I wonder what you made of that story.
Many people find it a hard one to read. I don’t know how you picture Jesus.
To some, Jesus was a bit of a hippy. Long hair. Goatee beard. Watching butterflies flap around the field.
Charles Wesley wrote a hymn for children entitled “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”. The hymn actually has moderately rich content. But for many people the title of that hymn sums up the Jesus they picture. Meek and mild.
For others, Jesus was the great welcomer. He’d always have had a smile on his face. If you met Jesus, he’d have treated you like there was nobody he’d rather see. Always open arms. Welcome!
For many people, the most important quality of Jesus was his love. He simply embraced people.
If any of those are in your mental picture of Jesus, then this story jars somewhat, which is why many people find it tricky.
Here comes a woman in desperate need. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, and suffering terribly. Jesus comes into contact with real, deep suffering. It’s not the person he meets who is suffering. The person he meets is a mother, in agony at the plight of her daughter. The person suffering is a little girl. How could Jesus not be moved at this? Surely if anyone deserved his help, here they were!
And yet Jesus first ignores, her, and then refuses her.
It gets worse. He’s not just dismissive. He appears to be downright rude. Verse 26: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Did he just call her a “dog”? Did I hear that right? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, sent away a distraught mother by calling her a dog. Really?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, this story may well challenge how we think of Jesus. It’s so easy to build up a mental picture of what he’s like. Even to the point where we then subconsciously shut out bits of the Bible because they don’t agree with what we just know Jesus to be. Never mind the fact that the Bible is telling you what he’s actually like.
It’s like when you finally meet someone you’ve only ever talked to on the phone, or online. Somehow they’d imagined you were taller than you actually are. Trouble is, it doesn’t really matter what they’d imagined: You’re there in front of them.
Here we have Jesus right in front of us. If this gives us a bit of a chance to recalibrate our mental picture of Jesus, then that’s a good thing.
But we also need to check we’ve understood this story correctly. We need to read the whole story, to see what’s really going on as Jesus meets this lady. We’ll actually find that Jesus is unbelievably kind to her.
So let’s start there, and have a closer look at what happens.
The Story: A Kind Jesus
Let’s see the kind Jesus that this story reveals.
If you were here on either of the past two weeks, you may remember me saying that this whole chapter is about Jesus not just coming for the people of Israel. People who are not of the Jewish race, we call Gentiles. Jesus came for Gentiles, too, not just Jews.
Verse 21 opens our story. Jesus withdraws. He’s now not in Judea. He’s not even in Galilee. He’s in the district of Tyre and Sidon, even further to the north. In Jewish thinking, he’s dropped off the map. He’s done this quite deliberately, to get away from the crowds for a bit.
He doesn’t particularly seek contact with the locals. He’s having a bit of downtime. But one woman hears that he’s come and she tracks him down.
Matthew uses an odd word to describe her. Verse 22: She’s “a Canaanite woman”. By this point, there were no Canaanites.
Imagine the newspapers report on the visit to Britain of someone famous. They talk about how that person spent deliberate time talking to one individual. The person they were talking to is referred to as an Anglo-Saxon. They’d be making a point. I’m not sure what point, but it’s odd language. We don’t have Saxons today. Even more odd would be if they called the person a Viking.
This woman was a Canaanite. It’s a label that’s over a thousand years out of date. But back in the day, the Canaanites were the foreign enemies of God’s people Israel. We’re quite deliberately being told that she was a foreigner. Not a Jew. A Gentile.
She brings her request. She’s desperate. Crying out: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
But there’s a problem She’s a Gentile, yes, but Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
This comes out in verse 24. The disciples just want Jesus to give her what she wants so she stops pestering them. But here comes Jesus answer, verse 24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
You see the problem? Jesus was a man on a mission. But it’s not his mission. He was sent to this earth. We get a little glimpse into the life of the Trinity. God the Father, and his Son the Lord Jesus, are not the same person. One God, not three. But the Father sent Jesus into the world, and he sent him to go to his people who were lost and needed to be rescued.
You’re driving to Bristol to visit a friend. Your next door neighbour also has a friend in Bristol. Their friend has just had a baby. You agree to drop in on their friend, to deliver a cake and a small present. As you drive down the M4, you think to yourself how tasty that cake looks. Surely it wouldn’t hurt for you and your friend to have the cake, and you just take the present round to your neighbour’s friends with the new baby?!
