A sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
While Jamie is away on holidays Helen Manfield is covering the preaching duties. This sermon was preached on August 14th, 2011.
o Jamie goes on holiday and leaves me with the text where it appears that Jesus is obnoxious, rude, and mean spirited to a woman whose child is in distress. Thanks Jamie. There are many things that can be done with this text. It would be relatively easy for me to psycho analyse this text and say that Jesus was testing the woman to see how persistent she was, or that he was testing the disciples to see if they were ready to step up to the plate and begin to take care of business. However I don’t think I am ready to be the judge of God’s motivation just yet.
It would be easy to justify these harsh words by delving into the Greek and explaining that Jesus was using metaphors and not insulting the woman by calling her and her kind dogs, which in most cultures is a very derogatory term, one commentator on this passage said that Jesus didn’t hear her at first. I am not ready to decide if Jesus needs a hearing aid or not.
It would be easy for me to make excuses, Jesus was very tired, he had been out on the plain with the thousands teaching and healing; he had then been in the boat with the disciples yet they still couldn’t grasp what he was about. Jesus was exhausted and frustrated with the pettiness of these ragtaggled bunch of fishermen and so when bothered with yet another request for help, spoke out of a place of frustration rather than out of a place of compassion. However, I don’t think I’m ready to judge the emotional space of Jesus either.
Sometimes his words do not make sense, these are notoriously difficult to understand in our context. What we do know about this passage is that it comes after a string of skirmishes with the Pharisees, Jesus had been criticised for plucking grain as he walked through a field and eating it, criticised for healing on the Sabbath. He took off into the countryside and taught thousands about the Kingdom of God through his parable stories, he was telling them and showing them a different way to live in the world. He fed people and healed them, then his critics follow him and quizzed him about purification rituals. Why don’t you wash your hands? Why do you hang around with these kinds of people? Why do you eat things that we consider defiled? Jesus quite crudely says, what goes in through the mouth goes out. That is how the body works, but what come out of the mouth comes from the core fabric of the person, from their very being. You cannot disguise your prejudices or feelings, if you are harbouring a grudge, or live without compassion, your mouth will give you away. This was not pleasing to the ears of the socially acceptable Pharisees, they took offence at this. So Jesus leaves them and heads off towards Gentile country. There he comes across a socially unacceptable woman who starts shouting at him about her daughter.
It is easy to imagine what this must have felt like, there is all kinds of embarrassment when someone begins to shout about something, when someone starts to make a bit of a scene. The disciples ask Jesus to shut her up, she is making a fool of herself and a spectacle of them all.
Yet what she shouts is significant. Kyrie Eleison – Lord Have mercy. This is a prayer that is ancient, one that has resonated through the ages, Iwan Russel Jones tell us, “it is chanted in cloisters, whispered in hospitals, screamed out on battle fields. It is the cry of the soul in extremis, a raw witness to the depth and misery of the human condition.” On this occasion Jesus is silent in the face of it, seemingly indifferent. She is recognising Jesus as the Son of David, as God, as the Messiah, she has heard of his capacity to heal and in her situation she is prepared to make a fool of herself.
We are told that her daughter is possessed by a demon, which could mean anything? Many cultures and religions contain some concept of demonic possession, but the details vary considerably. The oldest references to demonic possession are from the Sumerians, who believed that all diseases of the body and mind were caused by “sickness demons”. So we do not know for sure what is meant by this term. Jesus continues to follow social norms by ignoring such outrageous behaviour from one who is not of his religion, gender, or heritage, but she persists. Jesus tells her that his mission is to the lost sheep of Israel, and no one else. This is where there is a change in her response, he is seen her; she drops the floor in an act of submission, pleading and taking whatever he is prepared to offer, asking for even the crumbs off the master’s table. She knows what he has, she knows that he can do something for her.
Jesus has already said previously in Matthew that “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28). Matthew is trying to establish God’s activity in the world through the actions of Jesus, and so this woman’s cry for mercy and Jesus’s response demonstrates that. It did with Peter last week when Peter got out of the boat, his cry to Jesus was to help him as he began to sink below the waves. God’s activity in the world is demonstrated through the actions of Jesus.
Jesus has just been telling parables that speak of the inclusivity of the kingdom. The disciples don’t seem to be getting the full impact of his ‘mission to all nations’ and so after the disciples try to shoo her away, Jesus shows them what it means to break down boundaries. This woman had a belief that her daughter could be helped by the actions of Jesus and she was prepared to violate boundaries of ethnicity, religion, gender, social class and probably a whole bunch of other boundaries to receive the mercy of God’s activity. Jesus recognises it as great faith.
Yet with such a text that does not sit easily on our ears I am sure there is a lot more to be said about this interaction, and because our scriptures are the living word, we will hear different nuances each time we read this story. But what I take away from this reading of it, is that when we break social, religious, or gender boundaries, it annoys the heck out of those who are more interested in tradition than action, and when action affects someone’s life for the better, faith is identified and God’s activity in the world is recognized. I can’t ask for more than that!