Summary: This sermon has a strong focus on "little-c catholic Christians," focusing their attention on the words of a Canaanitish woman which found their way into Western Christianity’s eucharistic liturgy.
Second Sunday in Lent
If one were to pick episodes out of the Gospels in order to introduce Jesus to someone who does not know him, I’ll bet that the gospel lesson appointed for today is exactly the one they would never pick. There is, of course, much in the Bible that would not pass muster from the Panjandrums of Political Correctedness, but Jesus’ behavior in this episode takes the modern canons of correct behavior, flings them to the ground, and dances on them.
First of all, he rejects the pitiful cries of help from a woman. Does Jesus anywhere reject a man so bluntly as he rejects this woman? By modern conventions of appropriate behavior, there is more than a hint of sexism here. And, his rejection seems shockingly cold. He doesn’t say a word to her when she begins bawling out to him. Her cries are so constant and compelling that FINALLY it is the embarrassed and frustrated Disciples who appeal to Jesus to send her away. Evidently, THEY were unable to get her to stop hollering out for help.
Next, there is Jesus’ ethnic exclusivity. “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” he tells her. She is not Jewish. Jesus is there for the Jews, not the Gentiles. Moreover, she is a Canaanitish woman. Not only does she have no claim on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, her people were the ancient enemies of the Jews, the ones whom God had dispossessed, the ones whom God sent the Jews to destroy for the depth of their national, cultural, and spiritual sins.
And, finally, there is the flip side of this ethnic priority of the Jews. I’m referring to the ethnic INFERIORITY of Gentiles. To help the woman would be like taking bread made for the children and giving it to dogs instead. Jesus’ point is impossible to miss: “You, woman, and your daughter, are dogs.” How rude! How coarse! How utterly ungracious!
If we explored all the angles which this episode presents us, we could easily generate a 12-week Bible study. But, to be honest, we have only about 12 minutes. So I want to comment briefly on three angles offered by the gospel text in front of us.
The first thing to say is this: the point of Matthew’s penning this episode is to focus a very bright spotlight on a gentile woman’s faith in Jesus. Remember, Matthew’s gospel that has a Jewish audience primarily in mind. For that reason, the primary point of including this episode in Matthew’s gospel would be this: to do what God had always promised he would do to his disobedient and foolish people.
God had warned about this as far back as the Prophet Moses. In his own funeral song Moses sang these words, offering them to the people as the words of God:
“For they are a perverse generation, Children in whom is no faith. 21They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; They have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation;
I will move them to anger by a foolish nation.”
And, so what you see in Jesus’ actions toward this Canaanitish woman is an individual instance what Paul was referring to in Romans 11: “…to provoke [Israel] to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.”
Let me emphasize at this point something which we Gentile Christians almost never keep in mind. The blessing which Jesus bestowed on this woman, like the astounding blessings which come to Gentiles generally – including every one of us here today – ALL OF THESE BLESSINGS have as their ultimate purpose the salvation of Israel. Jesus is STILL the Messiah of the Jews, and his purpose is STILL to redeem Israel from its sins. The salvation of us Gentile Christians is not an afterthought, but neither is it the main point. Our salvation serves another purpose, and that is a purpose toward which Christ at this very moment is still working – the salvation of the Seed of Abraham. As Paul writes to Gentile Christians in Romans 11:
25For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; 27For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins."
There is a second angle on this episode which I might not mention in some other venue, but I am constrained to mention it here among all of you who know me and know our family’s history.