Jesus Saves (When We Would Delete)

This sermon on Matthew's version of this Sunday's appointed gospel reading is from last August. I won't preach on this text this week, but thought it would be appropriate to post again now.

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
  Matt. 15:28
There was a news story late last month that shines a bit of light on today’s New Testament reading. It came from the field of genetics, and was a report that scientists had tested inhabitants of the Middle East and discovered that the DNA of the Canaanites still lived on in the modern Lebanese. What was odd about many of the articles I read, however, was the number of them that made yet another claim, and that was that this story proved the Bible wrong.

A good example is the British newspaper The Independent, which stated that...
God had ordered the Israelites to slaughter the apparently sinful Canaanites, saying: “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them.” And, according to the Old Testament's Book of Joshua, they did just that: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded… He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.” [1]

The problem with this article is that it’s incomplete. There’s a chapter in the Bible that indeed lists the Canaanite cities that had been destroyed, but also those that remained, even going so far as to state that some Canaanites lived among Israelites “to this day.” And even Joshua, right in the middle of his breathless hyperbole that The Independent quoted, admits that there were Canaanites who were not killed. [2]

But living Canaanites aren’t just mentioned in the Old Testament. There’s at least one more biblical passage proving articles like the one I just quoted wrong. And that passage is the one I just read. And not only does it prove doubters wrong, but it actually told modern scientists exactly where to look if they wanted to find out what happened to the Canaanites. For Matthew 15 (verses 21-28) tells us that Jesus went to the area around Tyre and Sidon, which are today the second- and third-largest cities in, that’s right, Lebanon. And whom did he encounter there but a Canaanite woman?

Canaanites and Israelites had never been friends, and so the interaction between this woman and Jesus got off to an odd start. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” this stranger began to shout; “my daughter is tormented by a demon.” When I read this, I wonder what those words could’ve meant to the woman. Few of Jesus’ own people at that point were willing to call him Lord, and fewer still recognized him as the heir of David, that is the Anointed One (which in Greek is the Christ and in Hebrew the Messiah). So what meaning could these words have had to the daughter of a people who had been David’s enemies and who were certainly not looking for a savior from David’s house? It seems as though she was desperate, and was simply trying to push the right buttons in order to get the result she wanted.

And so, if this woman was simply pushing buttons, then I think that’s what Jesus did in response. She wanted to use the language of Israel to talk to Messiah? Then Messiah would respond by addressing her with the language his people used to refer to Canaanites. His disciples were very annoyed at this foreign woman and wanted Jesus to send her away. And it appears at first that that’s just what he did, telling her he was sent to Israel’s lost sheep. But she persisted, this time kneeling in front of him. And then Jesus called her what he’d been taught to call her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This exchange almost reminds me of personal computers back when they first came out. I remember the church I was serving back in the early 90’s decided that they wanted to computerize the offices. The senior pastor wasn’t interested, but I as the associate pastor wanted to learn how to use one. Microsoft had recently come out with Windows, but the computer they put in my office wasn’t that advanced. It still operated using MS-DOS, which consisted of typing strange commands on a keyboard, which showed up on a black screen in amber characters.

My first computer didn’t have much. It had a Bible program and a word processor, so I could use it to work on my sermons, and that was about it. And sometimes that wasn’t even possible, because it frequently got stuck. When it stopped responding I would desperately try to type in whatever MS-DOS command I thought might get it to do what I wanted. This almost never worked, so pretty often I usually had to try to exit the file I’d been trying to create. And when I did, it always (somewhat brazenly, it seemed to me) informed me that I had unsaved changes. Did I want to save them? I always tried to save my work by hitting the Y key, but if things had gotten this far, I almost never could. So after repeated attempts to save, I ended up hitting the N key, thus deleting all the work I’d put into my sermon or whatever it was I’d been working on.

As shocking as Jesus’ initial response was to the Canaanite woman whose daughter was in need, we have to read it not as current events and not as biography, but as theology. And here we have a woman spouting off to Jesus a theology that meant little or nothing to her, and Jesus responding from the teachings of that theology. Both the woman and the Messiah were fulfilling their rôles; and, I think, both of them were very well aware of what was going on. Like a neophyte with an old computer, the poor woman was just trying to use any commands she thought might work, and Jesus was (as expected) trying to exit the current situation.

If this were MS-DOS, Jesus would now be faced with the decision to save or delete, and if this were anybody else from that place and time, he’d have chosen what was really his only option, namely not to salvage a situation that was unsalvageable.

But this was Jesus, and when the woman came back at him with a statement not of Israel’s faith (which, after all, wasn’t her own), but with a statement of her own faith, Jesus’ response was not just to save, but to make a statement that placed the woman’s faith above that of most of his own people.

