The Teachable Jesus

Click here to read Matthew 15:21-28.

What a story we have before us today! The story of the Canaanite woman’s faith might conclude with a miraculous healing, but it begins with a surprising and confounding incident in which Jesus is more than a little bit rude. When you hear this story, do you cringe at the part where he calls the woman a dog? I certainly do. Nowhere in my set of preconceived notions about how the Son of God should behave does it allow for Jesus to be cranky or mean. Of course, our preconceived notions don’t always serve us well when it comes to interpreting the Holy Bible. The gospel is proclaimed in this passage as clearly as it is proclaimed in the scriptures that portray Jesus merrily welcoming children. We just have to open our hearts to God’s intentions the very same way Jesus’ heart was opened.

The context in which this narrative unfolds is an old one that is repeated all too often in history, one that we can open up the newspaper and read about any morning. Animosity between groups of people rooted in religion, culture, race, language. Animosity that is stoked by mistrust and violence. Animosity that is passed down generations until no one even remembers how the hatred started. This is the kind of relationship the peoples of Israel and Canaan enjoyed. They were enemies, pure and simple. In fact, a common insult for Canaanites was “dog.” One can imagine that Jesus heard his fellow Israelites toss that term of degradation around quite often, and you can bet the Canaanites had their own choice words for Jews.

Jesus clearly understood that he had a ministry to do. He understood that he was called to teach, heal, and redeem God’s people. But he did not understand who God’s people were. He had a blind spot that was fueled by the misunderstanding and hatred between Jews and Canaanites. That is, until a certain Canaanite woman set him straight.

The exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is painful to read. The woman was faithful from the start, referring to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David. There is no “if you are the Lord and Son of David,”—which is how the disciple Peter addressed Jesus in our reading from last week. With the Canaanite woman, there is no question, no need for proof. She addressed him with absolute respect and with full belief that this man had the capacity to heal her tormented daughter. Can you imagine how far that woman’s heart sunk when she was rejected by Jesus? Yet she persisted. This woman’s faith was great enough to bring her to her knees in front of the one who dismissed her. It was when she was prostrate in front of her Lord when the salt was poured on the wound. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. This woman had made herself completely vulnerable to Jesus, and just as she had lowered her head to “where it is possible to smell exactly what the Rottweiler had for lunch” (Mary Hinkle, Pilgrim Preaching), he likened her and her fellow Canaanites to dogs. There is no pretending that the words of Jesus were anything but an insult. In Ancient Jewish culture, dogs were not looked upon favorably. Jesus was not referring to well-loved family puppies when he conjured the image of dogs begging under the dinner table. In Jesus’ context, dogs were wild, unclean, and dangerous animals. Here is where anyone else would have given up. Anyone but the desperate, faithful, wise Canaanite woman, that is.

“Yes, Lord,” she says. She calls him Lord. Could you have called him Lord? This man, who you know to be the Son of David, the Messiah, who had just implied that you were not a human being at all but a dog—could you have called him Lord? Still submitted to him as the master of your life, the object of your love, the teacher of your spirit? “Yes, Lord,” she says. “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And Jesus’ heart was changed. Jesus eyes were opened to the will of God. What God wanted turned out to be even more radical than Jesus had ever imagined. God’s dream for Jesus was not to teach, liberate, love, redeem, and forgive only the people in his own culture. Rather, God sent Jesus into the world for the whole world— to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven to all people, everywhere—even the ones he had been brought up to mistrust. Only a Canaanite woman with great faith in the Son of God could have taught Jesus the lesson he needed to learn.

We so often forget that our Rabbi, our teacher, had teachers as well. Remember that story of the teenage Jesus who went missing in the gospel of Luke? His parents searched for three days only to find him “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Surely, someone taught Jesus how to use the tools of his trade, mentoring him in the craft of carpentry and guiding him through his apprenticeship. Someone taught Jesus to read the Hebrew Scriptures. The lesson Jesus learned from the Canaanite woman may have been a dramatic and painful one, but it was not the first time another human being taught him a lesson. What we see in the Gospel of Matthew today is a living Jesus who embodies the humanity and divinity that Christians believe make him so worthy of our love and our trust. This Jesus is divine—our Lord, the Son of David, the one to whom God has sent his Spirit, “the one whom God has anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). But this Jesus is also a human, a teachable human.

I love this scripture for so many reasons. I love the fact that in an time when women’s voices were rarely heard, the words of the unnamed Canaanite woman were preserved. I love that the woman is vindicated, that the way she was treated was overturned, that her great faith was honored, and that her beloved daughter was healed. But most of all I love that we see a Jesus who is teachable.

I think we are most alive when we are learning. An infant learns her mother’s comforting touch. A third-grader learns to write the letter “Z” in cursive. A medical student learns how to detect and treat cancer. A widow learns to live joyfully without forgetting her loss. And the Son of God learns that his Holy Parent’s love cannot be contained within human boundaries like race, culture, and gender.

