Tuesday, September 10, 2019

More Than Crumbs; Matthew 15:21-28

I eat a lot of leftovers. I’m a household of one the majority of time, so I fix a main dish and a side dish and my dinners for the week are pretty much set. I don’t mind eating leftovers for awhile, but I confess that the last serving of whatever I’ve made sometimes ends up in the woods because I get tired of it. The woman in the passage today is told by Jesus, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs or puppies.” Jesus implies she isn’t even deserving of leftovers, but she insists that even dogs get crumbs. In the end, her prayer is answered. Her daughter is delivered of demon possession. There is a lot said about this passage because of the way Jesus treats this woman. He seems mean. After all, He calls her a dog, not a nice term. Older scholarship tries to dismiss Jesus’s seeming cruelty by saying that Jesus was testing the woman or that He had a twinkle in His eye as He was challenging her. Trying to gauge Jesus’s facial expression or tone of voice is reading into the text, something we must be very careful to avoid. As for the woman’s faith, it is rock solid from the get go. She needs no testing. Others try to say that Jesus needed to learn something from this woman. We know that Jesus did learn. Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus learned obedience by the things He suffered. Jesus learned total dependence on the Father. He learned what it was to be human. And I think He was genuinely amazed at the depth of faith that this woman has as well as that of the Centurion, whose servant He healed earlier in the same manner that He ends up healing this woman’s daughter—simply by willing it, without ever going to the one who was ill. I do not believe, as some assert, that Jesus had to learn right from wrong—that He needed to learn not to be a racist, sexist bigot. That would make Jesus a sinner, and if Jesus committed even one sin, He could not be our Savior. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus never sinned. II Corinthians 5:21 says, “For He (that is, God the Father) made Him (that is, Jesus) who knew no sin, sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” If Jesus had even sinned once, He could not be the Savior of the world. Furthermore, in the passage we read last week, Jesus told the gathered crowd that sin starts in the heart and we are defiled by what we say and do. Why would Jesus break a command He just said not to break? So then some say that Jesus had to learn the scope of His mission—that He was not just Savior of Israel but of the whole world. Is this something that Jesus had to learn? I do not think so. When Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon declared Him to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, he proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” At Jesus’s first sermon in Nazareth, He uses the examples of the widow of Zarepheth in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian as those who received blessings from God in contrast to the people of Israel. These 2 people lived in precisely the area in which Jesus meets this woman. When Jesus sent out the disciples to minister, He pronounces woe on Chorazin and Bethsaida and says if the mighty works that had been done there had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sack cloths and ashes. I think Jesus knew exactly who He was, as Savior of the world, and I think we can see this in the passage. First, Jesus goes intentionally to Tyre and Sidon. Though Jesus went to other majority Gentile areas, this area is outside of the Promised Land. In Jesus’s time, it is considered part of Syria, but in Old Testament times, Tyre and Sidon were part of Phoenicia. This is why Mark calls the woman a SyroPhoenican. The Phoenicians were a small but mighty people as they controlled the trade in the Mediterranean. They were wealthy. Their culture and religion were Canaanite, which is why Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman. But obviously, she is not a practitioner of the Canaanite religion. She is a worshipper of Yahweh and already knows who Jesus is. God pronounces judgment on Tyre through the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 23 for its greed, worldliness and false religion. Jeremiah prophesied that they will be conquered by Cyrus and Ezekiel prophesied that they would be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar because of their pride. But there are also promises that Tyre would be drawn to the God of Israel, the King of Israel such as in Psalms 45 and 87. That prophetic promise is being fulfilled in this woman. Furthermore, Jesus has two Canaanite women in His ancestry—Tamar and Rahab. Even one of Jesus’s own disciples has a Canaanite ancestry. Simon the Zealot is called Simon the Canaanite by Matthew. God cares about the Gentiles and always had. Again, from last week’s Scripture, our secondary reference in Romans 2, we were reminded that the Jews were chosen to be a blessing to the other nations. They were to point others to Yahweh. