Our guest preacher this day is Ádám Bak of our parish community, recently received into the Church of England as a priest.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh Lord our strength and our Redeemer.
The Gospel today inspired me to start my Sermon with a quote from twentieth-century American humorist, Will Rogers: There are two theories to arguing with a woman, he once said cheekily. Neither works. I am just kidding, of course. So, please do not be cross with me. In any case, Jesus speaks with a woman today in our account from the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s see how it goes.
It is often said that there are passages in the Holy Scriptures that are difficult to understand. We will examine one such account. In this Gospel passage, the words with which Jesus answered the Canaanite woman when she turned to him for the healing of her daughter seem scandalous at first. This is what Jesus says: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." This is a harsh rejection in more ways than one. First of all, because Jesus seems to be selective here, because he rejects a pagan woman. And this is far from the Jesus who loves everyone. The reader stumbles upon this because Jesus calls the Jewish people his children. And a woman and her daughter living outside the borders of Israel, he calls dogs. What is this about?
Jesus has gone with his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon, northwest of Galilee toward the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Tyre was a rich city, and its currency was considered the strongest at that time. Rome only accepted silver from Tyre as real silver, that is, as valid currency. The woman who addressed Jesus is of Syrian-Phoenician nationality and a descendant of the Canaanite ethnic group. However, some Bible translations also mention that she was a pagan. But this is an inaccurate rendering of the original text because the word pagan is replaced by the term Hellenis, which means Hellenic, or Greek. This is one of the keys to understand the text.
The woman therefore belongs to the Hellenic culture, which is known to have had great influence in antiquity after the victories of Alexander the Great. She is not necessarily a pagan. And by the time the woman gets home, the devil has left her daughter; and the girl is laying on the bed healed. The term "bed" is the another key to understand the text, because it is not a simple straw bag of the poor people in the original Greek, a crabbitos, but rather a "kline" which was the bed of rich people. From this, we can infer that the woman was rich. And so, we can understand that Jesus is not raising the Jew-Gentile issue here, as it may at first seem.
It is different here. Jesus always stands by the poor, the oppressed, and those pushed to the fringes of society; primarily to love and welcome them; not to start a social revolution or change the existing social order. So in this situation, the poor are the Jews in Galilee, therefore they are called the sons; and the rich are the Tyrians and Sidonians, as is this woman who turns to Jesus asking for the healing of her daughter. We now better understandable the meaning of the story: to feed first those who are starving and then the rest.
However, there must have been other reasons for the woman's initial rejection by Jesus. He is here giving a lesson to his disciples. With his words and behavior, the Master shows exactly how his Jewish disciples think about other peoples. The Israelites are the chosen ones; they are the first, or only, ones to receive salvation, and the Gentiles are dogs. Unfortunately, this way of thinking also characterized the disciples, not only the religious leaders of the people at that time. Everyone was waiting for a political saviour, a Messiah, who would raise the nation above the rest of the peoples, so that they could shake off the Roman yoke.
Yet, Jesus looks into the depths of all human misery and comes to liberate us from sin. The people and the disciples do not think they needed such a Messiah. So in his answer, Jesus addresses the spirit of the disciples, holding a mirror in front of them, so that they can see how nationalistic their way of thinking is, and how far they are from the kingdom of God, if they behave this way. "Jesus knew what dwells in human’s heart," the Gospel says, and he also saw that this woman would not back down from her request, but would be persistent in her pleas and steadfast in her faith.
Maybe while Jesus' words were dismissive, his voice was still soft and his eyes encouraging. This is not clear from the text, but we can be sure that he was not cold. While the woman is begging, she herself becomes "poor" because she humbled herself, thereby being able to receive God's grace, so she also belongs to the "sons,” that is, the children, and not to the "dogs".
The meaning of Jesus' dismissive words could simply be this: It is not good to take the bread of the poor and give it to the rich Gentiles. At the woman's plea, Jesus immediately changes his behaviour, praises the woman's answer, and comments: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." Jesus actually praises very few people for their faith. He was amazed for instance by the faith of the Roman centurion who asked him for the healing of his servant. Our Lord experiences unbelief on the part of his own people, his own townspeople, the leaders of the people and especially the disciples, which is why Jesus was always so alone here among the people, while he always remained united with the Father in faith.
Jesus prayed for the salvation of all his contemporaries, even the chief priests and scribes who sought his life, but perhaps he prayed the most for the salvation of his disciples. He managed to save the apostle Peter, but not Judas. It is up to each person to turn to Christ with his or her sins; or to deny their sins and turn away from Christ, thinking oneself at the same time righteous. Christ came to save sinners, heal them from disease, and destroy Satan's rule on this earth. Can we pray for something as persistently and have as much faith as this Canaanite woman? According to Scripture, in certain cases it is possible to fight against God in prayer and win. God allows this for His beloved children. Still, sooner or later, the true disciple learns to say with faith, "Lord, not my will, but yours be done!" I have the feeling that even Will Rogers, not known for being religious, could agree with that.
Let me conclude with the words of the Prayer of Humble Access from the Book of Common Prayer:
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.