“Changed Hearts” Colchester Federated Church, August 16, 2020, (Matthew 15:21-28) Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (**Virtual Worship)

Our Gospel passage today is about two people coming together across differences and having a life-changing encounter.  To understand the story we have to know some of the history.  Because this woman is a Canaanite. 

To understand the implications, let’s go back to the story of Joshua conquering the Promised Land.  Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumbling down.  The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites who under Joshua’s military leadership, cross the Jordan River to take control of the land of . . . Canaan.  Canaan is known to the Jewish people as the Promised Land, as God’s gift to the people since God had promised the land to their ancestors.  The book of Joshua is divided into two parts: the conquest of the land and the settlement and redistribution to the twelve tribes of Israel.[1] 

That’s a great story if you were part of Jesus’ and Joshua’s tribe of Jews.  Not a great story if you were a Canaanite like the woman we meet this morning.  Obviously not all the Canaanites got wiped out after that military conquest.  Though New Testament Professor Jae Won Lee reminds us that, “One could assume distance between Judeans and Canaanites.  Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate her from Judean social norms.  Further, the demon possession marginalizes her daughter.”[2]

Thus we have this Canaanite woman who is an outsider asking Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.  At first Jesus responds as many other First Century Jewish men might—by rejecting her.  Jesus says to his disciples (who are getting super annoyed by this Canaanite woman shouting after them), “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with this Gentile woman.  Maybe he was tired after a long day of travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Maybe at this point in his ministry he felt that his focus needed to be exclusively on his fellow Jews and that this woman was distracting him from what God was asking him to do.  Maybe he harbored some prejudices against Canaanites since as a good Jewish boy he would have grown up with the story of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.  Who knows for sure and whatever the case may be—this woman persisted.  Kneeling before Jesus she says, “Lord, help me.”[3]

Jesus responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”[4]  This response is so harsh.  Because it seems like Jesus just called this woman (as she’s begging for his help to heal her daughter) a dog.  Checking footnotes in my handy Harper Collins Study Bible (the specific Bible that got me through college and seminary) one can read that the translation of that Greek word used here is “little dog” meaning either puppies or house dogs.  “But still a very uncomplimentary term for Gentiles.” 

Jesus doesn’t rush to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Not only that—he insults her.  But she doesn’t back down, “Yes, Lord.  But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”  Translation: I’ve fallen down worshipping you—a Jewish man whose ancestors conquered my own people—and you’re going to call me a puppy? Fine.  Throw me a bone here, pal. 

Jesus is the one who has a change of heart in this story.  Let me repeat that—it’s Jesus who has the change of heart.  “Woman, you have great faith.  It will be just as you wish.”  Her daughter is healed instantly Matthew tells us.[5]

Now a common belief held among Christians is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  This theological concept is the Incarnation.  It matters that Jesus was God incarnate.  Because God has experienced humanity (with all its complexity) though the life of Jesus.  For we know that Jesus had friends and ate, slept, walked, talked, breathed, and lived among us.  Jesus suffered, got angry, and wept when a friend died.  Jesus was rejected.  Our God is not distant and remote and so mysterious that we can’t even begin to fathom God.  Our God took on the mantle of humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—a First Century Jewish man.  All of that is amazing!

  But sometimes in the Christian Church we don’t want to think about the implications of Jesus’ humanity.  We don’t want to think that Jesus may have begun his ministry with prejudice in his heart.  This story shows that he may have had some stereotypes as a Jewish man who was living in the land Jesus’ ancestors like Joshua fought for his people to possess.  Jesus began his ministry among his own Jewish people and that was his focus—the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Yet that’s not where Jesus’ ministry ends.  Because Matthew ends the Gospel with the Great Commission.  Jesus proclaims, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”[6]

My friends, would it be such a terrible thought to consider Jesus having some stereotypes and then an incredible change of heart?  Would it be so terrible to think that people can change?  And that sometimes we will meet someone who challenges us and forces us to change our ways?  Because at the heart of this story is the woman and her great faith.  It’s that Canaanite woman who loves her daughter so much that she will do just about anything to have her healed and made whole once again.  Jesus sees that even if it takes him a little time. 

At the end of the day, when this encounter happened in the Gospel, Jesus isn’t in Galilee or Jerusalem.  He’s in the district of Tyre and Sidon—Gentile cities.  Jesus is already outside his comfort zone when he meets this woman.  This whole story reminds me of that famous quote from the great American writer Mark Twain who once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [people] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  It matters that this encounter with the Canaanite woman happened when Jesus was in her territory, and he had to travel to get there.  That journey ended up being fatal to his own narrow-mindedness and one could argue that the world has never been the same. 

What hope a story like this can bring allof us in these days!  In these times when we ourselves are more actively contemplating racism and prejudice in our own country and in our own communities and in our own hearts.  The good news is that transformation does happen when we travel outside our comfort zones and encounter people who may be different than us somehow.  The question becomes: how might this look in our lives?  For God can change our hearts and change our lives and change the world.  May it truly be so with us.  Thanks be to God, Amen. 

[1] Robert G. Boling, Joshua: Introduction, Harper Collins Study Bible, 326.
[2] Jae Won Lee, Exegetical Perspective of Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, 359.
[3] Matthew 15:24-25, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 15:26, Common English Bible.
[5] Matthew 15:26-28, CEB.
[6] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.