Sermon / August 17, 2014 / Pastor Terry Defoe / Matthew 15 / Great Faith
21 … Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
(New International Version © 2011)
In our text this morning, the Gospel-writer Matthew wants us to know what "great faith" looks like. So, let me ask you, as we begin – where would you expect to find “great faith?” Would you expect to find it among the religious leaders of the Jews? Or would you expect to find it in a non-Jewish woman who doesn’t even live in Israel? Our text this morning has the answer. And I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
As we begin this morning, I need to take a moment to give you some background information, which will hopefully put things into perspective for you. The first part of Matthew chapter 15 tells us about a controversy that had arisen between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. The religious leaders wanted to know why Jesus and His disciples didn't wash their hands, in the manner prescribed by long-standing Jewish tradition, before they ate. The Gospel writers tell us that the Jewish religious leaders had a very different perspective on things than Jesus did. They operated by an entirely different set of priorities. Their first priority was the Law of God – they called it the "Torah." Jesus' first priority, on the other hand, was bringing God’s Good News, first to the people of Israel, and then to the world.
The Jewish religious leaders didn't like Jesus. As far as they were concerned, He flagrantly disregarded their traditions. In their opinion, He was a false teacher – guilty of leading the people astray. They considered Jesus a heretic – of the most dangerous variety. In their opinion, Jesus broke their sacred rules – especially the rules about the Sabbath. In their opinion, no legitimate religious leader in Israel, no God-pleasing leader in Israel, would do such a thing.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to hear, in the first part of Matthew chapter 15, that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were accusing Jesus of breaking the "tradition of the elders." (verse 2, etc.) So what exactly were these “traditions” anyway? Bible scholars tell us that these traditions originated after the people of Israel had returned to their homeland from their long exile in Babylon. These Jewish "traditions” were detailed rules and regulations – which governed every aspect of Jewish life. To Jesus, many of them were man-made interpretations of the Law of Moses and He dismissed them.
Jesus wanted to know why the religious leaders were willing to break God’s commands for the sake of their man-made traditions. He wanted to know why they thought more of their traditions than they did of the Word of God. As far as Jesus was concerned, these "traditions" didn't help Israel's faith – they got in the way.
There’s more. Jesus accused the religious leaders of hypocrisy. Their words didn't match their actions. Jesus shocked the religious leaders by telling them that, despite their learning and their traditions, they didn’t understand God's word or His will. For Jesus, it wasn't what you ate, or how you ate it, that made you unclean. For Jesus, uncleanness came from within – from a depraved, sinful, human heart. For Jesus, a clean heart was far more important than clean hands.
Not surprisingly, given their obsession with the law, the Jewish religious leaders were offended. You know, when you think about it, Jesus could have taken the easy way out. He could have remained silent with regard to these controversial issues. He could have refused to "rock the boat." But that wasn't God's will for him. Jesus was simply doing what the prophets of God before him had done. He was simply calling the people of Israel back to the Word of GOD.
It’s likely that Jesus was thinking about such things as He left Jerusalem and traveled to Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. It was on this particular journey that Jesus met a 'Canaanite' woman. Fr the Jews, the Canaanites represented everything ungodly. For the Jews, the Canaanites were pagans – heretics – idol-worshippers – people who had no time for Israel's God. For the people of Israel, the Canaanites were a "bad influence." The people of Israel avoided them at all costs – considered them unclean. But Jesus didn’t.
So this Canaanite woman would have been considered "unclean" by the Jews and by their religious leaders. Notice carefully, however, what she said to Jesus. It wasn’t something you’d expect a pagan and an unbeliever to say (Matthew 15: 22):
"Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (N.I.V. © 2011)
There’s great irony in this statement. Remember that the Jewish religious leaders had just called Jesus a false prophet. But here’s this woman – this pagan, foreign, woman – acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah. She obviously knew something that the Jewish religious leaders didn’t know. This woman announced to Jesus, and to those around Him, that her daughter was very ill. And she desperately hoped that Jesus would intervene.
You know, a mother's love for her child is the same, regardless of her culture or religion. As a loving mother, this woman wanted Jesus to help her daughter. But notice that Jesus didn't say anything to her – at least not at first. But this woman was very persistent. And she didn’t seem to be put off by the fact that she – a woman and a foreigner – was doing something that was socially frowned upon. Here she was, boldly speaking to a group of men – and not just men of her own cultural group, she was speaking to a group of JEWISH men. Picture the scene in your mind. Her concern for her daughter overcame her fear of speaking out in public and of breaking long-standing social conventions.
This wasn’t something new to Jesus, of course. He had broken social conventions himself – several times – during the course of His ministry. He did that, for example, when He spoke to a Samaritan woman at a well one day. With all the courage and sincerity she could muster, this Canaanite woman boldly asked Jesus for his assistance. She asked him once, and then she asked him again. She knelt down before Him. She knew exactly what was at stake, and she was not going to be put off. She had run out of options. What she needed most, she couldn’t do for herself. Her last hope was Jesus.
This Canaanite woman – this foreigner – made Jesus’ disciples very nervous. They wanted Jesus to deal with her quickly so that they could be on their way again. And Jesus did speak with the woman. But notice what’s going on, here. She spoke of her daughter. Jesus spoke of the Jews. With His disciples listening in, Jesus told her the truth. He said that He had been sent first of all to the Jewish people. And His disciples, of course, would have agreed with that. As Jesus said that, he might have been thinking:
"Yes, I was sent to them, but it seems that they don't want to have anything to do with me. I've told them that God has a table full of blessings for them, but, amazingly, they refuse to partake."
