Sermon -- Ordinary 20 Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

The general saviour of mankind

[Note: this sermon is also offered as an alternative for Ordinary 23 in Year B. It refers to the Mark reading as well as Matthew.]

The disciples wanted to send her away, and it seemed that Jesus also did not wish to see her. She persisted, and Jesus appeared to change his mind and gave her what she asked. Jesus declared that she had great faith, and her daughter was healed.

The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 (21-28) is full of interesting questions and challenges. Do you think Jesus really changed his mind? Was he wrong in what he first said, when he said that giving her what she wanted would be like throwing the children's food to the dogs? Could he ever have been wrong? Or do you think he knew all along what he was going to do? Why do you think he said that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? (Matthew 15:24). Was this a turning point in his mission, when he departed from Galilee and went to the Greek speaking districts around the old Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon? If he did not mean to do not something different, why did he go there? Did he actually change his strategy of working only within the limited territory of ancient Israel, within what was long before the domain of King David whose descendant he was and whose renewed kingdom he would bring in as the Messiah? What did his being the Messiah mean for other nations? The story of what happened when the Canaanite woman from those foreign regions sought his help speaks to questions of central concern to Christian people, and indeed to all people who seek to understand what the "Stranger from Galilee" was all about.

Matthew tells the story a little differently from the way that Mark (7:24-30) relates what took place on this rare occasion when Jesus ventured into foreign territory. If anything, Matthew, who tends to see things more than the other gospel writers from a Jewish point of view, on this occasion makes a greater emphasis on her Gentile background. He links the story with the previous discussion of dietary laws in which Jesus was in conflict with the Jewish authorities.

[Modern translations tend to omit the word "And" at the beginning of Matthew 15:21 which in the Greek links the story with the preceding discussion of food and cleanliness.]

Jesus had spoken against their firmly held belief that people would be made unclean in the sight of God, and so unacceptable, if they eat certain foods and did not wash according to Jewish ritual before they eat, saying:

The early church was much troubled by questions about whether the followers of Jesus should observe Jewish ritual practices, and so his sayings about such things would be likely to be recalled together with the disciples' memory of the way that he treated people who were not Jewish. These practices and laws about what they could eat were not arbitrary rules without any point. They were an expression of loyalty to the covenant they as a nation had with God. Culturally, it was a question of identity, of what it meant to be Jewish, to belong to the people of God as they understood it, and as it is still understood by many Jews today. So when other people who were not Jewish followed Jesus, what did his being a Jew mean for them? The way Jesus related to the Canaanite woman (called the Syrophoenician woman by Mark), symbolically standing for all who belonged to a different culture from his own, was a matter of critical importance for the evangelisation of the Greek speaking people who were responding to the gospel in considerable numbers when Matthew's account was written; so he emphasised her foreignness because that was the key point of the story for many of its first hearers.

That was not all. It was not a simple matter of saying that being Jewish did not matter, or that Gentiles could be included in the kingdom that Jesus was to establish. She might have been a foreigner, but she spoke to Jesus in terms that only made sense if he were acknowledged as the Messiah, and the coming of the Messiah was a Jewish idea about the way that God would relate to humanity. She called him "Lord" and the "Son of David". When she called him "Lord" she accepted his authority. She saw him as the Lord of the Gentiles (that is, of the nations) as well as the Jews and thus believed that the rule of the Messiah was not limited to the old kingdom of David. Few people yet recognized him and fewer still understood in anything like the universal idea of his being the Lord of all nations, let alone of all creation, and indeed of "all things visible and invisible", as he was later confessed to be (cf Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, Hebrews 1) by the time that Matthew wrote of these things.

But there is more to it than that: it would have been a relatively easy thing, you might expect, for some foreigners to claim him too and say he is a universal Lord and thus, as it were, to detach him from his Jewish background, but she did not do that. Jesus was being recognized as a good and great man who could belong to the whole world, but she not only called him "Lord", she called him "Son of David". To call him Son of David was the same as giving him the title Pilate wrote to put on his cross, "The King of the Jews", without knowing its full import. It could be understood in one way as a very limited idea of his kingship. Pilate struggled with it as many others must have done. If Jesus was a king, what sort of king was he? So, if that is what people were wondering about, why was it important to the Canaanite woman that he was not only a universal Lord whom she could worship, for she knelt before him (Matthew 15:25), but that he was at the same time the Messiah of Israel, the "Son of David"? You might ask, "does that matter?" The question was whether there was, after all, despite the emphasis on his universality, something important in the idea that the salvation of all came from the Jews? For example, as Jesus said to the woman at the well in Samaria:

