Steve Lindsley
Matthew 15: 1-9, 21-28 (Selected Verses)

A few years back, a pastor colleague of mine gave me the best advice when it comes to preaching: our job, he said, is not to tell people what to think, but what to think about. Not what to think, but what to think about.

It’s harder than it sounds. In one sense, telling people what to think would be easier. Lord knows that there are plenty of pastors out there who do exactly that; wind up twisting the gospel to say some pretty ungospel-like things. Telling people what to think is all the rage these days.

But telling people what to think about? That means finding nuance in something like the good news. It means inviting people into the sermon itself – which is kind of the whole point, but also means that things won’t have a nice, neat ending to them. And it means being okay with sitting in liminal spaces for a spell and the discomfort that can cause.

And sometimes, it even means saying three words that pastors have a hard, hard time saying:

I don’t know.

And that’s pretty much where I am this morning when it comes to the passage Anna just read. I don’t know. 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 with such condescension, insulting her with a derogatory term reserved for the worst of the worst.

I. Don’t. Know.

I mean, my mind races through a whole list of “maybes.” Maybe this is some symbolic story with a figurative rather than literal meaning. Maybe. Or maybe it never actually happened – Matthew was written some 40 years after Jesus’ life, so plenty of time for facts to get lost in the shuffle. Maybe. Or maybe there is some deeper meaning here that we have to work to see. Maybe.

I think about all these maybes and, one by one, dispense each of them for various reasons. Any way you cut it the fact remains that Jesus treated this woman poorly. And if it wasn’t for her resilience and willingness to stand up for herself, she would’ve been the latest example of a woman undermined and discounted in a male-dominated society.

So eventually all we are left with is the fact that Jesus was human. God’s son, yes. But human. He was like us. And like us, Jesus had good days and bad days. Some days he was a better version of himself than others. And on this particular day, I think it’d be safe to say that Jesus was not the best version of himself. And it is so weird to say that out loud. But it’s true. It doesn’t make him any less divine. It just makes him more human.

Jesus 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 when, for whatever reason, we are not at 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.

Now granted, this is not a definitive answer; it’s just an observation. Because remember I don’t know!

What I do know is that oftentimes in scripture, the real story comes out of the larger story of which it is part. And that larger story can sometimes – sometimes – shed a little light on things. So, in pursuit of that larger story, let me read the verses right before the ones Anna read, the beginning of Matthew’s 15th chapter. My friends, listen to this:

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.’ Jesus 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, a good bit of Jesus’ three years of ministry were spent in exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees, fellow Jewish leaders who dedicated their lives to maintaining the purity of tradition and law. To the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was a rebel-rouser in the “house of Israel” who flouted tradition and risked inflaming tensions with Rome. To Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were dedicated leaders who’d lost a sense of what was important and transformational, bless their hearts; choosing to obsess over the insignificant, like 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 him tremendously. Wouldn’t it you? Wouldn’t it frustrate you if people constantly misheard your message?

So, 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 is nowhere near the best version of himself as he ignores the Canaanite, non-Jewish woman and callously belittles and insults her.

Does that excuse what Jesus did? Absolutely not. Does it explain why he did it? I don’t know!

What I do know is that this woman is awesome. Precisely because 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 can see.

And she doesn’t respond to Jesus’ insult by cowering or lashing back. She maintains her composure, because that is what the oppressed have to do to survive. More importantly, she speaks truth in a way that resonates with the power dynamics at play: 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’re going to get, then crumbs will do just fine, thank you.

Let it not be lost on us that it is an outsider and a woman 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. I wonder if, in that moment, Jesus had his vision expanded – beyond and outside the house of Israel he was born into and constantly clashing with. Beyond that house to those like this woman who needed Jesus for something more than clarifying traditions and laws. Those who needed to be fed.

The real story comes out of the larger story. We’ve already seen what happened before. Let’s see what happens after. My friends, listen to this:

After Jesus left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. Then Jesus called his disciples 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. 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.

Fun fact: there are actually two feeding stories in the gospel of Matthew. The one we’re familiar with, the one recounted in all four gospels – is the first one. This one is the second. The first one has Jesus and the disciples feeding those primarily from within the Jewish community – from the house of Israel. But here, in this second feeding, it is the non-Jewish community who are fed. All those outside the house of Israel. 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 are leftovers afterwards.

Do we really think that second feeding would’ve ever happened had Jesus not had his encounter with the woman? Had he not been lovingly but firmly called out and corrected?

I still do not know why Jesus was not the best version of himself that day, nor do I know why that woman chose in the moment to do something brave and transformational. But what I do know, friends, what I do know is that this story, this entire chapter, has something important to say to us. Some things that we need to be thinking about.

Like the fact that, in similar fashion to the spats between Jesus and the Pharisees, the church of today often finds itself 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 those kinds of things matter. And then along comes this counter-voice, always from the margins and outside of the circles of power and influence, calling into question what we have always held near and dear, seeking nothing more and nothing less than crumbs from our table.

Are we listening to those voices? From where and whom are those voices coming from? Are we centering and amplifying those voices in the work and ministry of the church? Are we listening to what they have to tell us?

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 not great: 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 much of that comes 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. Keep in mind as well that those numbers are almost twenty years old. In these polarized and polarizing times, I shudder to think about what they are now.

And so, what we need to be thinking about, friends, is which Jesus we choose to 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 that crumbs for some can become a feast for all?

I don’t know. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I do know. Sometimes I 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 serve. Sometimes I get frustrated when the church gets lost in the squabbling and forgets the reason it was created in the first place: as we at Trinity have taken to putting it, growing together and welcoming all.

But then I remember that time when Jesus was human, when he was not the best version of himself. 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 is to admit, what I do know is this: like Jesus, we 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 for us!

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, 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.