Matthew 15.21-28 (NRSV)
In the earlier verses of chapter 15, the question arose: ‘What is it that defiles?’ Here Jesus is dealing with the issue of Jews and Gentiles. J C Fenton suggests that the two issues are connected, because the Jews at the time believed that in order not to be defiled, they needed to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. Eventually the Church came to understand that in Jesus, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down – a reference to Ephesians 2.11-22.
The Ephesians passage has particular significance for me. It became the motto of our little multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, where my father was the session clerk and which I attended from its inception in 1962 – the first of its kind in South Africa. The logo was a broken wall with the text underneath and it appeared on our first hymn book which included hymns and songs in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, published using a spirit printer and an old Olivetti typewriter, with translations happening on the hoof! (My 84 year old mother in Cheshire still has one on her bookshelf). My parents used to break curfew and have black, coloured and Asian friends over for meals and Bible studies. We were a small fellowship, and we were often infiltrated by the Special Branch (they were so obvious) but the witness of being part of this fellowship until I was 12 years old (1969) has been long-lasting.
The Ephesians passage is also special to me because I did an exposition on this passage on Christmas Day 1993 to over 700 people (two sittings), at the Jeffreys Bay Methodist Church – before the first democratic elections the following April.
This story was probably used by the early Church when there were discussions as to whom should be allowed to become members of the Church and so Paul wrote to the Ephesians and also to the Galatians (3.28). The message is also implied in 2 Corinthians 5.17 – all key texts as we challenged the Apartheid South Africa.
The disciples tried to send the Canaanite woman away – just as later Jewish Christians would oppose preaching to the Gentiles and in fact to have any contact with them (Acts 11.1ff). Jesus admitted that he had not gone beyond Israel in his own ministry – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – but it is clear from passages like this that the Gospel is – as we Methodist stress – for all.
John Meier has some interesting thoughts on this reading ...
Jesus has just torn down the wall of laws about clean and unclean which kept Jews and Gentiles apart, now he acts out his teaching in one of the few contacts with a Gentile. This occasion is similar to the one with the Centurion (8.5-13). But note how the Gentile here addresses Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds to this faith as well as her humility. This is an important reminder for me. It is all too easy to become complacent, even presumptuous about our contact with God.
Mark refers to a Syrophoenician woman; Matthew changes this to ‘Canaanite’ –which conjures up the Old Testament image of the early enemies of the Jews. But her use of the titles Lord and Son of David shows that she believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has been rejected by his own people. Jesus remains silent at first; the annoyed disciples want to get rid of her and Jesus breaks the silence to say that his mission was limited to Israel which needed to be saved because they were like lost sheep. The woman persists.
Whenever I read the parable that follows, on my liberal western ears it sounds harsh and uncharacteristic of our Lord; it comes across to my modern ears as rude and almost racist. True, Jews did treat Gentiles with disrespect and sometimes referred to them as dogs; but I find it difficult coming from the mouth of our Lord. But Meier offers some interesting observations as he paraphrases the woman’s response where she agrees with the parable, but turns it to her advantage:
‘Yes Lord, your statement of priorities is correct, and as a Gentile I acknowledge the rights and privileges of Israel; indeed the Jews are admitted to be the “masters” of the pagans. Yet, precisely on the terms of your parable I have hope; sooner or later some crumbs will inadvertently fall from the table to the floor, to be snapped up by the dogs.’
Jesus cannot be convinced by any claims or even merit, ‘... but he is overcome by the prayer of faith, expressed with humility and humour.’
It was faith that gave the first Gentiles access to our Lord – both to healing and salvation – and so the woman’s daughter was healed.
Once more I am caused to pause and think about my presumption as I relate to our Lord, and am touched by this tender encounter.
Barclay suggests that there are a number of things worth noting about the Canaanite woman. (i) She was filled with love, having made the misery of her child her own. Our love for our children is always a reflection of God’s love for us, His children. We will do anything for our children, and it was her love that, realising that she would probably be shunned, or even treated harshly and unfairly, that spurred her on. It was probably also love that enabled her to see our Lord’s compassion beneath his strange initial response to her request. Barclay adds: ‘... there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than love ...’
(ii) This woman also had faith: Her faith grew when she made contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David – which was a popular, political title and the way of seeing Jesus as a great and powerful wonder-worker – but it was a title which looked on Jesus in terms of earthly power and glory. Initially she came for help to a powerful man. But she ends by calling him Lord. It was as though Jesus forced her to look more closely and to see more, the divine. Jesus wanted her to ‘... see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God ...’ and her faith grew in her confrontation and drew her to worship – she begins with a request and ends with a prayer.
The woman also had indomitable persistence – and could not be discouraged. It is suggested that some people pray, not really expecting anything to happen. But the woman knew that Jesus was her only hope and so was in deadly earnest. Her prayer was a passionate outpouring of her soul – she had no choice. This reminds me of that tender moment in Shadowlands the story of the relationship between C S Lewis and Joy Davidson. On her death, Lewis was grief-stricken and also said that he prayed because he had no choice, it was just something that flowed through and from him.
The woman also had the gift of cheerfulness: she was in the middle of trouble, but still kept her sense of humour. Jesus loved this light of hope. She brought with it all great love and together with her faith, found an answer to her prayers.
This is how philosopher Dallas Willard puts it, as he defines exactly what is a disciple: "One of those who have trusted Jesus with their whole life, so far as they understand it. Because they've done so, they want to learn everything he has to teach them about life in the kingdom of God now and forever, and they're constantly with him to learn this. Disciples of Jesus are those learning to be like him" (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, 241).