Does it matter that the Canaanite woman called Jesus not only Lord, which we see as a expression of his being God and Lord of all, but that she also called him Son of David and accepted him as the Jewish Messiah in that sense? It is the witness of the apostles and the whole of scripture that it does matter. It was not accidental that the Lord of all was the Messiah long expected and promised in the nation of Israel. It was part of the incarnation. It was necessary to the Word becoming flesh that he came into a particular historical situation and that he fulfilled there what had been promised and foretold by the prophets of God. In him we do not have a generalized emanation of the power of God in the world, a power which might perhaps also appear elsewhere in a different form, but rather a unique historical character in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was also the Lord of all. His humble birth of Mary, his walking along the dusty roads, his talking and eating with disciples and outsiders, his healing of the sick, his dying a painful death in a real life Roman execution, in every respect, the radical particularity of the his being a man in a certain place at a certain time was limited by his being the historical Messiah of the nation of Israel, while he was also the Lord of all. All this dust and reality is inescapable for the one who was equal with God but took the form of a servant. The general saviour of mankind was fully human and fully divine.

If you can, then, accept his Messiahship along with the limitation of his complete involvement in human life as a servant, emptied of his glory (Phil 2:6-8), at a particular time and place, then some of the puzzles in the story of the Canaanite woman start to come into focus. Frankly, I do not know how much Jesus anticipated what took place in his encounter with the woman, when she first appeared; but I would ask you to see him there in that situation in his full humanity as a man of that time and place.

As an exercise in meditation, sometime, when you can be quiet for half an hour, you might try reading the story through several times quietly by yourself. Visualize the scene, and imagine yourself in it, perhaps as one of the crowd. Keep silent for a while. What do you see; what do you think; does anyone speak to you; what do they say; how do you feel; what happens next?

The remarkable thing was not that, as a Jew, Jesus believed that the children of Israel should be the first receive the gifts of God, but that he was able see when challenged by the Canaanite woman, in the same way as in his meeting with the Roman centurion, how the gift of faith had already been given to others so that the blessings of the kingdom he came to establish were even now to be shared more widely. His revelation of the power and love of God was to be seen in the outcome, that is, in how he coped with the woman's demands, not in the attitudes with which he entered that situation; and you can believe that he went into it willingly, to work out the will of God there, otherwise he would have stayed in Galilee. There should also be encouragement for us in it. If Jesus had to struggle to see the will of God on that occasion, as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane, it should not be surprising if we too sometimes need to struggle to learn what God would have us do; and we can be encouraged by the prospect of sharing with him in the joy of discovering what God is doing in our lives.

It would make some sense, then, to see it as a genuine encounter in which Jesus was persuaded by the woman to do something he was not inclined at first to do. After all, even his being God does not make it impossible for him to change his mind. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of God changing his mind. (For example, 1 Samuel 2:13; 2 Chronicles 7; Psalm 78:37-39.) You might see that as a primitive idea of God, but it is closer to the nature of God seen in the Bible as a whole and in Christ in particular, than the impersonal, immutable, all knowing and all powerful being of traditional Western philosophy. And after all, did not Jesus teach people to pray asking God for what they wanted and to persist, not giving up, believing that God might be persuaded. Is our relationship with God not a genuinely interactive one? Would it not be something less than personal if it were all an act and everything happened as if we had not asked.

(As I was arguing last week [Year A] there is no contradiction in this with our belief in the faithfulness of God who so orders the physical world that it is normally reliable and predictable.)

So one of the great things we learn from the Canaanite woman is her persistence in faith in a genuine interpersonal encounter.

Did you notice another thing about the granting of her request, that she was not asking for herself, but for her daughter. It was not a case of "faith healing" in the more humanistic psychological sense, as if her trust in him created conditions within herself which produced a healing effect. Her faith did not bring about a result in that way, but rather in the way of prayer, as in a petition addressed to a higher power. The result was again a revelation of his Lordship over creation. She appealed to the one who had the rightful power to rule over it, to the universal saviour of humanity. Yet her relationship with him was personal and particular.

Jesus did not cure all the sick people in the regions where he travelled. He certainly did not set up a systematic program to cure as many as possible. He did not have them all line up and go along touching as many as possible. I wonder why? Did it have anything to do with his particular historical mission? It is question that arose at other times; and he spoke about it with reference to what had been learned of God from the ancient prophets:

... but only one was helped by the prophet. What Jesus did arose out of a real personal encounter, just as on other occasions when faith was demonstrated, as with that other foreigner, the Roman Centurion:

Compare that with what he said to her who had already in Matthew's account called him Lord and Son of David:

It was her own personal acceptance of his being the Messiah which made the difference.

His love and power were not displayed in a vague generality but in a one to one personal relationship. The universal saviour of mankind [humankind] is active in an interpersonal relationship of faith, a relationship Paul described as being "in Christ":

.... to him be glory for ever! [Romans 15: 33, 36]. Amen.

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