A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Mara Di Francesco, on the 20th August 2023.
Matthew 15. 21-28 Cathedral sermon 20-8-23 Give a dog a bone!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever been so desperate for a situation to change that you are willing to risk whatever it takes for an improvement? That is the situation the Canaanite woman was in.
“Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”
What the Canaanite woman is saying to Jesus in the gospel today is that she doesn’t deserve anything. “But, “she asks, “how about giving me scraps that accidentally fall from your table?
The leftovers are the stuff no one wants.
All she wants is Jesus’ mercy, his grace and to heal her daughter.
This woman is desperate, courageous, and determined and she is prepared to risk a confrontation even after being initially rejected by Jesus. With her wit and conviction, she convinced him to throw a dog a bone.
She has so much faith in Jesus she knows that even the so-called metaphorical scraps will bring her daughter healing. She has never met Jesus, but she had heard of him. His reputation was flawless. So why not trust him to heal her daughter, which was her goal right from the start?
But there is more to her situation.
How awful and horrific would it be to live with someone demon possessed or with a serious mental illness? The stigma, the judgments, the alienation, and the gossip. Let alone the torture the tormented girl would have been forced to endure.
In the end, love conquers everything.
Taken out of context, and especially in English, it’s easy to mistake Jesus calling the woman a dog as an insult. In the flow of the story, however, it’s clear Jesus is creating a metaphor meant to explain the priorities of His ministry. He is also teaching an important lesson to His disciples.
This gospel story this morning, when we read it in our 21st century setting, confronts us initially with issues around racial identity. It initially looks as if Jesus is refusing to help this Canaanite woman because she is from the wrong race.
She was marginalized and disempowered, not one of the lost sheep of Israel and a woman on her own asking for mercy from a Jewish man.
We are told that the woman came from Tyre and Sidon which were coastal towns in the 1st century. Now we know this area as Lebanon. Canaanites were various groups of people who descended from Noah and lived in the land of Canaan.
Like other people of the Ancient Near East, Canaanite religious beliefs were polytheistic, with families typically focusing on the veneration of the dead in the form of household gods and goddesses, the Elohim, while acknowledging the existence of other deities such as Baal and El, Mot, Qos, Asherah and Astarte.Historically, the Canaanites were enemies of the Jews and considered unclean gentiles.
Jews in Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In Greek, this word is kuon, meaning “wild cur” (Matthew 7:6; Luke 16:21; Philippians 3:2). Non-Jews were considered so unspiritual that even being in their presence could make a person ceremonially unclean (John 18:28).
Much of Jesus’ ministry, however, involved turning expectations and prejudices on their heads (Matthew 11:19; John 4:9–10). According to Matthew’s narrative, Jesus left Israel and went into Tyre and Sidon, which was Gentile territory (Matthew 15:21). When the Canaanite woman approached asking for healing for her daughter who was demon-possessed the disciples were annoyed and asked Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:23) as she kept crying out after them for mercy.
At this point, Jesus explained His current ministry in a way that both the woman and the watching disciples could understand. At that time, His duty was to the people of Israel, not to the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24). ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel,’ are his words to her.
It would be like a father taking food from his children to throw it to their pets (Matthews 15:26). The exact word Jesus used here, in Greek, was kunarion, meaning “small dog” or “pet dog.” This is a completely different word from the term kuon, used to refer to unspiritual people or an “unclean” animal. Jesus wasn’t referring to the Canaanite woman as a “dog,” either directly or indirectly. He wasn’t using a racial slur but making a point about the priorities he’d been given by God. He was also testing the faith of the woman and again teaching an important lesson to His disciples.
His response to the Canaanite woman is similar. In testing her, Jesus declined her request and explained that she had no legitimate expectation of his help. The woman, however, lived out the principle Jesus Himself taught in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1–8). Her response proved that she understood fully what Jesus was saying yet had enough conviction to ask anyway (Matthew 15:27). Jesus acknowledged her faith—calling it “great”—and granted her request (Matthew 15:28). Miraculously there is a peculiar feature of this miracle. Her daughter is healed not by Jesus going to her home or the girl coming to him but by remote control. From a distance. Such is the power that Jesus yields and enormity of the woman’s faith. In the end, distance makes no difference to Jesus. He heals the daughter without even casting his eyes on her.
Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman is unusual and confronting. Alongside other Gentile stories in Matthew’s very Jewish Gospel, it signifies the opening of the doors on the Gentiles and their inclusion in the community of faith.
The Canaanite woman coming from her own region takes the initiative to approach Jesus. Right from the onset of their conversation, she refers to Jesus as “Lord” and in referring to Jesus as the Son of David, she acknowledges his Jewish messianic lineage. This is quite remarkable when we think about this encounter as Jesus was in the region because he had withdrawn from the conflict with the Pharisees and elders, the Jewish leaders, as he did not want to confront his enemies too soon and he did not want the people to make him king so withdrew for a time to let the conflict settle.
How extraordinary that the Gentile woman who hardly knows him seeks not only his mercy but recognises him as the Messiah, unlike the Jewish leaders that keep rejecting Jesus.
Despite all the obstacles she faced, the Canaanite woman did not give up. She turned out to be extraordinary, surprising, and wonderful. She proved a deep faith in Jesus’ miraculous powers and Jesus praises her. He is impressed, and the heart of Jesus is “blown out of the water”.
The woman experiences the abundance of Jesus’ healing and grace and in doing so we have a glimpse of the power of God at work with all people regardless of race. This gospel today tells us of incredible faith willing to risk everything to have her daughter healed and the experience of abundance through God’s grace.
I suspect that the cross she carried shaped her.
Living with a demon possessed daughter would have been far from pleasant or easy.
Maybe to start with the Canaanite woman may have been angry about her lot in life wavering between love for her daughter and despair.
She would have heard about this itinerant preacher and healer called Jesus from other people so she knew that if she could just work up enough nerve bravely and boldly yet with humility to confront him, Jesus could heal her daughter.
I suspect she had been pondering for a while and with utter conviction and trustfulness that Jesus was the Son of God and that he without a doubt would heal her daughter.
She arrived in the region already knowing who Jesus was. The epiphany moment did not happen as they exchanged words like the story of the woman at the well who came to faith gradually during that conversation with Jesus.
This woman already knew who he was without even having met Jesus, seen him, heard him preach, pray, or heal anyone in her presence. So great was her faith, her conviction, her trust in him.
She is transformed into a disciple of Jesus before they even speak, so great is her testimony of faithfulness. Her faith was so great that she moved a mountain for her daughter given her Canaanite background and she did it because of love.
She is also an example of Jesus making disciples of all nations not just Israel but the Gentiles as well.
She certainly had her share of bread that day. When Jesus multiplied the bread to feed the crowd, bread became a sign of sharing. It also symbolised the Word of God which nourished the crowds. The crumbs of bread now take on a new meaning as Jesus shares the good news with a Greek Gentile.
She leaves him in peace. Her daughter is healed and today we remember this woman of great faith who was compared to and called a dog. She is a great example of a perseverant faithful pioneer for the Gentile people and also of how all things are possible with God even what may seem impossible.
I am reminded of Bishop Desmond Tutu who fought for justice, oppression, and prejudice. As I learnt from his book In God’s Hands he was driven by his unshakeable belief that human beings are created in God’s image and are infinitely valuable. Each one is a God-carrier, a tabernacle, a sanctuary of the Divine Trinity. Jesus attracted a lot of people to faith in God because of the depth of his love. That’s our briefing too.