippers. This created much animosity between the two groups.
So then how are we to interpret this scripture. I think it is important to first think about the time that the event is occurring and take that into consideration. I think we also need to look at Jesus’ own words and what they mean in this instance. However, most of all we must focus on what actually happens at the end of the story, and what Jesus’ final reaction is in the situation. For from this comes the example that we are to truly all live out in our lives today. We must think about how the barriers are broken through the story, and how this ends up being an example of how Jesus calls us to break boundaries.
This is a tough scripture because we see Jesus in a way that we do not recognize him in, at least at the beginning. It is an unfamiliar situation where he is not chomping at the bit to help somebody and actually seems to have some animosity towards helping this woman. This becomes a situation where Jesus learns and thus from that we learn as well.
In the scripture we see Jesus has gone away from Galilee and has moved towards the region near Tyre and Sidon. This is North of Galilee. We are not certain why Jesus has decided to trek up into this area, but if we look some of the text that comes before it we might understand that he could want some time away from the Pharisees and scribes who are constantly coming at him with questions. We can also gather this if we read this passages parallel in the Gospel of Mark 7:24-30. In verse 24 it says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” From this we can imagine this escape would be for him to collect himself.
However, in seeking this solitude we see that he is approached by a Canaanite woman. This woman approaches Jesus and says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” (v. 22) This woman who has somehow heard of the miracles of Jesus, and is trying her luck by asking him for help. Although this would have been highly unconventional for a Canaanite person, let alone woman to do, she does it anyway.
Jesus, however, does not respond at first. It seems he merely ignores her, and this is when we hear the disciples response to her. The disciples even urge Jesus in verse 23 to send her away. However, from her persistence, Jesus then decides he will interact with her, and he tells her quite bluntly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” (v. 24)
This makes no sense. How can this be, because we have seen Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors and all sorts of people who he should not be, but here is where the line is drawn? It can’t be a Canaanite. However, if we think about it all of Jesus’ other interactions are among Israelites. This event is the only recorded interaction Jesus has in this region. All of his other adventures take place in Galilee or Judah and with the people of those regions who were primarily Israelites. Jesus is ministering to the people of Israel.
Now Jesus truly was sent for the lost sheep of Israel. If we look at the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible and even at his work through his ministry we see a man who is trying to repair a broken relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus seeks to repair that relationship and calls people, once that relationship is mended, to go and tell the world and all peoples of that relationship. Jesus does not seek to be rude, but merely is fulfilling the prophecy.
However, we continue to feel funny about the way it is handled. Confronted by this woman who would not leave Jesus uses a bit of a harsh analogy it would seem. When she asks him again for help Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I am sure that even in our time of considering dog’s “man’s best friend” that we would still be reluctant to take our children’s food and give it to dogs. However, in this time it would have been even more harsh because dogs were not as big a part of society in this time. Either way he relates her to a dog and says that he should not sacrifice what is meant for someone else.
However, it is the woman’s retort to this statement Jesus makes that really opens up our learning for this week comes into play. As we have heard the barriers between Israelites and Canaanites were immense. While Jesus preaches peace and reconciliation amongst all people he focused his message towards the Jewish people in whom he was sent to teach. It is the woman’s retort that truly shows us that we should break down barriers we make. She begins by agreeing saying, “Yes, Lord,” but when she continues we see a change in Jesus’ feelings towards the woman. She goes on saying, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v. 27)
“Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This statement has huge implications for Jesus’ message that he was sent to help the lost sheep of Israel, and is even a statement about those who are not amongst the Israelites. As I said in the first century dogs were not as highly regarded as they were now. They did not get their own bowl of food and sometimes would not receive anything. However, they would pick scraps and crumbs that fell from the table.
We have all been there. You are eating and all of the sudden a scoop of mashed potatoes ends up on the floor, and often times the dog rushes over and licks it up. Well this would have been somewhat similar in the first century. Dogs would have gotten the crumbs and scraps that fell from the table. Even if the master decided not to feed the dogs. The dogs could still be fed if they wanted it. If the dog believed they could get food it was possible.
This woman seems hopeless towards anything. Canaanites were idol worshippers and looked towards idols for things like healing and exorcisms. So for her to come to Jesus would assume that she believes in his healing power. It would seem that she does not surrender herself to the idolatry that is corrupting the land like the others around her, or she is trying her luck with this guy Jesus she heard about. She places her faith in Jesus’ works, and she is rewarded for the faith she has. However, it is not the faith I want to focus on, because we looked at faith last week. I instead want to look at what this situation means.
This woman is seeking to break down that barrier to find help for her daughter. There are so many people out in the world who are in need of our help. They are in need of healing and peace and reconciliation and so many other things. However. we are more like the Jesus and disciples at the beginning of the story. We are hesitant and often very resistant to do anything. We even try to use harsh analogies sometimes to demoralize these people.
Instead we need to be more like Jesus at the end of this story. The Jesus who helps the woman and breaks down the barriers that society has created. The woman has shown Jesus that she is not giving up and that she understands that while Jesus was sent for the lost sheep of Israel that he can also show what the Israelites are supposed to do as well.
You know I continue to be a part of that rivalry between RMC and HSC, and we all continue to be a part of rivalries and boundaries. However, we must understand that we cannot let these affect the work God has called us to do. We may think that there are people out there who are undeserving, but as we hear the woman say that, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” Those crumbs are a metaphor for God’s love, and the woman recognizes that even the least of these can gather the crumbs that fall from the table.
As we go out let us not forget that Jesus ultimately calls out into the world. Not certain parts of the world and not to certain people, but to the entire world. We are not called to continue to perpetuate these societal barriers, but to break them down and to extend God’s love to others. Because Jesus spent his time repairing our relationship with God. Therefore we should be out helping others to create one as well.