The Canaanite Woman

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Priest-in-Charge

August 20, 2017

I. Telling the Story

Matthew didn’t like dogs. With the other disciples, he has traveled for weeks through the hill country north of Galilee following their teacher. At every point along the way, be it road or lake shore they were met by dogs. This town on the border of Tyre and Sidon was no exception. Long before they entered the village the dogs' howls announced their arrival.

They came slinking out of the garbage pits and from behind the dung heaps. The hair on their backs was stiff, their tails taut and necks extended. Their eyes focused on these strangers. Thick necked males, all growl and hate, came out of their hiding places. They were followed by skinny sand-colored bitches. They had no names, there was no Shiloh, no Monroe, no Hazel, no Snickers among them, not a one!

Matthew shook his head as the dogs came toward them. “Stupid, filthy, dung-swallowing brutes, he thought. He was convinced that the only thing worse than a Canaanite dog were the black hogs that rooted through the garbage outside of every gentile town.

But while the tax-collector turned disciple cringed, the four fishermen in this band of men, showed no such fear. They knew how to handle dogs. When Peter and his brother Andrew and their business partners James and John returned from a night’s fishing trip, these yellow dogs would meet them as they came ashore. The dogs waited as they emptied their night’s catch into baskets, hoping that the fishermen would toss their way those fish that were too small to sell.

Today, every man that followed the Carpenter carried a basket. Just a few days before, their leader had fed over 5,000 people with two loaves and five fish. After everyone had eaten their fill, these twelve men had gathered up what food remained. There was a basket full for each of them providing their provisions for at least a week.

By now the dogs knew they carried food. Half begging, half demanding they circled round these thirteen men. Matthew shifted his basket to his shoulder in an attempt to protect it from the dogs. Andrew just smiled as he took his brother’s basket. James and John began to toss a few pieces of stale bread near by and Peter stood and picked up several stones. The dogs moved closer to claim their meal, their own fear fading at the sight of the crumbs on the ground. Just as they reached the bread, Peter threw the first stone, and then another and another. Howling with rage the dogs ran in all directors as the men shook with laughter.

Just then they saw the woman. She had been standing by the side of the road watching them. She was haggard and dirty. Strands of grey hair fell to her shoulders. She opened her mouth. The men thought she was about to curse them. Instead, she cried out: “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Peter let his remaining stones fall to the ground and the laughter was replaced by stunned silence.

Interpreting the Story

The way I have always heard this story told is that the Jewish people felt the same way about Gentiles as they felt about dogs. And as I have just described, they didn’t like dogs very much. Most commentators will go on to say that as a First Century Jew, Jesus shared this view. After all, Matthew tells us that at first Jesus totally ignores her. After she persists his disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she won’t shut-up. Only then he speaks. At first he says, “Lady, you’re a Gentile, my mission is to the Jews.” When that doesn’t put her off, he comes out with the ultimate putdown. “Woman, it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”

On the surface, it sure sounds like Jesus is reflecting First Century Jewish prejudice. I don’t think it would be unusual if Jesus did share this prejudice. While we affirm that Jesus is fully God, we also affirm that he is fully human. It would be quite possible for him to reflect some of the prejudice of his time. If this is the case, however, it is the only time in the Gospels that he seems to do so. Think, for example, of his encounter of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Today, I want us to consider another possibility. Our gospel begins with our Lord giving his perception of the Jewish purity laws. The Pharisees had been upset because the disciples did not make a practice of washing their hands before eating. If they followed that practice at one of our potluck dinners, we might be upset with them as well!

But Jesus responds to the criticism by saying it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of our mouths. Peter still didn’t get it and asked for further explanation. Jesus replied: “Peter are you so dumb that you don’t understand? It is what comes from our hearts: evil thoughts, slander, adultery, and murder, that make us unclean. He goes on to say that if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.

Matthew then immediately tells the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus, by what he says, appears to be doing the very thing he has just condemned the Pharisees of doing. He seems to be judging by outward appearances rather than by looking at the heart. I believe that what he is actually doing however, is teaching the disciples by example. In this case by showing them what they should not do.

Conclusion

What does this story have to tell us in seeking to live out our lives in accordance with his will? First of all our Lord was an effective teacher. The Gospels are filled with examples where Jesus gave a teaching which he followed by illustrating his main point by an action he takes in his next encounter. This is the only example where he makes his point by doing the exact opposite of what he has just taught his disciples.

Doing the unexpected can be a very effective teaching tool. I will never forget the first time I attended an Episcopal Church. I was a senior in Bible College and editor of our college newspaper. I attended a confirmation service in the hope that I could interview the Bishop following the service before he came to speak at our college chapel the next day. The theme of his sermon that Sunday morning was doctrine of free will. He said, “I can demonstrate free will by tossing this prayer book into your midst. As a matter of fact, I think I will.” And with that he hurled a prayer book half way to the back of the church. Obviously, it made quite an impression on me. I’m here telling you about it today 51 years later!

Secondly, this story tells us something about ourselves when we read it light of the Great Commission which Matthew places at the end of his Gospel: Go, make disciples of all nations. Making disciples first of all means welcoming the strangers into our midst. We know that as followers of our Lord we have something to give them. But we don’t always realize until later that not only do we have something to give them, but as the disciples discovered with the Canaanite woman, they, the strangers in our midst have something to teach us as well.

A few weeks ago, I read an excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s book Gracias, a Latin American Journal. His concluding entry in the journal sums up perfectly the main theme I have tried to express this morning.

“I saw thousands of poor and hungry children, I met many young men and women without money, a job, or a decent place to live. I spent long hours with sick, elderly people, and I witnessed more misery and pain than ever before in my life. But in the midst of it all, the word that lifted me again and again to a new realm of seeing and hearing was ‘Gracias! Thanks.”

“In many of the families I visited nothing was certain, nothing was predictable, nothing totally safe. Maybe there would be food tomorrow, maybe there would be work tomorrow,” Maybe, Maybe not. But whatever was given—money, food, work, a good word or a smile—is a reason to rejoice. What I claim as a right, my Latin American friends receive as a gift. What is obvious to me, was a joyful surprise to them. What I take for granted, they celebrate with thanksgiving. I came as a missionary try to give them what I felt they needed, but slowly I came to realize that my very first vocation is to receive their gifts and say thanks.”1

1Nouwen, Henri J. M. Gracias! A Latin American Journal (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983): pp. 187-188.