This is the text of a sermon preached several years ago by Pierre Plourde. Being that it picks up on the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman that appeared in last Sunday’s sermon, we thought it a good opportunity to share another take on the story. Note, too, that Pierre deals with Matthew’s telling of the story (Matthew 15:10-28), while last week’s sermon was based in Mark’s version. Note, too, Pierre’s wish to credit Don Richardson for this interpretation of the passage.
Jesus’ encounter with this desperate woman has to be one of his most unusual personal interactions. Try to picture this encounter and how it plays out. She begs Jesus to heal her suffering demon-possessed daughter. How does he respond? First, he turns a cold shoulder to this poor woman’s request (vs 23 – He “did not answer a word”). What kind of a Jesus is this? And how do his disciples respond? Do they say “Lord, have mercy on her”? No, the rascals urge Jesus along by saying “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us”; they immediately approve of Jesus not wanting to heal this woman. Then Jesus goes on to say that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (vs 24). This is so inconsistent with His ministry thus far, already healing large numbers of non-Jews (Gentiles), that it is inconceivable to hear such words coming from Jesus. How can we explain Jesus’ apparent abrupt exclusion of Gentiles from his healing ministry? And why does Jesus suddenly declare that He has no theological basis for ministering to Gentiles? Has he gone mad? Is he testing this woman’s faith (as many Bible commentaries would have us believe)? If that is what he is doing, that is not the Jesus I would want to hang around with. If this isn’t nasty enough, when the woman begs for His help again, he answers by referring to her as an undeserving “dog” (vs 25-26); talk about adding insult to injury! The term “dog” was used as a derogatory metaphor for Gentile; calling someone a dog to their face was rarely done in public and seen as rude, if not cruel; akin to calling her a Gentile scum! After all of this, she responds that even dogs deserve crumbs from the master’s table, and Jesus suddenly turns around and grants her request (vs 27-28). How fickle! So what’s going on here?
I can only imagine the nonverbal communication that must have been playing out between Jesus and this woman, allowing her to “play along” with him. I don’t believe that Jesus was primarily testing her faith (although I don’t doubt her faith). But if he was only testing her faith, how do we explain his insensitivity (turning a cold shoulder), his inconsistency (claiming he was not sent to help her), his cruelty (calling her a dog), and his fickleness (suddenly changing his mind)?
I suspect most commentators interpret this passage as Jesus acting this way to test the woman’s faith because he says, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (vs 28). BUT if this is the only plausible explanation of this passage, then Jesus was testing her in a particularly heartless and malicious way. On the other hand, I believe Jesus was actually testing His disciples.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman must be examined within the context of the whole of Matthew Chapter 15, including the passage immediately preceding the encounter with the woman where Jesus is trying to illustrate to His disciples the difference between “real” and “ceremonial” uncleanness (Matthew 15:1-20) and the passage immediately following where Jesus feeds the crowd of 4000+ (Matthew 15:29-39). Let us take a closer look at the first section of Matthew Chapter 15 (vs 1-20). Jesus makes the point that “ceremonial” uncleanness (having unwashed hands) does not constitute real uncleanness; it is only a metaphor for uncleanness (that is, the ritual isn’t as important as what’s in your heart). Jesus tells us that we should be more concerned about what comes out of our mouths and hearts (not so much what goes in), because what comes out is really what contaminates us (or makes us unclean – “evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” – vs 19). “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them … but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (vs17-18, 20).
Now after this little sermon, Jesus (deliberately I think) leads His disciples into Samaria where the possibility of ceremonial contamination would be enormously high. Sure enough, as soon as they get there, they run into the Canaanite woman. The “ceremonial” uncleanness is at least two-fold here; first, Jesus should have nothing to do with a woman in public, and second he, a Jewish rabbi, should have nothing to do with a Canaanite (a modern day example might be like the Anglican minister hanging out with a Taliban supporter – we would have some questions for the minister, and if not we, the RCMP would be interested in speaking to him/her).
