Speaking the Truth about God’s Love: a sermon on Matt. 15

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

We often talk about Jesus being perfect, the one human being who is free from sin.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus never experiences moments of weakness, or human frailty.

The defining thing about Jesus is not that he never experiences the temptation to sin; it’s that Jesus, in the end chooses not to live into it.

And this includes the sin of exclusion and hatred of the other.

In today’s gospel, Jesus comes pretty darn close to sinning, in his interaction with the Canaanite woman.

Jesus initially refuses to answer the woman’s request that her daughter be healed, and when the woman persists,

Jesus is downright rude, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Let’s be clear.

Jesus calls the woman a dog.

That was, in 1st century Palestine, as it still is, an insulting thing to say to another human being.

And Jesus’ rude words make the woman’s request sound unreasonable, like she’s begging.

And yet, this woman is no different from the many others who have been seeking Jesus’ help and healing throughout his ministry.

And Jesus doesn’t insult them, like he does this woman.

But of course, she’s a Canaanite, a stranger, and a woman, which makes her a little more easy to insult, according to the standards of 1st century Palestine.

Women in Jesus’ day were consistently discounted and disenfranchised by the social and religious structures of the time.

The fact that, in today’s gospel, the woman isn’t given a name points to this reality.

In addition to this, as today’s gospel says, Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

In the geography of 1st century Palestine, where most people lived their entire lives between where they could walk or take a boat…

The region of Tyre and Sidon is far, far out of Galilee.

Jesus is way up North, he is in deeply unfamiliar territory, both geographically but probably also culturally and racially as well.

It’s safe to say, at least geographically, that Jesus is way outside his comfort zone.

And this woman is a stranger to Jesus, in the most profound way.

In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, this woman is referred to as a Canaanite, which is meant to signify the fact that she is a stranger.

Canaanites, if you remember, are the people who originally occupied the land of Canaan, before the Israelites arrived to claim it.

Some other Canaanite women you might have heard of in Scripture include Rahab and Tamar.

Think, for a moment, of the systemic and persistent oppression of the native peoples of our own country…

And you’ll know exactly what happened to the Canaanites.

By the time of Jesus, centuries after the Israelites occupied the land of Canaan, the native Canaanite people didn’t exist anymore.

They had been subsumed, or in the worst cases, wiped out, by the Israelite peoples.

In calling this woman a Canaanite, Matthew is literally calling her an anachronism,

a representation of an uncomfortable and often violent past between different groups of people.

This woman is a stranger, whose very strangeness calls into question the legacy of the Israel, who oppressed and occupied the native Canaanites…

before Israelites themselves later became oppressed and occupied by Rome.

We all know what tends to happen when we encounter people with whom we are unfamiliar, perhaps of whom, because of their unfamiliarity, we are afraid…

Or when we encounter people with whom we have a painful past, that we’d rather not admit to…

We keep people at arms length, either through distance and separation, or through stereotypes, or insults…

Jesus himself does this, when he calls the Canaanite woman a dog, not worthy of the food Jesus gives to the children of Israel.

What makes this story even more difficult to hear, is not just Jesus’ rudeness, but also the fact that Jesus has literally just talked about…

…how the hateful words that comes out of our mouths are what defile us, instead of neglecting ritual practices of purity.

And yet, Jesus himself comes perilously close to saying hateful things to another human being.

Jesus, it seems, has a difficult time taking his own advice, which says something about how deeply, culturally engrained our hate can be.

What is remarkable, in the face of this, is that the Canaanite woman stands her ground.

She doesn’t give in to the hate, even the insults she receives at the hands of others, at the hand of Jesus.

Instead, the woman persists, saying to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Jesus basically says to the woman, “You have to wait your turn.”

And the woman responds, reminding Jesus of a profound theological truth about God.

She says: “I know the truth; that there is no need to wait.”

The woman challenges the claimed exclusivity that God’s love can only be extended to certain people or at certain times.

God’s love is so abundant that it is offered to all people, right now.

Here’s the wonderful and sometimes difficult truth about God:

As today’s gospel shows us, not even Jesus gets to chose who God loves.

God’s love extends to everyone, to all people.

Not even Jesus gets to chose when God loves.

God’s love is right now.

There’s no taking turns, there’s no waiting, there’s no in or out, not when it comes to God’s love.

God’s love is for everyone, right now.

In a world where hatred and fear often seem to reign, it takes deep, great faith to recognize this profound truth about God.

It means that we can’t claim exclusivity of God’s loves and blessings for ourselves, any more than others can claim it for themselves.

God loves everyone, right now.

It takes deep, great faith to acknowledge this truth about God and it takes deep, great faith to live it too.

Racism and acts of hate are often driven by fear, fear of scarcity, fear of the other.

It is simpler sometimes to allow ourselves to fall prey to fear, it is easier sometimes to simply resort to hate, than to do the difficult work of reconciliation and love.

This fear is a lie, it’s a sin, because it actually draws us away from a profound truth about God.

The fact that the Canaanite woman is able to speak the truth of God to power, in the face of fear, criticism and hostility speaks volumes about the profundity of her faith.

Jesus acknowledges this, when he says to the woman, “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”

I do not know what reservoirs of resilience and strength this nameless Canaanite woman had to stand up to hostility, and to name the truth of God’s love.

Perhaps she was just desperate to save those she loved.

But she teaches Jesus something important about God, so we ought to follow her example.

We are called to acknowledge in our life and in our actions that God loves all people, right now.

We cannot let hatred and fear, and the racism and violence that they inspire, speak louder than the truth of God’s love.

We, like the Canaanite woman, need to be courageous enough to speak, courageous enough to act on behalf of all God’s people and God’s love.

After all, to do so, is, as Jesus says, an act of faith.