There is a story of a group of the very pious who are waiting in heaven for judgment. As they are waiting and complaining about the wait, they begin to see some of the “sinners” they knew on earth coming into the waiting room: a corrupt politician, an itinerant woman who had been convicted of shoplifting many times, a prostitute, a drug addict, a criminal, etc.
With each of these arrivals, the feeling of hostility increased in the first group. They glare at the others. They talk among themselves. Within a short time, words were spoken to those others, “What makes you think you’re going to get in with the evil, sinful lives you lived on earth?”
“We are relying on the mercy and grace of God. What makes you so sure you’re going to get in?”
“Our good lives, of course.” They turned their backs to the others.
Time began to drag on for the first group. They began to complain to one another. “If those other people get in, there’s no justice. After all the sacrifices we’ve made. It’s not fair.”
The Lord arrived. He turned toward the first group, “I understand you’ve been wondering why there has been no judgment.”
“Yes!” they cried out. “We want a judgment. We want justice.”
The Lord replied, “The judgment has already taken place. You’ve judged yourselves. By judging these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you have judged yourselves. In rejecting them, you have rejected me. You have shown yourselves unworthy of the Kingdom of God”.
The issue in Matthew 15:10-28 is true holiness. Specifically, what constitutes true holiness? Is it strict observance of the law or rituals, as the Pharisees or some church-goers think? After all, the Pharisees were so concerned about obeying God’s law that they wrote countless rules to cover every conceivable situation. It makes me wonder if some government bureaucrats are descended from the Pharisees!
Or perhaps true holiness comes from the heart instead, as Jesus argues. He is right when he says that evil thoughts and deeds come from the heart. One only has to read the comments made by the man behind the terrorist attacks in Norway a few years ago to see that this is true. On the other hand, we only have to look at people such as Mother Theresa or Desmond Tutu, or organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and our local food banks to see that good thoughts and deeds also come from the hearts of people, especially people who are willing to work for social justice.
Jesus continually pointed out the conditions of the Pharisees’ hearts. They held on to outward religious practices, but God wanted their hearts, which were hardened and cold. He wants the same thing from us today. Often times our hearts are hardened because of the world we live in and Jesus warns us of what will happen if we do not soften our hardened hearts. In Matthew 12:33-37, Jesus states:
The good man brings good things out of the good stored in him, and the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored in him. But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.
Purity also affects the issue of just who can be admitted to God’s kingdom, as we can see from the discussion Jesus has with the Canaanite woman. His reaction to her request shocks us, but it should not surprise us when we consider the culture of Jesus’ time-a culture that treated women and children as second-class citizens. For example, Jews also thought that Gentiles were “dogs”.
In Jesus’ time, people did keep dogs as pets, but dogs were mainly scavengers who ate garbage and the carcasses of dead animals. Dogs that were pets were often fed food scraps from their owner’s table, as they sometimes do now-hence the Canaanite woman’s reference to dogs eating the crumbs from the master’s table. The Canaanites were also considered to be dogs in the eyes of the Jews because they were descended from Noah’s son Ham. He was the son who saw his father naked and passed out from being under the influence of alcohol. Instead of doing the sensible thing by covering Noah and keeping his mouth shut, Ham went and told people what he saw. Now there’s a good example of someone having an unclean heart!
In contrast, the Canaanite woman had a pure heart. She was motivated by concern for her daughter and she knew that Jesus could heal her. While Jesus did open the door of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles in his Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, his priority at this time was the Israelites. Jesus represented God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made to the Jews in the Old Testament.
The reference to dogs eating the crumbs from their master’s table is a metaphor for the way in which the early Gentiles heard Jesus’ message. Although Jesus’ ministry was aimed at the Jews, some Gentiles did hear his messages and believed. These Gentiles were the “dogs” who ate the crumbs from Jesus’ table. In the eyes of God, we are all dogs, and we are all dependent on free scraps from God’s Table.
The Canaanite woman and the woman in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge prove that persistence pays off. Both of them refused to give up until they got what they wanted, and in both cases they showed true faith. God will grant our requests in his own time and in his own way if it falls within his plan for our lives, especially if our requests show true faith and holiness that comes from the heart.
Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish Christian audience, but by the time it was written, the church had long since begun opening its doors to the Gentiles. The Gospel reflects the tension between the Jewish community, where the church had its roots, and the Gentiles who were being admitted to the church’s membership. Jesus unites what divides us. In him our many causes of exclusion become opportunities for embrace. Jesus, himself a man on the margins of society, brings the outsider inside.
A similar tension exists within some churches today, especially when they deal with issues such as the blessing of same-sex marriages. God breaks through such tensions. God is much bigger and more inclusive than any religious box people might use to contain God. When we turn to Jesus like the Canaanite woman did, and we receive a favourable response like she did, we learn to reflect on our shared religious customs and life together.
