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Proper 15A Gospel

Matthew 15:21-28

Teanna Sunberg

When the Right Words Come Out of the Wrong Mouth

We don’t hear them well anymore – culture and time-passage have erased the rough edges of the words of Matthew’s story, but the Canaanite woman and her mouth certainly startled the ears of early listeners. It is a story that highlights the outcasts, as if Jesus had not properly read the manuscript before he walked onto the stage. Tyre and Sidon in the land of Canaan, a woman as the hero, a possessed daughter as the victim, lost sheep and children and dogs – everything and everybody that should have meant nothing suddenly thrust onto center stage. It is as if the curtains, once drawn open to reveal a hushed crowd, caused the actors to throw down their scripts and enter into unchartered, unscripted territory. Would-be kings did not dally with women and their demon-possessed offspring. Jewish Messiahs did not wander through the dirt of Tyre and Sidon nor did they consort with women, especially of Canaanite heritage. The story fatally veers to the left with the very first words, ‘Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon’ and it never recovers.

It is, in fact, a jumbled and messy script from its inception. The early verses of chapter 15 give us no help. The Pharisees are offended. Peter and the other disciples are dull. Those who should understand do not understand anything, so Jesus calls the common folk around him and says, ‘Listen and understand,’ as if there is a difference between hearing and listening.

As Jesus takes that wrong turn towards Tyre and Sidon in verse 21, there must be an audible in-take of breath from the audience. He intentionally crosses a border toward the Other and the story continues, ’A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting,’

Culturally super-imposed upon the woman’s shout “Have mercy upon me, Lord,” would be the daily prayer of a righteous Jewish man, “Thank you God that I was not born a gentile, a dog, or a woman.’ One cannot hear the woman’s shout without hearing this prayer. One cannot watch Jesus turn and cross a border into Gentile territory without hearing this prayer. One cannot welcome the dogs eating crumbs from the table without hearing this prayer. The woman is from the wrong region, from a marginalized ethnic group, from a marginalized gender, and yet she has heard, she has believed, she has pled her case, and she has faith. To all who hear this story, there is an obvious flaw: She is the wrong mouth but she says the right words.

In fact, she says the right words in contrast to the Pharisees, the disciples, perhaps even in contrast to Jesus himself, whose words in verse 24 are some of the most puzzling in scripture. Commentators struggle to guide us into a concise and merciful explanation for his reply, “It is fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In a puzzling sort of way, Jesus responds appropriately for a Jewish male of his generation and his position and yet the words seems wrong. It is almost as if we have grown so used to Jesus saying the unexpected and the controversial, that when he says what is culturally and religiously acceptable, we are shocked. Then, in even deeper contrast, the only person in the entire passage who has no right to speak, voices truth. Not only does she speak truth, she is both rewarded and praised for her audacity.

Several fascinating themes weave themselves throughout the early passages of Matthew 15 and they culminate with Jesus’ shocking revelation is verse 28, “Woman, great is your faith!”

Take note of the multiple mentions of the phrase and variants to ‘shouting’. In fact, the disciples say to Jesus in verse 24, “she keeps shouting after us,” which infers that there are more shouts than those recorded in this short passage. All of this shouting draws us to another Gospel story where a woman’s persistence is rewarded and here the words of Jesus are expectedly counter-cultural. The Lord says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luke 18:7-8]

Just as the prayer of a righteous Jewish man is culturally superimposed upon the cries of this Canaanite woman, so to, the Lord’s affirmation of the faith of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) are superimposed upon this story. She shouts and the Lord hears and brings justice. Luke asks if the Son of Man will find faith on the Earth. Here, in the cries of a Canaanite woman, He proclaims that faith has been found.

Take note of the interplay between hearing and understanding. The text reverberates with the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:15, “Let anyone with ears listen” and pivots again on his statement, “Listen and understand” in Matthew 15:10. While the Pharisees and the disciples hear but do not understand, this Canaanite woman both hears and she understands evidenced in the interchange with Jesus in which he declares that she has faith and that her daughter is healed.

In the earlier verses of the chapter, Jesus makes several declarations that were certainly offensive to Pharisees ears. [verses 13-14]

what comes out of a man’s mouth reflects the purity of his heart

the seeds planted by man wither and die

the blind man leads the blind and consequently both fall into a pit

Not only are these statements offensive to the Pharisees, but the converse implications are equally offensive or perhaps even more so:

what comes out of this woman’s mouth indicates the purity of spirit – she has faith

every plant that the Father has planted WILL flourish

those that see, such as the woman, will lead and lead well

Take note of the thematic dance between ‘bread’, ‘Jesus as the bread of life’ and ‘table hospitality’ and how it is all connects to the broader conversation about the heart.

In the chapter before, Jesus has just miraculously fed 5,000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. Later in chapter 15, the story is 7 loaves and a few fish feeding 4,000. We are told that Jesus gave thanks, he broke the bread, and he gave it out via the disciples. People were fed, they were satisfied, and from the very inefficient number of fish and bread, an abundance of leftovers were gathered.

Now, in this text sandwiched between two miraculous feedings, we have the Pharisees, the crowd, and even the disciples who are all ‘Children of Israel.’ None of them understand that the Bread of Life is before them, however, the Canaanite woman understands. She who is unclean by virtue of her gender and her ethnic status reaches in from her marginalized and voiceless state to proclaim in faith, “Lord, help me!” She goes on to claim her place at the table with, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall”. While cultural norms, ethnicity, ‘right’ religion would rob her from a seat at the table, she stakes her claim to the crumbs, realizing that in God’s economy even the crumbs are enough for a miracle.

This is a powerful message. While culture, ethnicity, religious power may block her place at the table of hospitality, Jesus has shown that He brings abundant and plentifully miraculous results from inefficient means. If 5 fish and two leaves can feed 5,000, then the crumbs that fall from the table of hospitality can give her the healing miracle that she seeks. The woman shows that she both hears and understands this truth.

In a final, closing bow, one last arrow is shot into the audience. Here the table has been set with the Bread of Life and the Children of Israel have been gathered, but not one of them is able to understand that it is neither the Law nor the rules that feed one’s soul. So too, neither the rules nor the law nor the concept of clean food entering the mouth, nor clean hands handling the food lead any of us to righteousness. Our only hope to be clean – of body, of soul, of mind – is to be filled with and possessed by Christ himself, and for that we must understand that Christ and only Christ is enough.

The curtain closes on a silent stage with a table in the middle and a broken loaf of bread lying at its edge placed for the children and the dogs and the women of that culture, time, and place to reach out from the margins and to be filled.

He who has ears, let him hear.

Teanna Sunberg

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