(Matthew 15: 21-28)
I’ve learned something in my 18-plus years of preaching – my goal as a preacher is not to just answer questions. I tried doing that initially; tried wrapping everything up all nice and neat with a pretty bow on top. It didn’t work, and eventually I realized why: people by and large are not always looking for answers. People want permission to wrestle. They want space to dig in and really think about what their faith means and what the Bible has to say about it. My job as preacher, I learned, was to help give them an arena to do that. Not walk them across the finish line, but get them on the track, show them the course, and then lace up the shoes and run alongside.
And I think that’s why this sermon series Grace and I are concluding today – Awkward Moments In The Bible – I think that’s why it has been for us both a joy and a struggle. Why it’s had its share of awkward moments. Because while providing answers is not something we necessarily feel compelled to do, the last thing a preacher wants is to stand here and say those three dreaded words: I don’t know. Not musings to consider, possibilities to ponder. Just I don’t know.
And yet, since authenticity is the heartbeat of good preaching, I have no choice but to stand here this morning and tell you that I don’t know. I don’t know why Jesus does two things in our passage today that seem counter to everything he stood for, everything he preached and taught, everything he died and lived again for. I don’t know why Jesus totally ignores this woman who comes to him and his disciples begging for help. And when he does finally speak to her, I don’t know why Jesus speaks in such belittling fashion, insulting her with a derogatory term reserved for the worst of the worst.
I. Just. Don’t. Know.
How awkward is that?!
My mind races through a list of “maybes.” Maybe this is some symbolic story with figurative rather than literal meaning. Maybe. Or maybe it never really happened – Matthew was written some 40 years after Jesus’ life, so plenty of time for the facts to get lost. Maybe. Or maybe this passage reveals a side of Jesus that is more indicative of who he really was during his three years in ministry. Maybe.
I think about all these maybes and, one by one, dispense each of them for various and very good reasons.
So eventually I am left with this: Jesus was human. God’s son, yes. But human too. We don’t talk much about Jesus’ humanity because we tend to be more enamored with the divinity. We’re drawn to the miracles, we’re wowed by his healings. For whatever reason, with the notable exception of his crucifixion, we do not do much with Jesus’ humanity. But his humanity is key; crucial in our understanding of who he is and how he relates to us.
So Jesus was human. And as is quite evident in our passage, Jesus was not the best version of himself that day. And it’s very weird to say that, I know. But it’s true. He was not the best version of himself that day, and I bet afterwards he would’ve told us as much. Which, when you think about it, is something we all can relate to, right? We all have those days that, for whatever reason, are not our best. Maybe we’re upset about something, maybe we’re distracted or tired or not feeling well, but whatever it is, as we go through our day, we’re a little abrupt. We’re crass, snarky. We say things we don’t really mean. We’re not the best version of ourselves. Just like Jesus that day.
Granted, this is not an answer, just an observation. Because remember: I don’t know!
What I do know, though, is that oftentimes in scripture, the real story comes out of the larger story, extending before and after. And that larger story can sometimes – sometimes – bring us context and shed a little light on things. So hang with me here, because I’m going to ask Grace to come up and read not the same awkward verses I read a minute ago, but the verses right before it, the beginning of Matthew’s 15th chapter. Listen again for God’s word:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and your mother.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You know, so much of Jesus’ time in ministry, so much of those three years, were spent duking it out with the scribes and Pharisees, fellow Jewish leaders who’d dedicated their lives to maintaining the purity of tradition and law. Matthew’s gospel in particular highlights these squabbles within “the house of Israel.” To the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was a rebel-rouser who had no concern for tradition and was playing a dangerous game stirring the pot in a Roman-ruled world. To Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were dedicated leaders who had nonetheless lost a sense of what was important and transformational, choosing to obsess over the insignificant, such as disciples not washing their hands before dinner.
Matthew 15 begins with this confrontation, another internal squabble, one more instance of Jesus being misunderstood and having to clarify himself all over again. And I have to think this wore on the man. I have to think it frustrated Jesus tremendously. Wouldn’t it you? Wouldn’t it frustrate you if people continuously misheard your message?
All of which helps me look a little differently at what comes next. Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem after another squabble with the religious leaders. He’s got that heavy on his mind. It’s weighing him down. And he’s tired. He’s human. He’s nowhere near the best version of himself as he ignores the Canaanite, non-Jewish woman and callously belittles and insults her.
