Proper 15a, August 17, 2014

August 18, 2014

Instinctual Faith
Matthew 15:21-29

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

While we only read the story of Jesus interacting with this woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon, it’s very connected to the interactions that preceeded this story. It turns out that this Caananite woman wasn’t the first person he had recently offended. Just prior to this particular verbal sparring match, Jesus had encountered some Pharisees and other elders who wanted to know why his disciples didn’t follow the proper eating protocols , and that conversation hadn’t gone so well. Jesus responded to them by asking them why they had replaced God’s commands with human rules – complete with an example and a verse of scripture. He told them they were just like the hypocrites Isaiah was talking about when he said: These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human rules.

Jesus didn’t just pick on people who were below his social standing –Jesus was an equal opportunity offender.

Actually I don’t think it’s accurate to think of Jesus as picking on the Caananite woman. While it’s hard not to wince at the way in which Jesus spoke to her, I think it is important to see how this story fits in the larger picture, and when you do that, what stands out is the very positive way that this woman responded to the challenging words of Jesus – as opposed to the defensiveness of the Pharisees and the other Jewish authorities. Today’s story is not so much about who Jesus was. It’s primarily about the way that he was seen by other people, and who was most able to see the truth about him.

In some ways, it just repeats what we already know about the different ways people responded to Jesus. There are numerous cases where the people who were supposed to be the most attentive to the ways of God were the least likely to recognize the arrival of God’s most perfect representative, while those who were official outcasts were quick to recognize his godliness. That is also what we see in this story, but there is a nice nuance to this particular story. What we have in this story is not just the contrast between the blindness of the Jewish leaders contrasted to the attentiveness of the official Jewish sinners. What we have here is the spiritual attentiveness of an officially pagan infidel – someone who’s faith even Jesus seemed slow to recognize.

I think it’s helpful to know a little history of this northern part of Israel which was near the Phoenecian cities of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were on the Mediterranean Coast. Early on, the Israelites had considered that to be part of their promised land, but the Phoenecians had successfully resisted the conquest of Israel. They had rejected Israel in a variety of ways, so for the Israelites, the residents of Tyre and Sidon had come to exemplify God-forsaken gentiles. There was a clear division between them, and the Israelites considered the people of that region to be particularly hopeless.

It’s not obvious why Jesus intentionally stepped in to this notoriously un-Jewish part of the world, but this is where he was, and what transpired is quite compelling.

When Jesus first encountered this boisterously begging woman from that traditionally gentile place he responded to her as if she wasn’t even there – which is what you might expect from a self-respecting Jewish man. And I guess that’s where this story would have ended if his disciples hadn’t offered to get rid of her, but when they did, Jesus was moved to at least address her. And what he said to her was that he had been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

His words seemed to have encouraged her to make an even more desperate plea for him to help her – she said, Lord, help me! and when she did Jesus responded with a line that sounds more like something you would hear from Archie Bunker than from the savior of the world. This is when he said it wouldn’t be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Undeterred by these seemingly inhospitable words, the woman responded by saying that even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, and with that, Jesus enthusiastically commended her faith and announced that her daughter had been healed.

In some ways I think this story functions like one of those Zen Buddhist koans. A koan is a phrase or question that students are to ponder in which traditional logic is not much use. The most familiar koan I know of poses the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? There’s not a clear answer to such a question, but by pondering a seemingly unanswerable question you can be moved to a new insight.

I don’t think there is a logical answer as to why Jesus went in to this part of the world where he said what he said and did what he did. In some significant ways this story just doesn’t make sense, and there’s not an obvious lesson to extract from this story. You can say it’s a lesson about the value of persistence, but that’s a bit of a stretch because if Jesus had been persistent in following his stated mission there’s nothing this woman could have said that would have altered his course. Clear logic doesn’t propel this story.

But if you toss out the need to follow clear logic (which is what I feel liberated to do) what stands out for me in this story is the way in which Jesus talked about the animals. Jesus brings up two different animals in this passage. He talks about sheep and he talks about dogs. Jesus said he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel but he nourished a hungry dog in Caanan. He said he was most concerned about the lost sheep, but he seems to have valued the instinct of a dog to discern who is in charge and to know how to get what it needs.

Sheep have the strong instinct to follow the animal in front of it. Sheep will follow other sheep to slaughter. Being a good follower is a fine instinct when you know who best to follow, but sheep aren’t known for having such wisdom. There were a lot of lost sheep in Israel because they had bad leaders. My sense is that Jesus stepped out of the official territory of Israel in order to find some fresh faith.

We don’t normally cherish the thought of being called a dog, but dogs have a pretty keen sense of understanding who’s in charge. This Caananite woman had a keen sense of who Jesus was, and she responded to him without any doubt that he could provide her with what she needed.

This woman didn’t just have persistence – she had a powerful sense of discernment. She knew he was the Lord of Life – regardless of what he said to her.

In my way of thinking, faith is not so much something we learn to have as much as it is an instinct. In fact if we put too much stock in learning what it means to serve God I think it can have the impact of dulling our instinct for faith. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to study and learn more about our history and our theology, but we should never engage in mindless following of rules and traditions. We should never replace our natural instinct for the ordinances of God with the rules of human beings. This was the nature of the conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees and the other leaders of Israel. Good teachers are valuable, and what good teachers do is to empower students to think for themselves.

Unlike sheep, who are inclined to follow whoever is leading — dogs are only responsive to their one true master. And we would all do well to have a dog’s sense of obedience to the truth of God in our own hearts and minds.

Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and the truth is that we all come from that house. Not everyone knows this, but Jesus knew it, and he revealed it when he encountered this Caananite woman. May we all nourish and cherish this instinct of faith that has been placed in us all by our one true common ancestor – the God of all animals, all people, all places, and all times.

Thanks be to God – Amen.


One Response to “Proper 15a, August 17, 2014”

  1. Bill Waddell Says:


    Once again you have named a part of our God-created essence in a moving way. Instinctive faith. As Toby Mac says in “Made To Love,” we were created to love God and to be loved by God.


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