The Canaanite Woman: Faith that crosses boundaries

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a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on August 20, 2017

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: Matthew 15: 21-28

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:21–28, ESV)

At the end of my sermon last week I tried to cast a vision for what the Kingdom of Jesus would be like. I said the Kingdom of Jesus is place of humility, justice, and unity, where every cultural and ethnic barrier is overcome for the sake of Jesus.

So today I’m asking this question: in light of what we believe the Kingdom of God should be like, what then, does the Kingdom of God look like?

See, if the Church doesn’t look like what we know the Kingdom should be like, that make us on some level hypocrites (and Jesus had some choice words for hypocrites).

If we read in the Bible a verse like this one, Proverbs 31:8-9—

Open your mouth for the mute, for the of all who are destitute…defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9, ESV)

If we read something like this that reveals to us the heart of God for his people, and we don’t see or hear anyone speaking up for those in our midst, that is, our own brothers and sisters in Christ, that would be a problem.

If we read Scriptures like this:

…the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”” (Galatians 3:8, ESV)

and

…as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:27–29, ESV)

And we find an actual vision of heaven in John’s Revelation chapter 7, where the Apostle says he saw a

… great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” (Revelation 7:9–10, ESV)

If we see in the Scriptures one Kingdom with one King, marked by the blessing of many nations, that is many groups of people from many cultures, all worshiping together under in unity, and we look around at churches in diverse communities that choose to separate along racial and ethnic lines, that would be a problem.

What would a church that is faithful to this biblical, Gospel vision be working to look like in a neighborhood like Sunnyslope, which is 30% Latino, 30% other ethnicities, and only about 30% white?

Although there are certainly exceptions, the rule is still pretty much what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed: Sunday Morning remains the most segregated hour in America.[1]

Why is that? I’m convinced this is the case for two reasons.

First, I don’t think a lot of people think that racial justice is the work of the Church. They delegate it out to political groups and activist organizations—and don’t get me wrong, many of those are doing great work—but I think many of us have lost the sense that unity across ethnicities and cultures is a necessary outworking of the Gospel, just as caring for the poor, strengthening marriages, and feeding the hungry are. We are talking about very real divisions that currently exist within the Body of Christ, often as the result of centuries of oppression of Christians by other Christians. Of course it’s our work to do!

The second reason is that even if we haven’t officially given up, we’ve just stopped doing it because it’s hard and it requires us to be uncomfortable. We’d much rather simply have a policy of “being nice.”

Ed Stetzer, an evangelical researcher, conducted a survey where his firm found that only 40% of American church goers want to see more diversity. He said, “People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people”[2]

Brothers and sisters, when we are not allowing our desires for the church to be conformed by the Holy Spirit to his desires for the church—which are plain to see in the Bible—we have a problem.

Racial justice and unity is absolutely the work of the Church, and it is ongoing work that is worth doing because it manifests that glorious Revelation future in the present and it displays God’s heart to the world.

And we know God’s heart for the world. We know John 3:16–God loved the whole world, so he sent his Son Jesus to die for all our sins.

We know God’s heart, which is why today’s Gospel passage might seem startling or even troubling to us. We find Jesus speaking to a someone with apparent faith, the Canaanite woman, but he is silent at first. It seems like she is continually asking for help and mercy, to the extent that the disciples are like, “come on Jesus, just fix her problem so she will go away.” But Jesus says,

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24, ESV)

He says this because he is aware his first ministry was to the Jewish people. God always had a plan to work in and through them in a unique way to bless all the nations, and Jesus was quite aware that a central part of his mission was to call the Jewish people to recognize what God was doing through him. That the Messiah, the savior and deliverer of every nation had come as one of them.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”” (Matthew 15:25, ESV)

Do you notice the petition is the same as Peter’s from last week? She knows she needs him, and only him, because he is Lord. And here Jesus makes what seems to be an insulting statement:

…he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”” (Matthew 15:26, ESV)

Jews often spoke of other peoples including their ancient enemies the Canaanites as “dogs.” Definitely an insult. But Jesus may be doing something different here. He’s painting a picture not of mangy scavengers, but of family pets around the family table. He is, I think, testing her faith to see where’s she’s at. And she passes with flying colors.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”” (Matthew 15:27, ESV)

In other words, surely the mission God sent you on to the Jews has implication for us all. Surely even the crumbs from God’s table are enough to satisfy. We are reminded of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand just before this, how Jesus provided so much food that there were 12 baskets left over.

Even God’s left overs are more than enough.

Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:28, ESV)

The Canaanite woman got it right! Her faith was that God’s plan encompassed not just one people group, but every nation. When Jesus was raised from the dead, we see official expansion of his ministry as he sends his followers into the whole world to proclaim the Good News and make disciples.

Brothers and sisters, if the heart of God is for a global, multi-ethnic, multi-colored Kingdom, and our churches in diverse communities don’t look like that, we must make a change. There’s word for this kind of change in the Bible: repentance. And repentance always begins with confession. And confession is always a matter of the heart.

I confess to you that I have not truly listened to my brothers and sisters in Christ that are also people of color, when they have been trying for generations to communicate the incontrovertible fact that racial injustice is still a deep wound in the fellowship of believers, especially here in the United States. I confess to you that I have not done the hard work of intentionally developing deep spiritual friendships with those that don’t look like me. I confess to the church that I have not considered racial justice part of the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, when in fact this is a simple conclusion to reach through a plain reading of the New Testament.

On my journey of repentance, I have become aware of the daily struggles for justice that our Black and Latino and other brothers and sisters face, and I’ve been appalled. But being offended or even righteously angry is not enough. I was reminded by that in an article from Christianity Today this week. The authors cut me to the heart when they wrote:

“Jesus doesn’t give us the option of not fighting. He isn’t impressed by our feelings of moral outrage at injustice. He asks us to fix things.”

Of course we can’t do anything apart from the Holy Spirit, but isn’t he even now changing us so that “…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV)

That goes for us as individuals, and for us as a local church.

I think there might be some repentance needed for us in this area as a community of faith. We currently have intentional, ongoing efforts to disciple our children, to provide for the needy, to instruct in the faith.

But are we now pursuing racial justice within and through our own church in a disciplined and intentional way?

We are not called, nor are we capable of reforming the kingdoms of this world to bring them in line with the Gospel–there is only one Kingdom of God, and we have to manifest that and invite people to be part of that. And that’s how the world is changed.

And this kingdom manifestation starts in our own homes, our own families and in this local church as we pursue God’s Gospel vision with intentionality and determination.

My challenge to you today is to intentionally manifest this part of the kingdom in your everyday life.

Find a Christian brother or sister that doesn’t look like you, and begin that hard work of growing close in Christ in and through hard discussions about things like race and oppression and culture in the context of the church.

If you are part of the majority your part of the discussion should be mostly listening and asking questions. It will be awkward. It will be difficult. It will be worth it. And realize that as you do this, even though you don’t necessarily look exactly like each other, together, united in the Spirit around the Lordship of Jesus Christ, you look a lot like the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/sunday-still-most-segregated-day-week

[2] Ibid.