Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost 2008 (Proper 15, Year A)

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on August 17, 2008 (Proper 15A)

If the classic refrain in real estate is “location, location, location” then the refrain for this passage from Matthew’s gospel must be “context, context, context.” Because without context this is a painful passage to hear. Jesus’ interaction with the Gentile woman makes him come across as cold and callous and cruel – referring to non-Jews as “dogs” hardly meshes with the Jesus we know and love and who loves us right back. 

So, first a few words about the context of Matthew’s gospel. It is the most “Jewish” of the gospels, written for a community of Jewish converts to Christianity. Matthew places his community squarely within its Jewish heritage and portrays Jesus as a man whose Jewish identity is beyond doubt. A case in point here is that his gospel, and his alone, begins by tracing Jesus’ genealogy all that way back to Abraham. And one of Jesus’ refrains in Matthew is that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. 

One of the early controversies in Matthew’s community, which we really see played out in the Book of Acts, took place when Gentile converts started joining the church. Did they have to first become Jews upon entering the Christian community? Would they have to observe the ancient Jewish customs and follow the Mosaic Law? Part of Matthew’s mission was seeking to bridge the divide between these two groups. And this exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman highlights the inherent cultural clash.  

But we also get Jesus at his most human. Which contrasts starkly with last week’s gospel reading. When we last saw Jesus he was walking on water – the ultimate expression of his divinity. This morning we see his humanity. He’s, frankly, grouchy in this exchange. Now, he was probably tired. He had left Gennesaret where he had been teaching and healing and feeding all day long. I’d imagine he was hoping for a bit of downtime and along comes this loud, nagging woman shouting at him about a sick daughter. I think we can all relate to getting to the point of overload. If you’re a parent it’s listening to whining all day and then having one last argument about brushing teeth. As if this were something new. As if we haven’t done the same thing every single day of your life since your very first tooth popped through. You get to a certain point and you’re just done. ‘Enough! Leave me alone.’

And that’s precisely the moment this woman arrives on the scene shrieking at him in a grating voice to heal her daughter. Now we’d expect Jesus to quietly pull her aside and ask in a calm voice how he could help her. We expect Jesus to have time for everyone and everything. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even respond; he ignores the woman. And his disciples even tell him to send her away – which you might expect from them. But amid her continued shouts Jesus brusquely tells her he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. In other words, “I came to save the Jews and you’re a Gentile so beat it.”

Now most women in this situation would have done just that. They would have left in shame. It was audacious enough for a Gentile woman to even approach a Jewish man and upon such a rebuke you could imagine her slipping quietly away. But not this woman. She gets into it with Jesus and exposes the fault in his logic. Which leads to all that vivid dog imagery. Jesus proclaims “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And the woman comes right back with, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Touché. 

Now before you start quoting me as saying that I believe Jesus has faulty logic, I do think Jesus uses this exchange to highlight the universality of his ministry. Yes, Jesus came first to the Jews – out of the Davidic line – but his ministry was to all humanity not just one particular group. And while Matthew’s community was made up mostly of Jewish Christians, by the end of his gospel this is universality is abundantly clear. For it is Matthew’s gospel that ends with what’s become known as The Great Commission: “Go therefore into the world and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It doesn’t get much more universal than that. And Matthew stresses that the Kingdom which Jesus has promised will embrace both Jew and gentile alike. 

So just as this passage must be placed in the context of Matthew’s community, so it must be placed in the context of the Great Commission which concludes the gospel. Jesus came to save not just the lost sheep of Israel but all of humanity.

It is important for us to remember that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. We tend to gloss over his humanity. We focus on the miracles – the walking on water, the healings, the turning of water into wine, the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. And while the miraculous is certainly compelling, it doesn’t tell the whole story. And we end up turning Jesus into some sort of a Biblical superhero. A divine caped crusader who saves the day with a word or a touch. Which is nice in a sense – what’s not to like about Superman — but it also makes Jesus into a remote “other.” A distant deity with whom we can’t really identify and who can’t really identify with us. 

And this is to our detriment. Because without the humanity of Jesus we miss the fullness, and the agony, of his ministry. The crucifixion is an atoning sacrifice for our sins precisely because of the humanity of God’s son. Without the humanity of Jesus, without God’s entering into the world in human form, the cross is no longer a true symbol of hope and resurrection. The saving grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection are so astonishing precisely because of Jesus’ humanity. 

The Prayer of Humble Access which we say before the distribution of communion each Sunday at the 8 o’clock service says “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table…yet thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” The line comes from this passage and it helps keep all that we do squarely in context.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

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