As much as any scripture read in the early dawn of an Easter morning, the story of the Canaanite woman’s great faith convinces me that Jesus is alive. Certainly, the resurrection narratives and Paul’s eloquent letters about the Risen Christ are helpful reminders that Christians proclaim that Christ Jesus lives. But sometimes I think we forget that Jesus lived before his death and resurrection. We allow the pages of the Holy Bible to become so two-dimensional that the larger-than-life person of Jesus becomes a sort of silhouette, an empty shadow that only mimics the living, breathing, healing, teaching, and learning Jesus. If we do not remember the vitality and wonderment of Jesus before his death, however can we believe that he lives even now? It is in scriptures such as this, in which Jesus struggles and succeeds to follow God’s will, that we see the seed of eternal life taking root in this fully human and fully divine Son of God.
I opened this sermon with the promise that the gospel is proclaimed in this passage as clearly as it is proclaimed in any scripture. There is indeed good news today. In this scripture, Jesus learned from the faithful Canaanite woman that the love of God is withheld from no one. The teachable, living Jesus learned that in fact there are no dogs scavenging for crumbs under the table. All of God’s children are given the gifts of God’s abundance. One and all are offered grace. One and all are among God’s beloved flock of sheep. One and all are invited to the feast of the Kingdom of God. May we all have such faith as the Canaanite woman—and may we all be as teachable as our living Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.


Anonymous said...

Am I A Fireman Yet??


Stop telling God how big your storm is.
Instead tell your storm how big your GOD is!

In Phoenix, Arizona, a 26-year-old mother stared
down at her 6 year old son, who was dying of
terminal leukaemia.

Although her heart was filled with sadness,
she also had a strong feeling of determination.
Like any parent, she wanted her son to grow up &
fulfil all his dreams.
Now that was no longer possible.
The leukaemia would see to that. But she still
wanted her son's dream to come true.

She took her son's hand and asked,
"Billy, did you ever think about what you wanted
to be once you grew up?

Did you ever dream and wish what you would do with
your life?"

Mommy, "I always wanted to be a fireman when I
grew up."

Mom smiled back and said, "Let's see if we can
make your wish come true."
Later that day she went to her local fire
department in Phoenix, Arizona,
where she met Fireman Bob, who had a heart as big
as Phoenix.

She explained her son's final wish and
asked if it might be possible to give her 6 year
old son a ride around the block on a fire engine.

Fireman Bob said, "Look, we can do better than
that. If you'll have your son ready at seven o'clock
Wednesday morning, we'll make him an honorary

fireman for the whole day.

We can come down to the fire station, eat with us,
go out on all the fire calls, the whole nine yards!

And if you'll give us his sizes, we'll get a real fire uniform

for him, with a real fire hat - not a toy --
one-with the emblem of the Phoenix Fire Department
on it, a yellow slicker like we wear and rubber boots.

They're all manufactured right here in Phoenix, so
we can get them fast."

Three days later Fireman Bob picked up Billy,
dressed him in his uniform and escorted him from

his hospital bed to the waiting
hook and ladder truck.

Billy got to sit on the back of the truck and help
steer it back to the fire station.

He was in heaven.

There were three fire calls in Phoenix that day
and Billy got to go out on all three calls.
He rode in the different fire engines, the
paramedic's van, and even the fire chief's car.

He was also videotaped for the local news program.

Having his dream come true,
with all the Love and attention that was lavished
upon him, so deeply touched Billy,
that he lived three months longer than any doctor
thought possible.

One night all of his vital signs began to drop
dramatically and the head nurse, who believed

in the hospice concept - that no one
should die alone, began to call the family

members to the hospital.

Then she remembered the day Billy had spent as a
fireman, so she called the Fire Chief and asked if it would
be possible to send a fireman in uniform to the hospital

to be with Billy as he made his transition.

The chief replied, "We can do better than that.

We'll be there in five minutes.
Will you please do me a favour?
When you hear the sirens screaming and see the
lights flashing, will you announce over the PA system,

that there is not a fire?
It's the department coming to see one of its finest
members one more time.
And will you open the window to his room?

About five minutes later a hook and ladder truck
arrived at the hospital and extended its ladder up to

Billy's third floor open window--------
16 fire-fighters climbed up the ladder into Billy's

With his mother's permission, they hugged him and held him

and told him how much they LOVED him.

With his dying breath,
Billy looked up at the fire chief and said,
"Chief, am I really a fireman now?"

"Billy, you are, and the Head Chief,
Jesus, is holding your hand," the chief said.

With those words, Billy smiled and said,
"I know, He's been holding my hand all day, and
the angels have been singing.."

He closed his eyes one last time.

Steve said...

Dear Pastor Katherine,

This Bible passage has given me problems for a long time. Like you I feel that the comment "throw it to the dogs" is at heart derogatory. I read somewhere a long time ago a comment about this, but unfortunately I can't find where.

Katherine, I think you hit the nail squarely on the head about the "teaching moment," and what a wonder concept!

A question for you: What do you feel about the anonymous quote "Am I A Fireman Yet?" Isn't it a bit out of place as a comment on a blog?
(A bit maudlin, isn't it?)


Katherine said...

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your comment regarding Jesus' interaction with the Canaanite woman. Many people struggle with texts such as this one, and I think it is always helpful to remember that we serve a loving, gracious, & living God. The Bible, to me, must always be interpreted through a lens of trust that God gives us bread, not stone.

I wondered about the anonymous comment. I do not know if it was left by someone within the congregation. I do know that this kind of story is extremely popular & makes its way around the web quite often.

My approach to anonymous comments is to leave them be so long as they are not obsene or commercial.

Thanks, Steve!