Brian Stoffregen hit the nail on the head when he said that Matthew 15 is all about ritual purity: Who’s clean? Who’s not? What makes them that way? On the one side you’ve got the Pharisees carping and complaining that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. On the other side, you’ve got this poor Canaanite woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter.
It’s an age-old question: Who are the saints and who are the sinners? The answer is not as simple as you might think. And that’s the essence of the sermon this morning: In keeping all the rules, the Pharisees thought they were the righteous ones; while, if there were anyone undeserving of God’s mercy, well, it’d be this Canaanite woman.
Surprisingly, what we find is that those who are closest to the kingdom are those with – are you ready for this? – those with the faith of a dog. Let’s take it from the top. According to Matthew,
“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem,
saying, ‘Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders?
For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread.'”
So, who are these Pharisees and scribes, anyway? They’re the moral police force of Jesus’ day. They’re the keepers of the Law. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the ticket to ritual purity. Richard Donovan writes,
“Pharisees and scribes think of holiness as faithful observance of the law … The issue is that of man-made tradition vs. God’s law … While Torah law included a great deal of detail, it did not attempt to anticipate every possible scenario. Rabbis who loved God and wanted to keep the law faithfully developed the Mishnah (compiled 200 B.C. to 135 A.D.) and the Talmud (compiled 250-500 A.D) to correct this ‘deficiency,’ producing works that filled nearly 36,000 pages (Lockyer, 1029) … Caught up in such detail, a person could fail to see the forest for the trees.” (www.sermonwriter.com)
But let’s not be too quick to criticize. The Pharisees and scribes were the ones who took faith seriously. In today’s parlance, they were the pillars of the church. Their attentiveness to detail reflected their devotion to God.
And that’s the irony: Seeking to be righteous, pure and holy, they created a barrier that separated them from God. Religion can do that.
Truth to tell, some of the most difficult people to love I’ve ever known were religious people. They’d trump your kindness with their morality every time. You could never do enough to please them. If you came to church every Sunday morning, you should’ve been there Sunday night. If you gave a tithe, you should’ve given more. If you don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with boys that do, you probably need to cut back on your carbs and lose some weight.
I used to have an elder like that. He was a religious Nazi. If he’d had his way, the ushers would’ve worn white gloves and black arm bands and marched down the aisle to take up the collection in lock step formation. Have you ever known anyone like that?
But to give him credit, he loved the Lord with all his heart, and he supported the church generously with his time, talent, gifts and service. I wish everyone were as committed as he. I only wish he could’ve loosened up and cut the rest of us some slack.
In the passage today, the Pharisees and scribes came all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to set Jesus straight: “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders?” They also criticized him for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6) and for telling people that their sins were forgiven. (Matthew 9:2-3) “This man blasphemes.” they said. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself was impure, and how ironic is that?!
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In contrast to the Pharisee and scribes, Matthew juxtaposes this Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon, way up to the north of Capernaum. She’d obviously heard about Jesus and was desperate. She cried out,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David!
My daughter is severely demonized!” (Matthew 15:22)
What follows is an exchange between Jesus and the woman that’s, frankly, a little embarrassing.
First, Matthew says that Jesus ignored her altogether, and I quote: “But he answered her not a word.” (15:23) Add to that the fact that the disciples kept insisting that he send her away. When he did answer her, Jesus said, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (15:24) Clearly, he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Well, after all, she was a Gentile.
Still, the woman persisted. Matthew says, “But she came and worshiped him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.'” (15:25) Once again, Jesus refused. He said, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
It’s at this point Jesus gave in and granted her wish. He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (15:28)
Now, if this chapter is all about ritual purity, what does this Canaanite woman have that the Pharisees and scribes don’t have? I’ll give you a hint: It’s an eight-letter word beginning with h. Got it?