Now how would you have expected Jesus to respond to this woman? From what we have observed in His ministry thus far (healing the Centurion’s servant; healing sick Gentiles throughout Galilee, Syria, and the Decapolis), isn’t Jesus sure to reply to such a request with an immediate healing? But he doesn’t immediately help this poor mother; instead he seems to play games with her. This is not the Jesus I know; He might play these sorts of games with the Pharisees to trap them in their hypocrisy, but how do we explain Jesus’ behaviour toward this genuinely hurting woman? This is where Jesus does something rather unique in all of his encounters with genuine seekers. I believe he uses this encounter to test his disciples’ understanding of the difference between “real” and “ceremonial” uncleanness (which after all had been the subject of His teaching just prior to this encounter). Jesus exploits this encounter with a Canaanite woman to show His disciples just how far removed they were from an understanding of His ministry as the Messiah for “all peoples”, including unclean Gentile scum! And they completely missed the boat (“Send her away” they said). I believe that Jesus intended to heal this woman’s daughter all along; but in the interim he was in effect demonstrating to His disciples that even the ceremonially unclean are entitled to receive the fullness of the blessings of this Messiah.
Jesus was using extreme irony to teach His disciples (what an effective way to get his message across!). And to further confirm His intent to include Gentiles in His ministry and to drive his point home to his disciples, as soon as this encounter ends, Jesus crosses over to the Decapolis where He feeds 4000 Gentile people (Matthew 15:29-39). Why would Jesus bother to duplicate this miracle of the feeding of thousands? Jesus had already fed a crowd of over 5000 Jewish people in Matthew 14. The answer as to why 2 feedings in Matthew’s gospel should now become obvious. This duplication was not a “typo” of the ancient manuscripts; this double feeding was deliberately inserted into the gospel record.
The feeding of the 5000+ (Matthew 14:13-21) was primarily a feeding of Jewish people, who came from Galilee near Bethsaida. After the feeding, we are told that there were 12 basketfuls of food left over (a Hebrew number of completeness; ie, the 12 tribes, the 12 apostles) reinforcing that the “target” audience of this blessing was Jewish. Finally, the word used to describe baskets in this passage was “kophinos” (a word for basket of probable Hebrew origin). On the other hand, the feeding of the 4000+ (Matthew 15:29-39) was primarily a feeding of Gentile people, who came from the Decapolis (a Gentile Greek region). After that feeding, we are told that there were 7 basketfuls of food left over (a Gentile number of completeness; ie, 7 Gentile churches in Revelation) reinforcing that the “target” audience of this blessing was Gentile. Finally, the word used to describe baskets in this passage was “spuris” (an entirely different word for basket from the previous feeding of the 5000 which is of Greek origin, and would not normally be used in a Hebrew context).
So if you have ever wondered why Matthew records two separate miraculous feedings of large crowds; I believe the explanation is simply that the first (Matthew 14) is a blessing to the Chosen People of Israel, and the second (Matthew 15) is a blessing to the rest of us unclean Gentile dogs! The scribes did not mistakenly insert 2 mass feeding miracles in Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus came to bring healing and salvation to “all nations” on earth; the Chosen people of Israel AND to all of us Gentiles.
If you have doubts about Christianity, unsure of who Jesus is or what he means to you; if you identify as a non-Christian, an agnostic, or a nominal Christian, rest assured that Jesus is not testing your faith today. In fact, he’s not testing you at all; he’s ready to bring healing into your life. If anyone’s being tested, it’s those of us who call ourselves Christian. If you feel like an outsider (a non-Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, an atheist), Jesus is looking to see how the rest of us Christians will respond. Will we who consider ourselves Christian say, “Send them away, for they mess up our comfortable lives”? Or will we respond with, “Lord, have mercy on them”? And even if we respond with, “Send them away, Lord”, isn’t it reassuring to know that Jesus will still even be merciful to us Christians as well as to the “outsiders”.
Thank God, he will be merciful not only to his Chosen People but also to all the Gentile scum!
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Pierre Plourde is a medical doctor by vocation, a thoughtful reader of scripture, and an active member of saint benedict’s table. Along with the other members of his family, he has a passion for the many ministries of El Shaddai Baptist Church in Haiti, to which he makes annual visits as part of a medical support team.