A Sermon by The Rev’d Peter Jin

Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning, I am going to make two points coming out of today’s Gospel: one is how to approach God and the other is how God approaches us.

This Canaanite woman recognises that Jesus is the right person to go to with her need. She doesn’t care about all that past history and all of that past hatred. At Jesus’ time, the Jews considered the Canaanites to be a wicked people, a people who were involved in idolatry and child sacrifice. She acknowledges Jesus as Lord and makes her plea. When Jesus ignores her, she does not give up. When the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, she continues to cry out. When Jesus tells her, his mission does not include her or her daughter, she kneels before him and begs for his help. When he insults her, she responds with one of the best lines in New Testament: Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Her response shows respect, humility, and wit. Jesus praises her faith and grants her request.

This Canaanite woman teaches us that when we approach God, be persevering and be humble and even be witty. She also teaches us to have faith. All through her exchange with Jesus, this extraordinary woman never wavered in her belief that Jesus was the one who could heal her daughter.

The second point I want to make is how God approaches us. I don’t think Jesus is mean to this woman. Some modern commentators point out that Jesus was human after all, so he was a little bit fed up with this woman and he didn’t respond. I am not sure and to me it is not a convincing explanation.

I would like take the classic approach, which is that Jesus is testing her faith in him. Now, you might say to me, ‘that sounds awful, why would Jesus test this poor woman in such a harsh way’? I am with you. I will say to God, ‘I don’t want to go through this kind of a test, thank you very much’. Isn’t that our natural response?

But the idea of God testing people, especially people who are dear to him, is very biblical. There are a number of examples in the Bible. Abraham was told to sacrifice his only Son Isaac. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, where he spent 7 years in prison. The classic story is in the book of Job.

So why does God do this to us? We have to admit that things do grow by opposition. The idea is that we really don’t grow if we are not tested.

My daughter is 3 years old. Recently I have challenged her ability to develop hand and eye coordination. She was frustrated when she could not catch the tennis ball after she was good at catching a birthday balloon. If I don’t test her, don’t challenge her, she will stay at that same basic level. She needs to be exposed to more and more difficult challenges. I have to harden my heart and ignore her tears, in order to help her to reach her true potential.

In the Benedictine tradition, when a young man comes to the monastery seeking entry, the master will not let him in easily. The master will try him and test him. Make it hard for him to see if his faith and desire is strong. During that novitiate year, the novice master in the monastery will deliberately make life difficult for those young people. If they survive those trials, then it will bring out the power they never knew they had.

In ancient China, the master of Kung Fu in the Shaolin Monastery, also known as the Shaolin Temple held the same principles as St. Benedict. The Kung Fu Master tests a novice and let him sweep floors and wash dishes for a year. How depressing is it! That is why I don’t play Kung Fu.

The Canaanites were the residents of the land that Israel came into at the time of the conquest under Joshua. This Canaanite woman’s ethnicity, heritage, religion separated her from the Israelites’ social norms. As a migrant myself, I naturally relate my call to priesthood in NZ to her encounter with Jesus. 

My call to be a priest has been tested in the last 15 years. I was drawn to a Catholic religious order. But after taking to the vocation director of the Jesuit Order in Sydney in 2008, my exploration to be a Catholic priest was over because celibacy was not negotiable. I didn’t give up.

I had an interview with the Anglican Bishop in Auckland in 2009 who was very much open to multicultural ministry. I thought I was the best candidate. I was excited to be the first ordinand from Mainland China. I would make history. But unfortunately I was holding a temporary tourist visa at that time. My visa would be expiring in three months. He told me I need to sort out my visa first.

In the next 18 months, I overcame a few of challenges. I did a teaching course and became a teacher, found a permanent teaching job. Because of that job, I was granted a permanent resident visa which allows me to live in NZ happily ever after. I nearly gave up my call. Wellington is a great place to live and work. I really enjoyed my life there. Although I was happy, I didn’t have much joy. I clearly sensed that God had called me not to give up.

I wrote a letter to an Anglican priest whom I had met in Auckland a few years before. She had said to me that if in the future I wanted to explore Anglican vocation I should contact her. In her letter, she told me she would help me to discern my call. I resigned my permanent job in Wellington and drove 7 hours to her parish in Tauranga.

God is truly amazing. A few weeks later, I met Wei, my wife. I fell in love with her. A year later, I was accepted as an ordinand.

Wei my wife developed a unhealthy habit to send me love letters. In the letters, she wrote a long list of my weaknesses. Plus how many wrong things I did, when I did and where I did. But she did show me her mercy by telling me how impressed she was that: I didn’t give up my call. 

Why should our relationship with God be any different? Why is so puzzling that God would test us, would try us, would give us at times something strong to press against? Is Jesus being difficult with this Canaanite woman capriciously? No. Is he having a bad day at work? No. It seems to me this’s the divine master is doing what he always does. Finding someone who has faith, yes she has come to him asking him a favour, but now he’s giving her something hard, his own silence, his own reticence. And if her faith was weak, he just walked away. But no. In the struggle with him, the faith comes out of her stronger and stronger. She cries out and finally that beautiful line of hers: ‘Lord even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’. That was born of a very deep and of a very powerful faith. How come God doesn’t give me what I want, when I want it? How come God seems silent sometimes? Maybe God gives us something hard to resist. Because in that very trial, in that very struggle, our faith becomes stronger and stronger and stronger. God bless us in this COVID time and keep us strong and faithful. Amen.