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11.08.15 When God Changes, We Change Matthew 15:21-38 Sermon Summary

by on November 9, 2015

Is it possible that Jesus was a sexist, racist, uncaring Savior? Don’t ask the Canaanite woman.

Summary Points

  • Two explanations for Jesus’ bad behavior
  • How comparing Matthew with Mark may get Jesus off the hook
  • The real lesson Matthew is teaching us
  • How religion turns to violence: the example of Psalm 149
  • How Matthew’s lesson leads to peace

When people read the account of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, they are confused at best or offended at worst. And these responses are justified. Why would Jesus refuse to help a desperate parent seeking deliverance for her child? One popular explanation is that Jesus is simply testing her faith. After all, he couldn’t be culturally conditioned and so there’s no way he could be sexist or racist, as his response suggests. Plus he is omniscient, so his behavior must be the unlikely means to a godly end. And in addition to evoking her faith, he’s teaching something to his disciples. It’s a tidy explanation.

Another explanation says that Jesus is culturally conditioned, or at least takes into account that he is fully human. So his perspective is limited—something he himself acknowledges when he admits he doesn’t know the hour of his own return (Matthew 24:36). Jesus doesn’t yet realize that Gentiles are included in the gospel of grace. From this perspective, it is the Canaanite woman who is doing the teaching.

We may never know, but what becomes clear upon analysis is that Matthew is trying to teach us something in this story. For the way Matthew tells the story, as compared to Mark, shows that Matthew is pushing an interpretation upon us.

For example, in Mark’s telling, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first.” There is an order to Jesus’ ministry, and while it starts with the children it will eventually flow to others. But in Matthew Jesus says, “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and then later, “It isn’t right to take children’s food and give it to the dogs.” In other words, Matthew’s account is harsher, more pointed.

Another example is that Mark says the woman is a Greek, a Syrophoenician. This is a contemporary and geographic designation. But Matthew calls her a Canaanite. This is an archaic designation, like referring to someone from central Mexico as an Aztec today. There were no Canaanites in Jesus day. Matthew is highlighting old hostilities, as his audience would have remembered the Canaanites as those people who inhabited the Promised Land, those who had to be eradicated in the “conquest.” They would have remembered that God commanded them to, “utterly destroy the Canaanites, and show them no mercy.”

Because Matthew edits in this way, many have wondered if Matthew is something of a “Jewish” gospel.  Other observations leading to this question include that Matthew is particularly concerned with showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy from Hebrew scripture. Matthew presents Jesus in parallel to Moses, the great prophet and priest of Judaism. For example, Jesus has five mountain discourses in parallel with the Pentateuch (Five Books) which they assumed was written by Moses. More specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explicitly reinterprets several of the Ten Commandments. Jesus is, according to Matthew, the new Moses, and Christianity is the culmination of Judaism.

But Matthew presents a major development within Judaism: the gospel of grace now includes the Gentiles. This is why in the Christmas story Matthew tells us that Magi from the East, that is, Gentiles, came to worship the Christ child. It’s also why Matthew ends with the Great Commission in which Jesus sends the disciples to “all nations,” that is, Gentile nations.

And that’s why Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite. He’s setting up his audience to dismiss her out of hand, as Jesus initially does. And then he turns the tables on them—and Jesus, too, the way the story is told. The Canaanite woman gets included in the end.

To emphasize the point, Matthew offers us another story of Jesus feeding a multitude. In the previous chapter, in a wilderness within Jewish quarters, Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children. After that feeding, the disciples gathered up the leftover pieces: twelve baskets full. It reminds us of the Twelve Tribes of Ancient Israel—God’s chosen people. After this episode with the Canaanite woman, Jesus feeds 4000 men plus women and children in a wilderness setting surrounding the Jewish quarter. This time the disciples pick up seven baskets full of leftovers. Brian McLaren suggests this represents the Seven Tribes of Canaan: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

What Matthew is trying to teach us is that when God changes, we change. What if God actually loves the Canaanites? What if our religious identity culminated not in discord but in love? What if Jesus really meant what he said: “You love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”? What if religious bigotry were to give way to relational love?

Consider the example of Psalm 149. It begins with a call to worship: “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song. Sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful. For the LORD takes pleasure in his people. God adorns the humble with victory.” But a few verses later it ends this way: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones.”

You see how religious zeal can turn to violence. What if Psalm 149 was the only story we had about God? What if this was the only way we knew how to talk about God? Could there ever be an end to war—except by eradicating the enemy? There would never be peace, if this was all we knew about God.

But Psalm 149 is not the only story. Thanks to Matthew, we have the story of Jesus who loved the Canaanite woman. Who also loved her needy neighbors: the lame, maimed, mute, and blind. Who also loved “many others” in Matthew’s catch-all phrase for all who are wounded and less than whole. Who loved all who hungered—4000 men, besides women and children, besides the Canaanite woman and her child.

Matthew invites us to realize that in Jesus our understanding of God changes, and when God changes, so should we.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are some times God has changed in your life? What was going in your life at those times? How did you change as a result of God changing in your life?
  • Who are the “Canaanites” today? Whom does the church or “Christian society” ignore because of the assumption they are not chosen or are even hated by God?
  • What do you think of the two explanations about Jesus bad behavior at the beginning of this message? Which is more satisfying to you? What does each explanation fail to explain?
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