Does that explain why Jesus did what he did? I don’t know!
What I do know, though, is that this woman is awesome! And she does not let Jesus off the hook. If she’s offended by how he treats her and what he calls her, she doesn’t show it. Instead, this Canaanite, “outside-the-house-of-Israel” woman is able in that moment to see what neither the disciples nor Jesus himself could see.
And she responds to Jesus’ insult neither by cowering nor by lashing back: Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, she says. In other words: Your mission may be to the house of Israel, Jesus, but that mission has to grow outside that house, to reach the likes of outsiders like me. And if crumbs are all we get, then crumbs will do just fine, thank you.
Let it not be lost on us that it is a non-Jewish woman, an outsider, who serves as the change agent here. Jesus’ tells the woman that he’s truly amazed by her faith. I wonder if it’s more than that, though. I wonder if, in that moment, Jesus has his vision expanded – beyond and outside the house of Israel he was born into and constantly contending with. Beyond that house to those like this woman who needed Jesus for something more than clarifying traditions and laws. Who needed to be fed.
So it is any surprise what happens next? Listen as Grace reads the end of chapter 15:
After Jesus left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. And they praised the God of Israel. Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry.’ The disciples said, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven, and a few small fish.’ Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.
This feeding story is actually the second in Matthew. The first, just a chapter before, is the familiar feeding of the 5000, with those 5000 being predominantly from the Jewish community. But here it’s the Gentiles, all those outside the house, all those like that woman. And Jesus heals them. Jesus loves them. Jesus feeds them, not with crumbs but with so much more; enough that there were leftovers afterwards.
Do you see how this story unfolds when we step back and take a broader look? It begins with nitpicking from the insiders, it goes to Jesus having his eyes opened by an outsider who refuses to take “no” for an answer, and it concludes with Jesus feeding the masses and solidifying his mission beyond the “house of Israel.”
Now I don’t know why Jesus was not the best version of himself that day, and I don’t know why this woman chooses in this moment to do something brave and transformational. But what I do know, friends, is that this story, this entire chapter, has something profoundly important to say to us, and especially to us as the church.
Because like those scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, the church of today often finds itself getting lost in itself; in the internal squabbles and nitpicking that sidetrack us; things that no doubt are very important to us because we’re on the inside and that’s where these things matter most. And then along comes this counter-voice, and we are forced to ask ourselves if we’re really living into our mission to feed a hungry world, or if the squabbles we have with ourselves distract us from hearing, really hearing the ones calling for help, seeking mere crumbs from the table?
I’ve mentioned before the impactful 2006 Barna Study where 16-29 year olds across the country were asked what their perception of Christians was. The results were pretty staggering: 91% said Christians are “anti-homosexual,” 87% said “judgmental,” 85% said “hypocritical,” 70% said “insensitive to others” and 64% said “not tolerant of other faiths. And the thing is, so many of those come from them watching Christians interact with other Christians, the infighting and bickering that only serves to skew how we are perceived and understood by the world around us.
It was the same back then as it still is today. Those on the inside were stewing over unwashed hands while the woman outside was seeking healing for her sick child. We on the inside argue over proper church doctrine while the world outside is craving relevancy and belonging. We on the inside get wrapped up in budget line items; the world outside has hungry people dying every few seconds. We on the inside squabble over change and loss; the world on the outside is dying to hear Good News.
And so I think the question for the church, throughout history and certainly today, has to be which Jesus we more closely resemble. Are we more like the one who ignored cries for help and discounted the outsider, or are we more like the one who comes to see the powerful ways in which the crumbs for some can become a feast for all?
Again, I don’t know. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I do know. Sometimes I do get frustrated when the church seems to lose its way, when it inadvertently or intentionally turns its back on the very ones it’s called to minister to and with. Sometimes I get frustrated when the church gets lost in the squabbling and forgets the reason it was created in the first place: to worship God, to grow together, to serve everyone.
But then I remember that time when Jesus was human – as we are. I remember when Jesus was not the best version of himself – as we can not be. And I remember him feeding so many people, feeding them with far more than food, feeding them for the rest of their lives. And it is then I realize that, while there’s a lot about this passage I don’t know, hard as that can be for a preacher to say, what I do know is this: like Jesus, we too can do a whole lot with the crumbs. Food from the very table of God to feed a hungry and famished world.
Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. Let it be done also for us!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 2007.