June 18, 2023. Sermon Title: Persistence. And, Something Else?

First Mennonite Church

June 18, 2023

(Persistence Rewarded) Persistence. And, Something More?

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

  15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came  and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting  after us.” 15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house  of Israel.” 15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food  and throw it to the dogs.” 15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that  fall from their masters’ table.” 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Among some of the hardest passages in the Bible to interpret and preach from is this one in Matthew 15. It seems to portray Jesus out of his usual character towards those in need. The words he speaks to the woman are difficult to reconcile with the kind and sensitive Jesus as we know him throughout the Gospels. Because, as we know, language is intrinsic to every culture and the usage of certain words reflects cultural pride, and identity, but also biases and prejudices. A wise person once said: “We all have prejudices. What we do with them is the important issue.” And that is truly reflected in our story for this morning. 

Jesus was having a hard time with representatives of Jerusalem by the lake of Gennesaret; so, before matters escalated furthermore, he retrieved to the Gentile country of Tyre and Sidon. This attitude of withdrawal seemed a perfect way to avoid any untimely conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. 

Tyre and Sidon are foreign provinces north of Galilee. This region is located in what is now Lebanon. In the Old Testament, Tyre and Sidon are spoken of with reproach. Therefore, Matthew wants to point to his reader very clearly that Jews do not see Canaanites favorably.

As Jesus arrives in the region, a Canaanite woman comes out to meet him and begins to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus says nothing; he seems not to notice or notice but does not respond.  Jesus’ silence is shocking, especially in light of the need being presented to him. He is not the Jesus we know. But his silence and apparent disregard do not dissuade the woman from crying for help.

The disciple on the other hand, who at times seems to disapprove of Jesus’ graciousness to others, now calls on him to “give her what she wants.” And that too is strange. But they seem not to respond out of compassion but simply for the sake of expediency. They want to get rid of her “for she keeps shouting behind us.”

The biblical scholar, William Barclay translates the disciples’ words as follows: “For she is shrieking after us.”[1] That certainly gives us the idea of how desperate and forceful the woman was with her plea. But despite Jesus’ silence, she would not take “no” for an answer. She kept pounding and hounding Jesus until she gets what she wants.

We are told that Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” but we are not told whether he said this to the disciples or to the woman. Nonetheless, it’s at this point that the woman comes and kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me!” And Jesus had no choice but to give her some attention, but looking at her, he said “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus is mindful of his mission and of limitations. He has been sent to Israel to find its lost sheep. Furthermore, he had just warned his disciples not to do missions among the Gentiles or Samaritans (10:5). But here he is Gentile territory as a result of tensions between the leaders of the house of Israel. Yet, the bread is only for the children. And, bread, here refers to all that is good and needed. It is food, well-being, and God’s favor for his people. Bread is happiness and forgiveness, and in this case, it is healing the woman was pleading for, for her daughter. But the bread was intended for the children, not the dogs.

 Again, William Barclay writes: “To call a person a dog was a deadly and contemptuous insult. But it was not uncommon for Jews to speak with arrogant insolence about Canaanite dogs… infidel dogs… and later, even Christian dogs.” Barclay adds: “In those days, dogs were not house pets, so much as they were the unclean scavengers of the street… lean… savage…  often diseased.” We’re not talking “Lassie” here. We’re talking “junkyard dog.”[2] 

In the context of this story, “dog” was not only the woman; it was her, her daughter, her neighbors, and all of the Canaanites. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says.

It is really difficult to understand why Jesus spoke to this woman the way he did. There are those who try to justify Jesus’ words. “The woman was at fault. She had been pestering Jesus and his disciple for too long and therefore she deserved it”. Or that Jesus was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. And when she passed the test, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Still yet, others would argue that this passage must be an interpolation. That is, someone inserted this story in the gospel. Thus, it is not part of the original text. However, my friends, there is nothing that would tell us otherwise. Matthew simply narrates to us what Jesus did and said. And he said “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,”  

But after all the insult and humiliation, the woman with heartfelt shamelessness kneels before Jesus and cries, “Lord, help me.” She says to him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The dogs do get something if it’s only the bread but the dogs still eat! “If it is the scraps or crumbs that I am entitled to get, please give it to me.

This woman knew that any crumb of God’s grace is grace enough for healing and restoring her daughter. She knew that anything and everything that comes from God is good. And what could Jesus say other than “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And at that moment her daughter was healed.

The title of my sermon is Persistence followed by the question: And, Something More? Here is the reason: Did Jesus learn something, which obviously he did not know? Was Jesus genuinely forced to admit the woman had a valid point about God’s grace available to the Gentiles, even if the crumbs of it?

There are few lessons we can glean from this passage. First, is the fact that just as this woman was: a Gentile, someone in need, but also someone who has been given an opportunity to meet with Jesus, so are we. We do not belong to the House of Israel. We are by nature outsiders to the covenant of God. Regarding needs, just open your heart and hear its yearning and longing. We need not only the daily bread that sustains us physically but the peace of mind to keep our sanity in this world of chaos. We need God’s daily assurance amidst all the threats we face in life. We need help when the world seems sinking even deeper into the mire of hopelessness. It’s only the presence of God that can give us the rest and hope we need.

But Jesus has come to the shore of our lives. We have been given the opportunity to know him and to come to him. Yet, how confidently do we come to him regardless of how fully aware we are about our unworthiness to ask?

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author describes Jesus as God’s high priest who truly understands our human condition. Therefore, he writes: Let us, therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16). Because the Lord understands our condition, we must approach him with boldness in times of need. The Greek word for boldness is parrhesia, which also means “outspokenness,” “frankness,” “plainness of speech” and “joyous confidence.”[3] 

The woman not only was frank and open about her need but was also outspoken in the sense that she relayed with great insistence her need and reason for expecting a response: Even when the bread belongs to the children, the dogs get the crumbs. The woman’s persistence, boldness, and outspokenness moved Jesus to respond with admiration and compassion.

That attitude of boldness and outspokenness is how Abraham spoke to God according to Genesis 18. After God revealed to Abraham of his resolution to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham said to God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And for the sake of Abraham’s plea, God did spare those who were righteous, tells the Bible.

Another lesson we find in the passage is how closely the woman’s attitude resonates with the urgency expected from us regarding all matters of the kingdom of God. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who give a thought or two to the subject of righteousness. No. He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Our desire for God’s righteousness in the world should be like when we are desperate for water or for food.

Lastly, what are you asking God, day and night in prayer? What is it you are praying to God for this congregation?

So, when we pray, let us remember that we have no merits to ask God for anything. The very fact that we are able to pray is because Christ, the Lord has come into our lives. Yet, we can pray to the Almighty God because of his unmerited mercy he invites us to speak to him confidently about our needs.

May the Lord put in us an increasing desire to persist in seeking his face. Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] William Barclay. Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, London. 1956)

[2] Ibid.

[3] BibleWorks VII, Gingrich Morphology/word analysis