Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.
Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:
21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.
This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.
So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.
First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.
Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:
- All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
- Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
- In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
- v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
- v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
- What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
- And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.
We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!
Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.
- After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
- The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
- Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
- Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
- Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.
This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.
Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/