She has humility … and a big dose of it. And it’s her humility – her willingness to let go of every last vestige of pride she has and throw herself at the feet of the Master that leads her daughter to be healed and secures a place for herself among Jesus’ followers.
Robert Short brought this story to life in this year’s Heritage Lectures. I took the liberty to transcribe the first part of his Monday night lecture entitled, The Gospel According to Dogs. He begins:
“If anyone is in Christ, says St. Paul,
he is a new creature….”
O.K., so Christians are new creatures. But exactly what kind of creatures have they become? They’re now dogs.
Jesus makes this clear when a Canaanite woman – that is, a Canine-ite woman falls at the feet of Jesus. This woman is dogging the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples and making a complete nuisance of herself.
‘Send her away,’ the disciples say, ‘she keeps shouting after us.’ So Jesus turns to her and says, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Well, does this stop her? Not even almost. ‘But she came and knelt before him,’ Matthew tells us.
Get the picture? If not, Rembrandt with one of his drawings of this scene can help us see what happened. This dog of a woman – or so the Canaanites were thought of by the Jews – especially the Canaanite women – this Canaanite dog was quite willing to play the part – to become a dog – literally to get down on all fours begging. So, not only a Canaanite and a woman but now, also, a dog. How low can a person sink?
‘Lord, help me,’ she cries. Then Jesus gives her the ultimate test. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ he tells her. ‘Yes, Lord,’ she answers, ‘yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ Does that do it?
That is exactly the answer Jesus wants to hear. In a single place in all scripture where Jesus seems to have changed his mind, he says, ‘Woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Well, this was nothing new in the ministry of Jesus. From the very beginning he had been consistent and insistent that his message was directed to the spiritually poor: To the lowest of the low in heart, to the emotional down-and-outers, to those knocked down on all fours and willing to crawl … to the dogs, in other words.
And here she came taking Jesus at his word, groveling and grateful for any little scrap that might fall from his table. She became a dog. And this was exactly the kind of humility Jesus was looking for.”
Thank you, Dr. Short. The question is what’s the Good News for us today? I hear two things in this passage. First, have you ever wondered whether or not you measured up to God’s expectations – that if there were, say, minimal standards for faithfulness and good works, you might come up lacking?
If so, this passage is for you. The Canaanite woman’s great faith had nothing to do with how good she was, or how much she was devoted to God, or whether she’d done good deeds for others; it had to do with her need for a power greater than herself and her willingness to confess it. Jesus once told the Pharisees,
“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician,
but those who are sick do.
But you go and learn what this means:
‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’
for I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
One of my favorite hymns puts it this way:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
– Joseph Hart
If this passage tells us anything, it’s that there’s a place in God’s kingdom for the least, the last and the lost. In other words, there’s a place for you and me.
It also tells us there’s a place for others, as well … for those we might least expect to be included in God’s great family. Think about it: We’re talking here about a Canaanite woman. Remember the Canaanites? They were the mortal enemies of the Jews. They were the descendents of Noah’s son, Ham, the ones Noah cursed forever for what his youngest son, Ham, did to him. (see Genesis 9:20-27)
If you’d asked the Jews if they could think of anyone who’d never be invited to the heavenly banquet they would’ve told you, “The Canaanites!” Yet, here is a Canaanite woman calling on Jesus to heal her daughter, and, in spite of his initial reluctance, he not only healed her daughter but commended her for her strong faith. On the ladder of ritual purity, she was near the top, while the Pharisees and scribes were on the bottom rung.
Next time you run across someone you think is beyond God’s grasp, think again. God has a special place in his heart for the underdog – for those you’d never, ever expect to curry God’s favor. Frederick Faber put it this way:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
with a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever a kinder shepherd,
half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
come and gather at His feet?
Friends, be as faithful as you can. Be religious, if you will. Just be careful and not let your righteousness stand in the way of God’s infinite mercy, grace and love. Dare to have the faith of a dog, eager to please and willing to take your place at the Master’s feet.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.