Romans 11. 1, 2a, 29 – 32
Mathew 15. 21 – 28
I wonder how you feel about what you’ve just heard from Jesus. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty shocking, especially to twenty-first century ears. Is Jesus really prepared to exclude this woman because of her race? Is he really comparing her and her people to dogs?
How do we square this with what’s shown to us throughout the pages of the Gospels – a Saviour for all the world, not just a chosen few?
Well ultimately this encounter is not about race or gender or anything like that at all. It’s all about faith – and faith that transcends any boundaries and barriers that humans wish to create.
Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and scribes again, and this time over food. They’ve come to him and asked why his disciples “break the tradition of their elders” and not wash their hands before they eat.
This isn’t just a concern for good hygiene, this is one of the strict purity laws that people were expected to keep – and especially a teacher like Jesus. It’s the kind of thing that defines who’s on the inside – and who’s outside of a right relationship with God.
But Jesus calls them hypocrites. They care so much for the letter of the law that they’ve forgotten the spirit of it. What you eat and how you eat it doesn’t defile you, he says – but rather it’s what comes out of the mouth that counts: slander, false witness, evil intentions… in other words, the contents of your heart.
Jesus must be pretty frustrated by this point. He’s been teaching his followers all those parables we’ve heard over the last month or so, but they haven’t understood.
He’s been rejected in Nazareth, his own hometown. He’s just heard that his cousin John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod.
He’s performed wonderful miracles, feeding the five thousand, healing so many sick and relieving their suffering… and after all this, the Pharisees complain that he and his friends aren’t washing their hands before dinner!
In his frustration, he leaves the people of Israel behind for a time, and goes into the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon, which is where our reading begins. And here, I think, is the key to understanding this difficult encounter.
Jesus has given so much to his people – a people chosen by God. And he knows he will have to give so much more. Soon he will tell them that he must suffer and die.
But here is a Canaanite woman – someone completely on the outside in all sorts of ways – and she gets it. She understands who he is, and what he can do. Let’s just take a closer look at their conversation.
‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,’ she cries. ‘Kyrie eleison’ – even at the time Matthew was writing his Gospel, that had become a liturgical prayer. And this foreigner acknowledges his descent from King David – something his own people had forgotten. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” they asked back in Nazareth. “What right does he have to teach us?”
He initially doesn’t respond to her at all – self-respecting rabbis shouldn’t talk with women in public, and certainly not foreign ones. But when she persists, “Lord, help me,” he seems to reject her cruelly, likening her and her people to dogs.
Dogs weren’t really domesticated in that culture, and certainly not kept inside the house as pets like we do.
Jesus in effect is saying to her, “I have prepared all this wonderful food for my children – for those inside the house of Israel. Why should I throw it to those outside the house?” But she counters that “even the dogs” outside may eat crumbs that fall from the table.
What those inside the house have failed to notice, this foreign woman on the outside has seen so clearly.
She sees the precious value of the wonderful food that Jesus is offering to his people – more than that, she sees that Jesus is the food. And that even just a few crumbs of what he has to offer, are enough to heal her daughter and restore their lives again.
She didn’t understand this because she had the ritually clean hands that the Pharisees called for; or even necessarily the pure and innocent heart that Jesus desires to form within us. It was nothing more than her simple faith: that in her need, Jesus is where she would find the healing she longed for.
And, perhaps despite appearances, Jesus responded to that need as always out of his boundless love and compassion: to share the food of the kingdom with her, and heal. To remove the barrier, to open the door between those on the outside, and those inside the house.
It was a dramatic lesson for the watching disciples, who were all too happy to keep her locked out.
And the same thing is offered to us, in all our difference and diversity. It’s a promise that when we acknowledge our need of God’s healing, and come to him with simple faith: we will find that same compassion
That when we eat the crumb of bread and sip of wine that he offers us: little by little he may form his heart of love within us, and we may grow into our true identity: not as people of boundaries and barriers, those on the inside and those on the outside. But rather as beloved children of God, ready to take our place with all his family at the great banquet he has prepared for us.
The great promise of this Gospel is summed up so beautiful by one of the Prayers of Humble Access, and I’d like to end with it now. Please feel free to join in with me, if you know it.
Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in him; and that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen.