Matthew 15:21-28

Those People

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


 Next week our family will gather at our lake cabin on Pelican Lake in Minnesota. One of you sent me a clipping from the Minneapolis newspaper about the little town near our lake called Pelican Rapids. This little town of about 1500 people was settled chiefly by Norwegians and Swedes. There are seven Lutheran churches in this community. But Pelican Rapids is not Scandinavian only any more. The turkey processing plant has hired people from all over the world to work there; most come from Mexico and Central America but others from Bosnia and Somalia and Vietnam. The article highlighted how well this community was doing integrating these new folks into the fabric of the town. But I also know people from that community who lament the changes. “These new people aren’t like us,” they say, “They are different.” We may not want “those people” in our little town.

It has always been easy to draw a circle so that some are inside and others are out. It may be people of a different race or ethnic origin, different gender or gender orientation, age, educational background or ability. It is easy to look at the man with tattoos or the woman with many piercings, the man who stutters or the woman who didn’t make it through high school and say that this person is just not like us. Our Gospel text for today speaks directly to “us” and “them.” Jesus has gone out of the land of Israel into the region of Tyre and Sidon—Gentile territory.

Then a woman from the area comes to Jesus—Matthew uses the word “Canaanite” rather than “Syro-Phoenician.” This term is loaded for Jewish people because Canaanites were the pagan people whom the Israelites fought for centuries. The Canaanites were idol worshippers and opponents of the one true God. It was a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus. She came alone without a husband or son or father. And she came shouting loudly, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” This woman had three strikes against her—she was not Jewish and Jesus’ mission, so He told her, was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She was a woman—strike two—and she presumed to speak to a man without a male intermediary. Third strike—she was a pest whose screaming and shouting behavior would not endear her to Jesus and His followers. Indeed the disciples came and urged Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.” The circle is clearly drawn—Jesus and the disciples and Jewish men are inside. This bothersome, Canaanite woman is outside.

What I find very interesting is how much a man of His time and place Jesus was. Jesus agreed, it seems, with the disciples. He tried to brush the woman off. His mission was to Israel only. Yes, she had confessed him Lord and Messiah, something many in Israel would not confess. She asked him for mercy and knelt down before him in a posture of supplication and worship. She had faith that Jesus could heal her daughter of a tormenting demon. What did Jesus do when she would not go away? He called her a dog.

In the Middle East, even today, people do not keep pet dogs. We do. We shampoo them and trim them, dress them up for holidays, buy them treats. Our daughter Mary has a yellow Labrador and she just loves her dog, Nittany. One of the Chinese boys we recently hosted also had a yellow lab, Apu, and he loves Apu and plays with Apu. What Shui Yue likes to do is ride his bike and Apu runs alongside him in his hometown of LaShan, Sichuan. There is a family here at Central who has a dog that can turn on the TV to watch “Animal Planet.” Naturally he is most fond of the dog shows.

This is a world away from that of the Middle East. In Islam, dogs are considered unclean and are relegated to scavenging at the edge of the villages and towns. It was the same in Bible times. The Jews called the Gentiles “dogs” and it was not a term of endearment but rather of derision. It is the term used by Jesus for this woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” But she turned around and used the same phrase to say to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She had Him there. She broke the circle and entered in. Salvation came to her and her possessed daughter not because she became Jewish or promised to keep the Law of Moses. She outwitted Jesus, the only person in the Scriptures to do this. But here in Matthew’s Gospel she finds salvation through faith in Jesus alone. Jesus said to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Gospel is not just for men, for Jews, for people who conform to our expectations of them. It took the Church a long time to realize this. The first great controversy in the Christian Church was whether Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul argued that Gentile men did not need to be circumcised to be baptized and Peter had revealed to him by God that the dietary laws commanded in the Hebrew Bible were no longer required. No person was to be called common or unclean. At the Council of Jerusalem it was agreed that Gentiles could become Christians.

I remember when the American Lutheran Church decided that women must be allowed to be voters in congregations. Some congregations withdrew from our church body because they would not give women the vote. Millie Schulz was a trained teacher with a degree from a Lutheran teachers’ college. She would not lead a Bible study that had men in it because she truly believed that a woman should not teach men. In many churches woman are still not allowed to become pastors or church leaders. I remember when people with handicaps were not allowed into the seminary because they were blemished and the Old Testament said that those who impediments were not worthy to serve the Lord.

I had one woman come to me and said, “Pastor, divorce is not the unforgivable sin.” I certainly do not approve of divorce and Jesus’ teaching on remarriage seems clear but she was right. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. Being gay or lesbian is not the unforgivable sin. A few weeks ago there was a synod meeting here at Central in regard to proposed changes to allow pastors to marry or commit gay and lesbian couples or allow the Church to approve gay and lesbian pastors in relationship for pastoral ministry. One woman said to a man at that meeting, “What do you think I am, a sinner?” Well, it went through my mind that yes, she was a sinner. Not because of her opinions on this matter but because we are all sinners.

What does the Bible say about that? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are not saved by who we are—the Jews were not saved because they were Jews because as Jesus said, he could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones of the field. Paul, writing to the Romans, declares that Jews and Gentiles are both sinners and invited to be God’s people through faith in Jesus. We are not saved by our gender or our status, our race or educational level, by our orientation or our good behavior. We do not find our self worth in what others may think of us but in being children of God and heirs to God’s Kingdom through faith in Christ alone. What our Gospel text clearly says is we are saved by faith in Jesus alone.

And in our text we see how Jesus can set aside even clear Scripture teaching for the sake of people. In the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus takes on the Holiness Code of the Old Testament. He and his disciples were accused of not washing their hands before they ate. Jesus argued that it was not what went in a person that defiled but rather the evil and malice that come out of the human heart. If the rules and regulations hurt people, they could be put aside. Remember that the Sabbath was made for humans not humans for the Sabbath. God’s Laws are made to free not oppress and even Scriptural warrant can be set aside for the greater good of loving God and others.

In the second part of the same chapter, our lesson, Jesus is setting aside the whole system of salvation in the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible did care about the Gentiles and looked for the day when all the nations would come to Zion. God’s mission was in and through the Jewish people only. This is what Jesus starts to affirm—the Gospel is for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the text does not stop there and in this passage, we see that the Old Testament scheme is set aside. God’s good news is for all people not just some. Christ died for all not just some. Forgiveness is for all not just some. The only condition is faith which is itself a gift of God.

Others may be different from ourselves and often what makes them different is something we don’t like. The Church has been guilty of keeping people out rather than inviting them in. We are human beings and fallen, sinful ones at that. We know what we like and we like what we know. Think of the disciples, they were the same way.

Some of you may have been hurt by the Church, by what people have said about you or what a pastor has said. Some of you may have been hurt by me. I apologize for that. I know I have let some of you down.   You may have been hurt by other people too.   In coffee hour the same people talk to the same people every week and if you are a newcomer you may be ignored. I have gotten dirty looks for sitting in someone else’s pew. You may have been asked to leave the service if your children were fidgety. You may have been shamed because you didn’t know the procedure for making coffee or how the towels should be hung in the kitchen. Some of you have been angered by dunning notices sent out so that you would pay up your pledge or scolded because you had missed services.

Remember, the disciples were not God. Remember that neither the Church nor the pastor nor the council is God either. God is faithful and loving even when God’s servants may not be. God draws the circle wide enough to bring everyone in. Never let anyone or anything try to separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Copyright 2005 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission.