Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28


“there is nothing but no, and yet that is not true…” 

Martin Luther, on the healing of the Syrophoenician Woman.


This pericope from Matthew’s gospel is listed with the first ten verses in parentheses.  This means that they are optional verses, included in the reading at the choice of those planning worship.


These ten verses contain an account of Jesus criticizing the rigidity of the religious leaders.  The issue is the dietary laws.  I want you to remember with me that the whole purpose of the law is to ‘set apart’ God’s people.


Some folks believe that these rules are nothing more than a glamorized public health policy.  Yet, that thinking cannot explain why some of these laws have nothing to do with health.  There isn’t any evidence that a rabbit or a camel, when eaten, posed any health risk.  Refrigerators and modern bacteriology do not negate the law.  It is kept, because in keeping we are set apart as God’s people.


Any rule that is prescribed, when broken, can lead those who adhere to it to judge others negatively.  It is this judgment that Jesus condemns when he says, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”  Jesus is speaking about our heart, what is in our heart is often expressed by our lips.


Immediately, Jesus goes on to Tyre and Sidon.  Sidon, called Saida today (Arabic for “fishing”), was named after the firstborn son of Canaan (Gn 10:15) and probably settled by his descendants.  Twenty mi south of Sidon, in the middle of a coastal plain, Tyre (called Sour in Arabic today) was constructed on a rock island a few hundred yards out into the Mediterranean.  This is Canaanite country.   Just as you would expect to find Yankees in Massachussetts, and Dutchmen in Pennsylvania, you would expect to encounter Canaanites in Tyre and Sidon.


Israel had continuous problems with the Canaanite religion, polytheism, a multiple god religion that focused on the natural world, on the weather and on fertility.  People set apart as the One God’s own people would not associate with such pagans.  But off to Tyre and Sidon goes Jesus.


Perhaps he is taking to heart his recent preaching about the wideness of God’s mercy; that an occasional cheeseburger or shrimp cocktail is nothing to worry about.  I don’t know why he felt comfortable going over there, but he did.


And while there, Jesus goes about doing what he was sent to do: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  This mission, to gather together the people Israel, cannot be denied by scripture.


So, as he goes there, to this place where he is certainly going to encounter those people he (as a Jew) is not supposed to fraternize with[1], he encounters just such a person.


A Canaanite woman comes asking for the Rabbi.  She knows what his answer would be, it would be no.  After her harassment of the disciples, her stubborn determination to get an audience with the Rabbi succeeds.  She asks that he heal her daughter.  He states his purpose, which does not include her.


At this point in the story, I’d like to share with you a personal experience.  I once had a confirmation student who was the son of a ‘blended’ marriage; by that I mean that the father was Jewish and the mother was gentile, as in Christian.  The son decided to follow his mother’s faith.  I was invited to the confirmation party and sat down, uncomfortably, with the whole family.  Finally, Grandmother, the infamous Jewish Grandmother, approached me and asked me point blank:  “what do you think about the Jews?”  I was afraid she’d ask me that.  But I thought of this very account in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus said, “it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” and I told her, ‘I believe that God’s promises are to be trusted, and are never withdrawn.’  That seemed to satisfy her.  I know it satisfied me, because I still believe it.


But there is this matter of the Canaanite woman to deal with.  She is a force to be reckoned with. She says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” 


The only thing that surprises me in this text is Jesus’ response.  I do not believe that his reference to dogs is particularly harsh, considering the setting.  He is simply stating the obvious; there are some who are ‘in’ and ‘some who are out.’  Dog’s, the word used here, is in a form that indicates a pet, a domesticated pet, that same pet that curls up on the floor next to the master’s feet, and sounds a warning when a stranger appears at the gate, a member of the household.


It is as if, in her humility she recognizes that she is on the margins of this promise;  her insistence indicates her belief that she is not outside the wideness of God’s mercy.


Her cry to Jesus is the same cry that is commonly used during our confession.  We call it the Kyrie.  We say, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”  This, combined with Jesus’ insistence that her faith is great, leads me to believe that there is room in his kingdom for other sinners.  Sinners like you, like me, and many others who don’t fit in our nice little legalisms.


If I were to add a supporting text to this one, I would turn to the voice of the Apostle Paul.  In Romans 11 he reminds all of us that our status as children of God is by grace alone.  If only we were so gracious to others.

[1] Ezra 9:1-2,  After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Per’izzites, the Jeb’usites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons; so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.”