Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fourth Sunday in Great Lent (Knanaitho / Canaanite Woman)

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 15: 21-28

Prejudice and Faith

by Larry Broding, Word-Sunday.Com

Gospel: St. Matthew 15: 21-28

Are you at ease in today's multi-cultural climate? Or, do you find your dealings with people of other cultures difficult? (Be honest!)

Today's technology brings people from different cultures closer together and makes borders more transparent. Yet, more and more people desire separation from those who are "different." At once, we see convergence with an ever integrating world market. And we see movements to defend the cultural (and racial) status quo. Trade and technology force us to address the "other," no matter how eager we are or how apprehensive we might be. How we treat our neighbor is a moral issue that no longer depends upon who lives next door.

In Matthew's gospel, a foreign woman approached Jesus in faith. And because of her faith, Jesus ministered to someone outside his culture to the shock of his audience.

Popular Translation

21 After he left Galilee, Jesus traveled to the area near the towns of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Approaching Jesus, a woman from this area cried out, "Lord! Son of David! Help me! A demon has infected my daughter!" 23 But Jesus did not answer her, not a single word.

Just then, his followers came up to Jesus and kept complaining, "Get rid of her. She shouts at us no matter where we go."

24 Turning to the woman, Jesus said, "I was only sent for the lost sheep, the people of Israel."

25 The woman who came all this way fell at the feet of Jesus and begged him, "Lord, help me!"

26 "It's not good to take food from children so you can feed dogs," Jesus said.

27 "Yes, Lord," the woman answered, "but even dogs get to eat the leftovers that fall from their owner's table."

28 "You trust me a lot," Jesus reassured the woman. "Your desire will come true." At that moment, her daughter got better.

These passages (the woman's encounter with Jesus) form an entire unit.

Literal Translation

21 Having gone out from there, JESUS left for the area of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Look! A Canaanite woman from that region, having come out (to meet JESUS), shouted, saying, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely possessed (by a demon)." 23 HE did not answer her a word. Having approached, his disciples asked HIM, saying, "Dismiss her, because she is screaming after us." 24 Having answered, HE said, "I was not sent (to everyone), except the sheep of the house of Israel, having lost (their way)." 25 But, the (woman), having approached, was worshiping HIM (in a prostrate position), saying, "Lord, help me!" 26 Having answered, (HE) said, "It is not good to take the bread of children and throw it to the dogs." 27 (She) said, "Yes, Lord, (yet) for even dogs eat from the small crumbs falling from their masters' tables!" 28 Having answered, then, JESUS said to her, "Woman, your trust (in ME) is great. Let it happen for you as you wish." Her daughter was cured at that hour.

15:24 "Having answered" What did Jesus answer: the objections of the disciples to the annoying woman, or the woman's inquiry? The text is ambiguous at this point. But for the flow of the text, the popular translation and the commentary assume Jesus spoke to the woman.

"the sheep of the house of Israel, having lost (their way)." The sheep in the text can refer to particular Jewish sinners or to the entire nation of Israel. In the first sense, the verse can be translated, "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In the second sense, the verse can be translated as stated in the text. Since Jesus meant his ministry to the entire nation, the second sense is preferred.

15:26 "It is not good to take the bread of children and throw it to the dogs." Was Jesus making a derogatory remark to the woman, or was he referring to the feeding order of the family? Scholars are split on this question. Jewish contemporaries of Jesus did hold Gentiles in disdain. And Jews did have dogs as family pets; the feeding order would have been: adult males, parents, adult females, children & servants, pets. The commentary below tries to bridge the gap between these two views. After all, Jesus could have used the term "dog" in both senses.

15:27 "crumbs falling" Did the crumbs fall by accident? Or, were the crumbs intentionally made to fall (i.e., "thrown" by the master)? Note again the ambiguity in the text between derogatory and family-pet remarks.

As the passage began, Jesus traveled from the Sea of Galilee directly west to the Mediterranean sea coast. [15:21] If Jesus continued to walk in this direction, he would enter the territory of the Gentiles (modern day Lebanon). This would directly contradict his instructions to his apostles to avoid Gentiles and Samaritans. They could only minister to fellow Jews (Matthew 10:5).

