Today, for the first time in a year, I preached at Trinity United Reformed Church in Upminster. It was good to be there and the people were pleased to see me looking so well after my illness last year.
The United Reformed Church uses the Revised Common Lectionary and so I preached about the gospel reading for today which is below:
Matthew 15:21 – 28
”Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. “
Some of us have good neighbours and others have the neighbours from hell.
The Australian Soap opera “neighbours” has the strap line that “everyone needs good neighbours”.
“Ah wouldn’t it be nice to get on with me neighbours” sang the Small Faces in 1967.
As we know from the news today, the Jews don’t get on with their neighbours.
It is an age old problem going back to the days of Abraham where we find one of history’s “if only’s”.
If only Abraham had really trusted in God to provide him with a son and heir, and not taken matters into his own hands. As we know he had a son Ishmael with his wife’s maid Hagar. Later Abraham had a son Isaac with his wife Sarah and through him the Jewish people came into being.
We have another “if only” moment when the Israelite’s came back into the promised land after years in exile in Egypt. They were told by God to conquer the land and destroy all the altars and idols of the Canaanites who were into all sorts of witchcraft, immorality and even child sacrifice. God’s people were to have nothing to do with the Canaanites. But after Joshua died the Israelites lost interest in doing what God had told them and instead took on the religious practices of the area and married the locals.
All through the Old Testament we read that Israel was often at war with its neighbours. Whenever they formed alliances with any of the surrounding countries it always ended in tears, as the prophets constantly pointed out.
Because the Jews were God’s chosen people, they thought they were better than everyone else who they regarded as second class citizens or worse! And look what they thought of the Samaritans.
In the time of Jesus, no self respecting Jew would go anywhere near Samaria. They would travel around it even if it added hours or days to their journey. They certainly wouldn’t talk to a Samaritan. But Jesus did. We find in the gospels that he brought the good news to a Samaritan village through a conversation he had with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:1 – 42). He also made a Samaritan the hero in one of his parables – “The good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25 – 37).
Our gospel reading finds Jesus in foreign territory. In the previous verses Jesus was in Gennesaret on the shore of the Sea of Galilee arguing with the Pharisees about man made rules and regulations which the Pharisees felt were to be observed at all costs. The Pharisees had been complaining to Jesus that his disciples hadn’t properly washed their hands before eating and so were ritually unclean. Jesus pointed out that it is our thoughts and our words ie that which comes out of ourselves that make us unclean.
Jesus has travelled north to the area of Tyre and Sidon, clearly a pagan area. Maybe Jesus came here to get away from all the legalism he had just encountered.
Jesus is approached by a Canaanite woman, clearly not a Jew and so someone no respectable Rabbi would deign to talk with.
The woman calls out “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! “ The term “Son of David” is clearly a Jewish term for the Messiah, God’s promised saviour who will be descended from David. Not a term that gentiles would ever use. So there must have been something going on for this woman. The Holy Spirit must have been stirring up something in this woman to prompt her to come out with this statement.
The disciples want Jesus to get rid of the woman. She’s an embarrassment, let alone the fact that she is a gentile.
The disciples seemed to like having a neat and tidy life.
After all they tried to push away mothers who brought their children to Jesus for a blessing. On that occasion Jesus was indigent with his disciples as we read in Matthew 19:13 & 14: “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.”
What does Jesus do with this woman? Initially he says nothing, but as we heard in our reading she keeps on calling out. She is desperate. Her daughter is possessed by a demon.
And for those who think that demon possession was a description for what we now know as mental illness, I will tell you that it does happen and it can be very frightening. But, praise God, it can be dealt with in the name of Jesus. Sadly there are excesses in some third world churches where they think that you have to shout and scream at the demon or hit the possessed person or burn them to get the demon out. That is superstitious nonsense. Its right there in the Bible what you have to do. You follow the biblical example using Jesus’ authority and command the demon to go.
Some years ago when I was at a different church the pastor told me that he had nearly phoned me during the week as he had a caller who had a problem with a demon or ghost in the house causing all sorts of mischief. I asked the pastor why didn’t he deal with the problem? “Oh I wasn’t trained to do it at theological college” came the reply! So what did the pastor do? He sent the man to see the local catholic priest instead.
So this poor woman has a demon possessed daughter. We are not told how this happened, but you can surmise that the girl got it through any one of the pagan practices that went on in that area. People always get into trouble when they dabble with the occult or witchcraft or get involved with tarot cards, Ouija boards etc
Jesus tells her in v24 “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The mother won’t give up and pleads with Jesus: “Lord help me!”
Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.””Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
I once heard a preacher use these verses to prove that Jesus is a racist. After all the preacher said, Jesus is calling this Canaanite woman a dog.
However Jesus is referring to the pet dogs of the household. Its all a matter of priorities, the family are fed first and then what is left over is given to the dogs.
The woman agrees that the children are to be fed first, but she points out that the dogs get the crumbs from the table.
I get the feeling that maybe Jesus was testing her, to see whether she did have faith in him and was not just trying him as a last resort.
But look how this encounter turns out in v28 “ Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
It is her faith that counts. It is through the mother’s faith in God that the daughter is set free from that demon. Very rarely do we read in the gospels that Jesus commends people for their great faith, yet that is what he does to this gentile woman.
It’s not following an endless set of man made rules that counts but whether you have faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.
This woman’s faith in Jesus came our of her desperate need for her daughter to be healed. There was nothing else she could do and no one else she could turn to for help.
Her faith made her take risks. Would Jesus reject her? After all she knew how the Jews regarded foreigners. What would she do? How she would be ridiculed by her family and friends for going to see a faith healer.
But faith makes us take risks. There is a scene in an Indiana Jones film where the hero has to step out into a void to get to the treasure. It is only when he puts his foot out and down that the walk way appears. Nothing happened until he took that first step.
The woman’s faith in Jesus made her persevere. At first Jesus ignores her. So she continues. The disciples urge Jesus to get rid of her but she continues. Jesus even tells her that its not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs, but she comes back with an answer.
She is fighting for her daughter’s life so she perseveres.
And the outcome is “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Her daughter is healed.
This passage really has two points for us to hold on to today.
Firstly it is faith in Jesus that is so important. Not observing religious rules and regulations. No one is perfect and no one but Jesus has ever led a perfect life.
Also Jesus is for everyone not just for the Jewish people. Jesus’ primary mission was to the Jewish people but when they rejected him and his message, the mission widened to include all people who answered the call “come to me!”
This Canaanite woman was one of the least likely people to be accepted into the kingdom bearing in mind her background and the likely nature of the religion she had practised.
But Jesus commends her for her faith.
No one is excluded from the Kingdom of God if they want to be there and if they have a faith in Jesus. No matter what your background, what you have done, how you have lived, if you wish to change and you respond to the Spirit’s prompting you can be saved.
Jesus is for everyone.