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September 2014

A surprising Jesus? 

[This message is based on Matthew 15: 21-28]


The faith of a Canaanite woman

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’

24 He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’

25 The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.

26 He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

27 ‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

28 Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.


Suppose you had a very sick child, and you had heard of Jesus and how he healed people. If you then knew that he was in the neighbourhood, what would you have done?

Did you see the story on TV or in the papers of the baby in his buggy on a tube station platform which was blown by a draft of wind over the edge of the platform and onto the rails? You may have seen the useless man standing reading stuff on the wall and listening to his i-pod who saw or heard nothing. It turned out that the baby’s father – another useless man – hadn’t put the brake on while he went to help his wife bring another child in a buggy down the stairs.

But when she arrived, the mother – Supermum - realised what had happened and she sprinted to the platform’s edge and immediately jumped down to rescue her baby. She herself got back safely on the platform before the next train arrived. This was as close a call to disaster as you would ever want. Mothers of all mammal species are real tigers when it comes to defending their babies.

So to get back to my question – if you had a sick child and you knew Jesus the healer was nearby, what would you have done? Yes I’m sure you would have done exactly the same as the Canaanite woman in our Bible reading and begged Jesus to heal your child. And how would you have felt if Jesus had simply ignored you and turned his back on you. And worse, if you had continued pestering Jesus and his disciples, how would you have felt if the disciples said to Jesus, “This woman is driving us crazy. Send her away.” Is this what we have been taught about Jesus? Perhaps we have misunderstood? Perhaps we have.

Jesus’ excuse was “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Is this true? Was he only sent to the Israelites? Well, yes. It was, at that point in time.

We need to stand back a bit to understand this.

Away back in the mists of time, God made a covenant with his chosen man, Abram. If we look in Genesis 12, verse 3, we read these words

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’

And if we fast forward through hundreds of years, we look in Isaiah 42 verse 6, we read these words

I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
    I will take hold of your hand.
 I will keep you and will make you
    to be a covenant for the people
    and a light for the Gentiles, 

In other words, the descendants of Abraham – the Israelites – had been chosen by God to be his special people, to keep themselves holy and to worship God faithfully. But not just for their own sake but so that through them all the peoples of the world, all the Gentiles, all of us, could become God’s children, citizens in the Kingdom of God. Abraham’s descendants were a people who carried God’s promise. They were the promise-bearers of God that all peoples would be brought in.

But over the centuries, the Jews had apostatised; that is they had stopped worshipping God in the proper way. One consequence of this was that they were invaded by a succession of foreign powers, most notably the Babylonians, at about the time Isaiah made his prophecy, and by the Romans about the time of Christ. And as often happens when a group of people are battered and bruised by other groups they tend to turn in on themselves, looking inward all the time, trying to keep themselves pure and holy, and ignoring all outside their own community. Isaiah quietly reminded them of who they were supposed to be.

That might not have been so bad for a while, but they continued to be inward looking and they even distorted God’s rules for living to suit themselves

Yes they kept all the religious festivals and made all the burnt offerings required by the Law, and they kept all the minutiae of the Law. But over the years they had interpreted the Law to their own ends and ignored the Sprit of the Law. For example they were expected to honour their father and mother, and that meant caring for them in their old age. But yet if the adult children gave money to the Temple that they had previously set aside to provide for their parent’s care home fees, they were excused having to pay for the care home. Isn’t that awful? There was no NHS for the old folks to fall back on.

They criticised Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating a snack out in the fields. Now of course it is always a good idea to wash your hands before meals for health and safety reasons, but the Jews made a fetish of it. They were not so much concerned about the good health of the disciples as with them breaking the rules.

The thing is, of course, that all people throughout the ages have found it impossible to keep the rules for holy living all the time. This is the nature of men and women – we mess things up. So it was always going to be the case that Jesus was going to come to help us put things right with God. But the Jews were still the bearers of God’s promise that all peoples would be saved through them. And so his mission had to be first to the Jews, to give them the chance to mend their ways,, to worship God in the right way and to bring God’s salvation to all people. And that is what Jesus did. He announced to the Jews that the Kingdom of God was at hand. First the Jews and then other through them. That was the future. And that is why Jesus said what he said – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” It was not the time – YET - for others.

But in spite of this, the future kept breaking through into the present. In chapter 8 we read that Jesus was so taken by the faith of a Roman Centurion, that he did what he was asked, and healed the soldier’s sick servant. And here in today’s story it is happening again – up north in Lebanon away from Jewish territory, a desperate Canaanite mother stops at nothing to get her daughter healed; the future breaking into the present. She accepts the insult of being called a dog, she accepts the “outsider” position of the Gentiles, and retorts to Jesus, “Yes it is right Lord, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Her daughter was healed by her great faith.

God’s plan was finally worked out through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and in that way God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled. Through Jesus the Jew, the descendant of Abraham, salvation came to all people.


Ken (29 August 2014) (having drawn inspiration from Tom Wright's commentary Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 SPCK 2004)



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