Of course you can’t. You’re on a mission. You’ve been sent to deliver a gift.
Indeed, the woman had actually drawn attention to this very problem. Maybe she didn’t even mean to. In verse 22, she calls Jesus “Lord”, and “Son of David.” That’s the royal title for the Jewish Messiah. That was her problem right there. Jesus was the Son of David. And she was a Gentile, a Canaanite. She had no claim on the Son of David.
Anyway, she won’t give up so easily. Jesus keeps walking, and it’s not working for her to keep following and crying out. So she gets on her knees, boldly, right in front of him. Suddenly the group has to stop. Things have come to a head.
Her cry is desperate and simple: “Lord, help me!”
Then comes Jesus’ reply that stands out for us as so harsh: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
There’s lots we could say about that. We could point out that dogs were unclean animals in Jewish thinking. We could say that Jews sometimes called Gentiles “dogs” as an unkind nickname, which may or may not be true. But in fact, Jesus is only making one point and it’s a very simple one: The children need to eat first.
When I was growing up, we had a pet dog, and my parents when to dog-training classes. There are a number of bits of dog psychology they taught you. I’ve no idea whether people still teach it this way, but the thinking was that dogs are pack animals. They have a mental concept of the pack hierarchy. The leader of the pack walks in front, eats first, that kind of thing. Your little puppy will try to establish himself as the pack leader, and to train a dog it must learn that you’re the leader.
I don’t believe Jesus ever attended dog-training classes. But even so his point is clear. In a family, the children have a status and a privilege that the household pet will never have. The good food that is grown or bought in is for the children to eat. You wouldn’t give the family mutt first refusal on the contents of the larder or the fridge.
How does the woman respond to this logic? Perhaps we’d expect her to protest, to refuse to accept what she’s being told: “I’m no dog. This is my daughter we’re talking about. She is one of the children. She’s my child, my daughter, and I love her. How could you be so unkind? So racist?”
Well, she remains humble. She remains respectful. But she respectfully disagrees. “It is not right”, says Jesus. “Yes it is, Lord,” she says.
Why? Because surely there are leftovers. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
And Jesus praises her for her great faith.
Why is her faith so great? Well bear in mind she was from far away, so would have had only basic knowledge of the Old Testament and its promises.
Consider what we’ve been seeing in Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 2, the Magi visited Jesus the toddler, from far away in the east. Amongst other things, that symbolised people from every nation worshipping this Jesus.
Then at the end of Matthew, Jesus announces that he now holds all authority over every nation on earth. So Jesus’ disciples are to make disciples of every nation.
In between we’ve all kinds of other clues that Jesus is not just for Jews. He’s for everyone. There was the Gentile centurion in Matthew chapter 8. There was the parable about the mustard seed that would grow into a tree that fills the whole earth. The kingdom of heaven will grow into something truly international, spanning the earth, filling the earth.
Many Jews will reject their own Messiah. But God will not let his purposes go unfulfilled. His banquet will be full to overflowing, and those from every nation will be drawn in to make up the numbers.
From miles away, with only distant knowledge of all this, this Canaanite woman has glimpsed God’s grand plan. That’s why she’s praised for having such amazing faith! And so her daughter is healed.
What wonderful kindness is here!
If an orthodox Jew of Jesus’ day had been inventing this story, she’d have gone away empty-handed. But this story was not an invention. She met the real Jesus. He is the king whose kindness overflows beyond the boundaries of the old covenant. A daughter of a daughter of the Canaanites finds healing from the Jewish Messiah. God’s blessings overflow from the table. The children can eat all they want, and there’s plenty left over for everyone else as well.
Last time we thought about the Jewish food laws. God gave those laws to teach his people about the need for purity, including purity in our hearts.
But those laws had become a fence to keep people away. To shut out people whose diet was not acceptable. But then last week we saw Jesus show how those food laws are not what makes someone acceptable to God. He’s just broken down the fence, and once he’s done that a huge flood of people can stream in – people from every tribe and nation, people and language.