The Jewish leader's rejection of Jesus must have been very difficult for Him to accept. After all, God had sent Him to them and to the people they served. God Himself had personally sent His own Son, Jesus, to be their shepherd and Messiah. But, amazingly, the vast majority of the Jews – and especially their leaders, rejected him.
It’s at this point that Jesus made a comment that Christians have struggled with for a very long time. Jesus said to the woman, in Matthew 15:26,
26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (NIV © 2011)
Let’s stop right here for a moment. So what do you think? Was Jesus callously calling this Canaanite woman and her people, including her sick daughter, "dogs?" Was he telling her that her nation was of lower status and lesser importance than the Jews?
I don’t think so.
I think Jesus was quoting the “party line” in Israel. I think He was telling this woman what the Jewish religious leaders would have said to her. I think he was testing her to see how she would respond. He had another critically important lesson to teach His disciples. The scriptures are very clear. God does not show favoritism.
In Acts 10:34, we read. 34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is [he said] that God does not show favoritism. (N.I.V.)
In Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 9, it says 9 … he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (N.I.V.)
All people are equally important to God. That’s why, in our text this morning, I think Jesus is talking about priorities, and not about status. Let me explain. The master eats first. Their dogs eat after that. It seems to me that Jesus was telling this woman that he was sent – first and foremost – to the people of Israel. And only after he had brought God’s word to them, only after they had an opportunity to eat from His table, would the message go out to the rest of the world, so that they could eat, too. In John’s Gospel, chapter 4, verse 22, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman,
22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. (NIV © 2011)
So, according to Jesus Himself, "salvation is from the Jews." We must never forget that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. So it makes perfect sense that he would be sent, first, to His own people. Notice how the woman responded.
She AGREED with him!!
She agreed that dogs eat only after their human masters have eaten first. So, enabled by the Holy Spirit, this women heard GOOD NEWS in Jesus’ words. comment. She heard Gospel, not Law! Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, she didn’t feel put down or criticized by what Jesus said.
It’s important for us to note that, after this, Jesus graciously granted the woman’s request. And, then, to top it all off, He pointed out her faith as an example for the Jews – and especially for their leaders – and his own disciples – of what great faith looks like! Jesus longed to see this kind of faith among the religious leaders of his own people, but this was not the case. The Pharisee Nicodemus was a glorious exception!
Here’s the shocking truth. For the Jewish religious leaders, man-made traditions were more important than God’s Word – and, amazingly, more important than the Messiah who stood before them. Here’s the bottom line: Like the Samaritan woman at the well, this foreigner, this Gentile, this woman, knew the truth about Jesus. The Jewish religious leaders did not.
You know, for me, traditions are a mixed blessing. I’ve always thought that blind and unthinking adherence to man-made traditions gets people into trouble. You might want to look at it this way: it takes a lot of spiritual wisdom to separate the packaging from the gift inside. The Jewish leaders were so enamored with the packaging – in other words, with their man-made traditions – that they missed out on God's precious gift hidden inside.
Questioning traditions isn’t a popular thing to do. The church of Martin Luther's day was seriously offended by his comments about their traditions – more man-made traditions which obscured Christ’s blessings and his grace. Luther knew, as Jesus his Master had known before him, that man-made traditions "nullify the grace of God." That’s why Luther said, "Here I stand. I can do no other!" Jesus said to Nicodemus – a learned leader of the Jews, in John, chapter 3, verse 10.
"You are Israel's teacher, and you don’t understand these things?" (John 3:10, N.I.V.)
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman teaches us several important spiritual lessons.
First, it shows us how “tradition” can get in the way of a genuine faith.
Secondly, it describes genuine faith – what it looks like and how it acts.
Thirdly, our text this morning reminds us how racial and cultural issues can build walls of mistrust and misunderstanding between people and keep them from hearing God’s truth.
Fourthly, our text deals with issues of gender and how gender can keep people from communicating and understanding God’s truth.
Fifth, with respect to the woman’s daughter, our text this morning underlines the importance of speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
And finally, our text this morning reveals the great depths of God's amazing grace.
Not all Jews were alike – some believed in Jesus and some did not. And not all Canaanites were alike, either – some, like this woman, knew that Jesus was the Messiah. As a matter of fact, according to Jesus himsels, some Canaanites – like this woman– had greater faith than the Jewish religious leaders. We need to remember that, back in Jesus' day, women weren’t treated with a lot of respect. This woman acted in a way that would have been considered outrageous by many. But Jesus didn't send her away. He respected her dignity and her intelligence. He was impressed with her faith. And He granted her request.
You know, there's one individual in our text this morning that’s easy to overlook. And that’s the woman's daughter. Think about it. She was out of sight, stuck at home, terribly ill. She totally depended on others for what she needed. There are many like her in our world today. And that’s true in a spiritual sense, too. The Bible says that without God's grace, we live in bondage to sin. But Christ is our Advocate. He rescues us when our options have run out. He dealt with our sin problem, once and for all. He did that when he died on the cross and when God raised him from the dead.
This morning, we’ve seen how a woman, a foreigner, a member of a hated pagan group, was blessed by God's grace in Christ. And we’ve also seen how the Jewish religious leaders, men who took pride in their traditions and in their religious pedigree, forfeited that grace. Our text shows us what “great faith" looks like. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – We pray that our traditions would help our faith, not get in the way. Grant us a faith like that of the Canaanite woman. Help us not to be distracted by issues of race or gender, as we reach out in your name. Help us remember those who are easily overlooked or forgotten. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.