The story also reminds us that we too have come to Jesus through the Jews. We share the same faith; we see the hope this faith gave our ancestors in their wait for salvation. We are reminded that we have no claim to priority with Jesus. We are all equal in the eyes of God. We are recipients of grace-all has been freely bestowed on us. What we see is the God Jesus reveals to the woman; a God who would draw us close, sees our distress and helps us.
Those whom Christ wants to honour must be humbled to feel their unworthiness. The Canaanite woman turned this into an argument to support her request. God’s original plan was to bring salvation first to the Israelites and then to the Gentiles, but he responds to all who call on him in true faith and humility. For example, one night several years ago my mother had to be rushed by ambulance to the local hospital because of a medical emergency. I followed the ambulance in my own car. The doctor on call diagnosed the problem as a heart attack. After he spoke to the two of us, I went home, knowing that there was nothing more I could do for her at that time. After I called the rest of the family, I got ready for bed. Before I went to sleep, I had a serious talk with the Lord. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but the prayer went something like this.
“Lord, I’m leaving the situation in your hands now. Please bless the doctors and nurses who are caring for her. If it’s your will that Mom gets better, then please heal her. If it’s your will that she not survive, please don’t let her suffer. If her condition gets to the point where I have to make the important decisions that Mom and I have discussed, please give me the strength, wisdom and courage to make the right decision; and please give me the strength and courage to accept the consequences of my decision-especially consequences from other family members”.
Thankfully, God answered my prayer in the way I wanted him to answer it. Medical tests the next day revealed that the doctor made the wrong diagnosis. Mom did not have a heart attack-she had blood clots in both lungs. With proper treatment, Mom slowly got better and stronger, and she was released from the hospital after one week. Faith comes from an abundance of trials, not from the lack of trials. Great faith achieves great victories over these trials.
Only two people in the Gospels are said to have had great faith, and both of them were Gentiles. Great faith does not depend on background or position, but on the attitude of the heart. If we are fully committed to God, our entire lives will be expressions of worship and adoration to Him.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, God’s original plan was to bring salvation first to the Israelites and then to the Gentiles, but he responds to all who call on him in true faith. Those who call on him in true faith have some degree of both faith and spiritual poverty. This is nothing new in Jesus’ ministry. From its very beginning he insisted that his message was directed to the lowest of the low in heart, to the emotional down-and-outers, to those knocked down on all fours and willing to crawl. In other words, his message has been directed to “dogs”. The Canaanite woman took this to heart, groveling and grateful for any crumb that might fall from his table. She became a dog, and this was exactly the humility Jesus was looking for.
Legalism destroys spiritual life, makes us narrow and causes us to miss what is most important to God. We condemn those who differ from us in style of worship, language and culture because of legalism. While legalism stresses external behaviour, Jesus emphasizes the motives of the heart. By focusing on the motives of the heart, rather than the legalistic purity, Jesus makes religious observances both easier and harder. It is easier because broad guidelines have replaced legalistic complexity. It is harder because we have to let our devotion to God affect us in the innermost parts of our being.
We live in a world that still needs a Saviour. The Canaanite woman points us to a greater resource than human love. It’s God’s infinite mercy in the person and work of Jesus. He is God’s love in action for her and for us. When she cries out to Jesus, she does so because she knows who he is and what he can do.
This story reminds us how the Church, which is Christ’s earthly body, is repeatedly taught, not so much by respectable insiders, but by those on the margins, the people without power and credibility. These marginal people storm in, insisting that the church should live up to the pattern offered by Jesus. They rock the boat, and in so doing they force the church to remember its reason for being. Often these and others like them come to the church with a commendable faith, even as the Canaanite woman drew near to Jesus. They might come from outside the bounds of power and acceptability, yet they’re eager even for scraps from the table. What they need, what they deserve, is a seat with the rest of us at God’s Table. There is much we can learn from them. Will we acknowledge them, listen to them, welcome them?
- Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, NASV
- Exegesis for Matthew 15:10-28. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament-Matthew 15:10-28. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- ESV Study Bible. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software package.
- Selwyn Hughes, “When Evil Thoughts Oppress”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Dr. Philip W. McLarty, “The Faith of a Dog”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, “A Fool for Love”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- The Rev. John Bedingfield, “Who Are the Dogs in Your Life?” Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel, “Those People”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
- The Rev. Gregory Seitz, “Count on Christ’s Mercy for you”. Retrieved from www.lhm.org
- Micca Monda Campbell, “Great Faith”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- “The Voice of the Lord” for Shevat 24. Retrieved from www.lists.studylight.org
- Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions: 20th Sunday (A)”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org.
- Trygve David Johnson, “Faith to Fire Back”. Retrieved from http://christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2008-08/faith-fire-back?print
- The Rev. Brian P. Stoffregen, “Matthew 15: (1-10)21-28”. Retrieved from www.crossmarks.com/brain/matt15x110.htm
- The Rev. John Ortberg, “True Grit”. Retrieved from www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2899
- Sharon Jaynes, “Changing the Way We Speak by Examining the Heart”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
- Daniel B. Clendenin, PhD, “Thinking About Norway”. Retrieved from www.journeywithjesus.net