At the same time, a Gentile woman from the area walked toward Jesus. In 15:22a, Matthew identified the woman as a "Canaanite," a name Jews gave to pagan Semites. When she saw the crowd that accompanied Jesus, she began her cry. [15:22]

We do not know if Jesus crossed the border into foreign territory, if the woman traveled into the area of Galilee, or if they met on the border. (The details of the text are too vague.) Encounter, not geography, remained the important consideration. This was a moment of faith for the woman.

The woman addressed Jesus with two titles, "Lord" and "Son of David." The later presupposed his ethnic and religious background. But the former presupposed her faith in Jesus. Some interpreters simply translate "Lord" as a formal address ("Sir"), but doing so would undercut the desperation of her plea and the persistence of her intent. She called Jesus "Lord" because she trusted him and his power. [15:22b]

Jesus ignored her and his followers complained about her persistence. (How many of us act in the presence of strangers as if they didn't exist, only to gossip about them later?) [15:23] Jesus turned to the woman and defined his ministry as exclusively Jewish. The two titles for Israel (the lost sheep and the "house" of Israel) refer to the same idea. Jesus served only the Jews. [15:24] His statements, however, did not deter the woman. [15:25]

Jesus then made a challenging comment. He compared the Jews to children and Gentiles to dogs. [15:26] On the surface, the statement was demeaning, for the term "dog" stood atop a list of Semitic insults. "Dog" implied the cowardice of dogs who only hunt in packs. Alone, most dogs will run away when confronted.

However, the term also implied extreme loyalty. A true pet would defend his or her master to the death if confronted. To bond with their pets, masters in Semitic households would fed their dogs from leftovers after the meal. In this way, dogs knew their place and knew their master. The after-meal time ritual helped insure the dog's loyalty (and the family's safety).

Not to be deterred, the woman used Jesus' analogy to her advantage. Referring to the well-known bonding ritual, she affirmed her trust in Jesus. She was loyal, like a family pet. She would wear the insult (if there was one) proudly. [15:27] Through her trust, Jesus acknowledged her faith and cured her daughter. [15:28]

How have people discouraged your faith? How have you overcome such discouragement?

Catechism Theme: Social Justice

Respect for the God-given dignity of the person must underlie any sense of justice. The dignity of the person is the only legitimate end in any society. The rights of the individual precede the rights of the state, or the rights of the majority within a society. If the state or the majority do not insure the dignity of the individual, they lose moral legitimacy.

Respect for the individual transcends mere legal means. Those in society must foster the virtue of solidarity: to treat others as self. This includes the poor, the disadvantaged, the illiterate. This also includes those who look, think, or act differently. Prejudice based upon social or cultural differences is incompatible with God's plan.

God distributed talents and wealth for the good of all, not for the benefit of the few. Solidarity demands a distribution of wealth that benefits all people. It asks sacrifice from the few not only financially, but also in services rendered. Those with time, talent, and treasure should contribute to the benefit of all.

The end of solidarity is not the merely a sense of equity between members of a society. Solidarity transcends the material need. The virtue bonds people from different social backgrounds, classes, and cultures together in a common purpose that finds its source in faith.

When was the last time you reached out to others different from you? When did you serve the poor, the sick, or the needy? How did that experience change you?

God made us all in his image. We all possess the power to choose. When we choose to serve others, especially those different from ourselves, we choose to be formed in God's likeness. Because we serve God's creatures in the same way God serves them, we take on divine qualities. We take steps closer to his likeness.

Prejudice, injustice, and social separation promote the likeness of the demon. To battle this image, we all need the faith of the Canaanite woman whose loyalty broke down barriers. May our prayer be as persistent as hers and our trust as strong.

A wise person once said: "We all have prejudices. What we do with them is the important issue." Consider your own prejudices. What plan do you have this week to battle one or two of them?

Copyright 1999 -2007 by Larry Broding Used with permission

See Also:

The Perseverance of Faith - Matthew 15:28
by Charles H. Spurgeon

Yelping Puppies, The Canaanite Woman
by Pastor Edward F. Markquart

Crumbs from the Master's Table
by Hubert Beck

God of Mongrels
by the Rev. Dr. Gail Ricciuti

Canaanite Woman
by Fr. Daren J. Zehnle

A woman's Faith: Matthew 15:21-28
by Rev. Bryan Findlayson

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 4th Sunday in Great Lent (Canaanite Woman)

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