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being blind guides to their own people. Paul wants the Jews in the church at Rome to check themselves as to whether or not they were being blind guides among the Gentiles. This woman didn’t need a guide; she had already had one. She already knows Yahweh. She is drawn to Jesus. She has no doubt who He is and what He can do. She addresses Him as Lord and Son of David. She knows He is Messiah. She humbles herself before Him begging for mercy on behalf of her daughter. She worships Jesus. We don’t know how she came to know about Jesus. Mark says she had heard about Him, but by the Holy Spirit, she already believes by the time Jesus arrives. She does not need converting or convincing. So why did Jesus treat this woman unkindly? It’s not unusual for Jesus to first respond to people with silence. He does not respond to the Centurion right away. In fact, the Jewish people intercede on his behalf, telling Jesus how this particular Roman soldier has helped them out and supported the synagogue. The lepers ask Jesus for help, and He ignores their initial cries. He ignores the initial cries of Bartimeaus, the blind beggar. And we don’t always get an immediate response to our prayers either, do we? We feel the silence of God, and we keep on asking. This is not so much a test of faith as the opportunity to exercise our faith and to remind us that our Lord is more than just a dispenser of blessings. It is the disciples, not Jesus, who finds her repeated cries annoying. Like the woman, we must persevere in prayer. Then Jesus tells her that His mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. This was Jesus’s first priority. When He sent out the disciples in Matthew 10, He sent them not to the Gentiles, but to the lost sheep of Israel. The Jewish people had forgotten who God really was and why God had set them apart. They needed conversion. This woman is not lost. She knows Yahweh God, she has already placed her faith in the Messiah. She doesn’t need anyone to explain to her who He is, including Jesus Himself. Jesus is answering how the Jewish people, including His disciples, thought of Messiah’s role. Ministering to Gentiles has always been an exception up to this point. She challenges Jesus that His mission is to the lost sheep of Israel alone and continues to beg for help even as she worships Jesus. It seems that now Jesus is trying to drive her away at this point, and He makes a derogatory comment about her. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Jews did not keep dogs as pets. They were considered unclean animals. Some Gentiles would keep dogs for protection or for work. Jewish people often called Gentiles “dogs,” and they even had the equivalent of our “b-word” that they used. Jesus uses the less insulting diminutive—puppies or house pets, but it is still not nice. I think Jesus uses this insult because He has been acting like a typical Jewish man the whole time. The disciples would have been nodding in agreement the whole time, but Jesus allows her to demonstrate the faith, humility, and reverence that even the disciples act. The way she treats Jesus stands in direct contrast to the way the Pharisees treated Jesus. Remember that the disciples had been a little perturbed that Jesus would offend the Pharisees, but they care nothing about offending this woman. As Carla Works says, “She places hope in what others have discarded.” She doesn’t even ask for a seat at the table, but it willing to take crumbs. She knows that crumbs from Jesus would be more than enough, and Jesus declares that her desire is done. She is not there to steal someone else’s blessing. She knows there is more than enough. But she doesn’t get crumbs or even leftovers. She gets the fullness of God’s healing power for her daughter. Somehow Matthew learns that at that very moment, her daughter was delivered from her severe demon possession. The language describing the demons leaving the daughter imply that they will never return. When it comes to the power of Jesus, do we know there is more than enough, or do we have a scarcity mentality? Why is Jesus mean? Jesus is acting like a typical Jewish man to hold up a mirror to the disciples. I believe the lesson here is for the disciples, and for us as well. To the disciples’ credit, when they asked Jesus to send her away, they asked in a way that implied they wanted Jesus to hurry up and give her what she wanted so they could get back to their vacation. But Jesus didn’t hurry because He was not annoyed by the woman, and He wanted this woman to teach them something about His role as Messiah. I believe the primary lesson was the lesson of abundance. The abundance of God’s kingdom blessings was not limited to Israel. The disciples had and will still have a scarcity mentality of what Jesus can do. I think Jesus really is impressed by the depth of the woman’s faith, but I do not think that Jesus is surprised that she is not merely to be granted crumbs from the table, but that she is given a full seat at the table. Jesus is not in the habit of giving partial anything. God’s yes is always a complete less. We are not partially forgiven, partially delivered, partially healed, partially redeemed. We don’t receive just a little bit of the Holy Spirit. And we don’t have to scrounge for crumbs from the table. The woman is invited to the table not because of her ethnicity or religious background or despite either of those. She is given a seat at the table because of her faith in the Messiah. Jesus also wanted them to learn that faith, not position or background, or ethnicity is what God rewards. This woman receives no less than any other person who sought Jesus for help, demonstrating their faith. Jesus responds to faith every time, even if it seems to take a while. Both the woman and Jesus know that God’s power is not limited. Our God is not a respecter of persons, but God looks at the heart. We have seen Jesus reward faith again and again. It was the faith of the four friends that resulted in the man not only being able to “take up his bed and walk,” but to have his sins forgiven. It was the faith of the woman who touched the tassel on the bottom of Jesus’s garment that resulted in her healing. These same lessons are for us. Our God is a God of abundance. Our God rewards faith. This incident does mark a shift in Jesus’s ministry. His confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders get more intense, and Jesus ministers to even more Gentiles. The next thing He is going to do is to heal great multitudes of Gentiles from all kinds of things and then feed them. We will look at this in a couple of weeks on World Communion Sunday.