“You may call me a dog, but even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall to the ground.” She loved her daughter enough to take what was dished out. And she had enough faith in Jesus to know that even his residual power was enough to perform miracles.

“Woman,” Jesus responded, “yours is a great faith indeed, and I’ll do as you ask.”

If Jesus was to fulfill what God intended for him, he had to do it through his own people. To go about the region simply performing miracles would have put the spotlight on the miracles. He’d have been seen as nothing more than a magician, and people would have wanted the miracles for their own sake. To make sure his actions were only seen in the context of history and theology was to keep the focus on God. Miracles are only good for a brief time and are limited to an individual or small group. Jesus knew that his life was being given for the life of the world—not just for his own age, but for all ages. The exchange with this woman—though unpleasant on the surface—was necessary. And, like I said, I think both Jesus and she knew exactly what the point was even as they were having the conversation.

This brings me to another point—a point that needs to be made today. In the life of Christ, in his words and actions, the future was breaking into a present that was obsessed with the past. And the more obvious Jesus’ identity became, the more desperate became his adversaries. The Roman Centurion and the Canaanite woman were two extreme examples of the very thing the old guard feared: Losing their specialness and giving up some of their power. It finally got to the point where they resorted to violence, believing that if they could just kill Jesus, they could hold on to the way things had been in the past.

But the whole point of Christianity as we know it is that the table, and the cross, and the empty tomb stand as monuments to something new, something that couldn’t be stopped, something that couldn’t be destroyed. And this something new was God’s love not just for a chosen race, but for the world. And so even the nature of monuments was turned on its head, for the table, the cross, and the empty tomb are not memorials to something that happened in the past, but monuments to something that’s happening now, and symbols of what the future holds for all who embrace them.

To be a Christian can sometimes mean praying urgently for a change in a status quo that the rest of the world says we need to put up with as a necessary evil… at least for the time being. It may even mean letting go of certain beliefs that have their source in our reading of the Bible.

For example, it was a common belief in Jesus’ day that genocide was God’s will when Israel overran Canaan. The disciples appear to be unwilling to let go of their hatred of their Canaanite contemporaries, but Jesus seems to be saying that the time for change has come, and that an era of ethnic hatred had come to an end.

The same could be said for slavery in 19th century America. Most people argued that it was accepted as part of the created order in both the Old and New Testaments. But the time finally came (it was forced on many who weren’t ready) to reject that belief.

Most of the people who said they believed in Civil Rights 50 or 60 years ago did not want to upset the apple cart. But others’ prayers led them to believe that God’s future had arrived. [3]

I’m not old enough to remember that era too well, but I know that many blamed Dr. King and those who marched with him for the violence. I don’t remember this because I remember the President or anyone else saying they were to blame, but because of something my grandmother told me that I’ll never forget. “People say what’s happening in the streets is Martin Luther King’s fault,” she told me when I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, “but he’s just marching for justice for his people. He’s not to blame for the way other people treat him.”

The Confederate monument was removed
from the campus of the University
of Louisville in Dec. 2016.
Many of our beliefs and attitudes are monuments to a past that prevent the arrival of God’s future. In some cases, they are memorialized in stone and metal on courthouse lawns and on college campuses. They are usually not so much expressions of history as they are statements of what and whom we honor today. Fighting to maintain such a past is the equivalent of the disciples objecting to having to put up with the intrusion of the future in their present-day lives.

We say we’re not ready for change. We don't even seem to be ready for the honest and unpleasant dialogue that precedes change. But to believe in Jesus Christ is to embrace the notion that we are not called to defend that status quo. Jesus never stayed in the same place, but moved from place to place. Usually he brought the future with him. But sometimes, such as in today’s story, what was coming was foisted upon him and he had to decide whether to defend the past or embrace the future.

Even today we are coming face-to-face with promises that we had long imagined might be fulfilled in the distant future, but which we now realize can be claimed in the present with a Canaanite woman’s faith that refuses to be put off. Let us rise above the fear and the blame, let go of the past, and look ahead, because it is there, and not behind, where we will find Christ.
—©2017 & 2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. Ian Johnston, Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon, from The Independent online, 27 July 2017. The passage of scripture cited came from Joshua 10:40, 11:15.
  2. See, for example, Judges 1:21 & Joshua 10:20. 
  3. N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) pp. 200-201.
  4. Back when I was a college student, UofL's fraternity row was called Confederate Place, because of its location in relation to this monument. At some point (I do not know when, but long before the Confederate monument was removed) the name was changed to Unity Place.