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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 17, 2014

 Out of Bounds Faith

Isaiah 56:1-8; Matthew 15:21-28

              I would like to offer you this morning’s powerful story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman all neatly wrapped and tied together as a perfect little gift. But unfortunately, it is more like an oversized, awkwardly-shaped gift that won’t fit any standard wrapping, with pieces of it sticking out of the wrapping paper all over the place.

             First, there is the setting. Tyre and Sidon – outside the bounds of Israel. This is the only time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus finds himself outside Israel, in what Jews would call pagan or Gentile country. Then there is the woman, who along with Jesus, forms the heart of the story. We never learn her name. Matthew calls her a “Canaanite woman,” which is a strange name for Matthew to use, given that the Canaanites were extinct by now for centuries. Mark calls her “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.” Matthew is the most Jewish of all the Gospels, and the Canaanites represented everything dangerous and threatening to Israel. To call her a Canaanite would be like calling a German person you meet today a Nazi – it would be highly insulting, dredging up a painful past.

             Then there is the problem of her behavior. She comes “shouting” or “screaming” at Jesus – yet what she shouts is moving, and at the heart of this encounter: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” She calls Jesus both Lord and Son of David, the last thing you might expect from a Canaanite woman!

             Then there is Jesus’ behavior in this encounter. At first, Jesus says nothing at all, “not a word.” Of course, for a Jewish man approached by a Gentile woman, this would have been expected behavior. But two thousand years later, we expect so much more from Jesus!

             So then comes Jesus’ disciples getting into the act. “Send her away, for she is screaming at us!” They want rid of this nuisance of a woman, this loud, intrusive, desperate, aggressive Gentile, this Canaanite! And then worst of all, Jesus seemingly agrees. He says out loud, though we really don’t know who He is talking to, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It seems like Jesus is reciting once again His mission, and concluding that this woman, this desperate outsider, is outside His mission. Now in fairness to Jesus, He knew that Israel was called to be “a light to the nations,” that through Abraham’s offspring God intended to bless “all the families of the earth,” but still, this woman is outside the pale of those Jesus was sent to help and save.

             We are perplexed by Jesus in this story, and it is about to get worse. She comes and kneels before Him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This was a derisive, even a racist term that Jesus used to refer to Gentiles. Scholars go to great lengths to explain it away – but still it stands. They point out that Jesus used a word for “dogs” in Greek that means “little dogs” or “house pets.” But being referred to as a “house pet” is still being called a dog! Jesus here might be unknowingly reflecting some of the prejudice with which He grew up as a Jewish boy, hearing the men pray, “I thank Thee, God, that I am not a Gentile or a woman.” This poor woman is both, and Jesus refers to her as a dog; the whole passage makes me squirm!

             So how did Jesus get from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the Great Commission? “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The mission of the church is worldwide, and always has been. But how did Jesus get there? How did Jesus get from coming “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to embrace “all nations” in His call? Is it possible that this Canaanite woman played a role in teaching Jesus? Luke said that “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” Is it blasphemous to suggest that Jesus grew from the people He encountered?

             Don’t good teachers keep on learning all their days? And don’t they learn from their students? And don’t good parents learn all kinds of things from their children? And is it such a bad thing to suggest that Jesus kept growing all His days in His understanding of God’s call and claim upon His life? I remember attending Sarah’s baccalaureate service from college. We had two tickets, and Josh and I were designated as the recipients of them. The bulletin explained everything about the service, including the fact that students graduating with honors were designated as such by the gold braids they wore atop their gowns. I knew Sarah was graduating cum laude, so when she turned up with a plain black gown, I turned to Josh, partly amused, but mostly annoyed, and said, “Isn’t it just like Sarah to forget the gold braid?!” And Josh looked at me and smiled, “Isn’t it great that she doesn’t care about stuff like that?” (Don’t you just hate it when your kids are right?!)

             The question this morning, though is, “Can this Canaanite woman become our teacher as well?” Nothing keeps her from Jesus! Not Jesus’ silence to her initial plea – and how often do we feel our prayers are met by utter silence? Not the disciples pleading with Jesus to get rid of her! (More than a few would-be followers of Jesus are turned off by the attitudes and actions of Jesus’ would-be followers, church members.) And not Jesus telling her that He was only sent to serve the house of Israel. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fell from their masters’ table.”

             Jesus is obviously stopped in His tracks by her response. She could have added, “Game. Set. Match.” This is the only place I know of in scripture where someone gets the best of Jesus in an exchange. Jesus is obviously moved by her response! He says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

             Jesus said, “Great is your faith!” What was it about her faith that Jesus called “great”? Well, she surely teaches us much about persistence. Helen Keller said, “We can do anything we want as long as we stick to it long enough.” Louis Pasteur, the great healer, said, “My greatest strength lies solely in my tenacity.”

             But even more than her persistence is her utter confidence in Jesus. Faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us,” Calvin said, “founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ.” She has that ultimate confidence, not in herself, but in Jesus, that He really can and will heal her daughter. Maybe we don’t know much about prayer until we have begged and pleaded and knelt before Jesus long and hard, knowing, believing that He is the answer to our deepest prayers, that He alone can deliver us and heal us. “Great faith” is never about “how much,” but in whom we place it. What are the deepest prayers in your heart this day? Can you offer them to Jesus, who is strong to save, and the answer to all our prayers? Can we kneel with this woman before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me”?


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