We don’t get a flood here. But we get a glimmer of that flood in a tiny but very beautiful microcosm. This mother from Tyre and Sidon encounters the kindness of God in the person of Jesus.
When you look closely, this is all about the kindness of Jesus.
Our Approach: Humble Access
And yet, the story doesn’t go: A woman comes and begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus replies to say that nothing would please him more. So her daughter was healed.
Jesus knows where he’s going. He wants to heal her daughter otherwise he wouldn’t have done it. But he doesn’t go straight there.
If you look at the focus of the account, this is not the story of a healing, but the story of this woman trying to wrestle a healing out of an apparently reluctant Jesus. There’s another lesson here other than just that Jesus is kind.
And if we are tempted to reduce Jesus to the point where we think that kindness is all there is to him, then we do need to let this story recalibrate the way we see Jesus.
As well as telling us that Jesus is kind, this story is also hear to tell us that we must approach humbly.
Don’t get me wrong. This woman was humble throughout. Humble, and very persistent. But Jesus had to bring her to the point where she could see the problem. She needed to see that she was outside the system, outside the group Jesus came for, that she had no claim on Jesus at all. Any help she got would be because Jesus was merciful, and not because she was entitled to it.
We today don’t live in the same world where Jews and Gentiles are in tension, where you feel left out if you’re not a Jew. Although if you live in parts of the Middle East, then you do still get that.
But we do live in a culture where we feel entitled to things. We love to claim what we’re entitled to. Whether it’s benefits, compensation or having our rubbish collected. If a community has its bus service withdrawn, that’s just wrong, because it’s their right to have a bus service. And so on.
Jesus had to bring this woman to realise that she was not entitled to Jesus’ help. We need to see the same thing. If we come to Jesus thinking that we have the right to receive something from him, he will simply keep walking. Only when we kneel before him and cry out “Lord, help me”, are we in a position where he can help. Only once we see that we are not entitled children, but undeserving dogs, can we receive his food.
But oh what food! The dogs don’t get just crumbs! As we read the gospel we actually find that he does not only promise us forgiveness, new life and a wonderful future. God promises to adopt us as his children. By grace, he lifts us up from our knees, and makes us nothing less than children in his family, with all the privilege and entitlement that comes with that.
But we can only become God’s children once we’ve admitted that we are not God’s children by right. We are Gentiles not Jews. We are sinners, slaves to sin.
What we see here is that Jesus is far kinder than we dare to imagine. But we also see that we are more unworthy than we might possibly think. Only when we combine those two do we see that we are not entitled to such amazing kindness. Only then will we come humbly, which is the only way to come.
This story has found its way into our Communion liturgy. The prayer book that sets the standard for the Church of England is the Prayer Book from 1662. Here’s the start of the prayer before we come to Holy Communion: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy:”
It’s called the prayer of humble access. It goes even further than the woman in this story. Never mind being the dogs who get the crumbs under the table; we’re not even fit to do that. But God is merciful, so we come to him not on the basis that we deserve his help, but on the basis of his mercy.
The woman’s opening line exposed her problem: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” She was a Gentile and had no claim on the Son of David.
But the second half of that appeal exposed the answer to her problem. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” The answer lies in Jesus’ mercy.
Jesus is far kinder than we dare to imagine. But also we are more unworthy than we might possibly think.
Conclusion: A Necessary Corrective?
So here’s a story that brings us face to face with the real Jesus, and maybe forces us to shift the way we see him.
Maybe some of us feel the fact that we’re on the outside. It may be our background, or things we’ve done, or just simply the fact that we aren’t really church people. But we feel that we’re on the outside. Jesus is kinder than you ever imagined. Here is kindness to someone on the outside. Jesus is the great includer, and he’d love to include you.
Maybe some of us feel entitled. We have every right to approach Jesus and receive his kindness. The fact that Jesus initially gives this woman the cold shoulder needs to wake us up to the fact that there is more to Jesus than just unconditional acceptance. We do not deserve his kindness. The only way we can receive his kindness is from the position of knowing we don’t deserve it.
But more than anything, this passage is not designed to teach us what Jesus is like. It’s designed to invite us to come. To come to Jesus as this woman did. To come humbly, knowing we deserve nothing from him. But to come nonetheless, and to receive from him such kindness as we never dreamt possible.