john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Matthew 15: Jesus is rude

    Good Shepherd - Morning Communion 17/8/2008


    Isaiah 56.1,6-8, Matthew 15.21-28


    Jesus is rude to people.

    And Matthew doesn't mind writing it down so that we all know about it.

    Jesus was rude to the Pharisees. He called them 'hypocrites'; told then that God had been right about them when he said, through Isaiah: 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me...'

    Jesus was rude to the Pharisees because he'd seen that they said one thing in their times of worship but did the opposite thing outside. In the temple they told people, 'honour your father and mother' but outside they encouraged the same people to give their money to the temple rather than to support their parents in their old age.

    So perhaps we can see why Jesus was rude to them. And why they went away very angry with him.

    Jesus was rude to a Canaanite woman too. Jesus was rude to her not once, not twice, but three times.

    While he was passing by her area this woman came out and started shouting, 'Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.'

    Jesus didn't answer her at all. How rude was that, ignoring her cries for help. And this prompted Jesus's disciples to ask him to send her away, because she kept on shouting after them.

    Jesus didn't do that, though. He said another rude thing instead.

    He said, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' Which was another way of telling this woman to go away, because she didn't come from Israel, she came from Canaan. So, lost sheep or not, sick daughter or not, Jesus wasn't going to have anything to do with her, he seemed to be saying. How rude was that....?

    But Jesus's rudeness didn't put this woman off. She didn't go away having taken offence like the Pharisees had. She was determined to get something out of Jesus, however rude he was being to her.

    So the Canaanite woman came and knelt in front of him, saying, 'Lord, help me.'

    And for the third time Jesus was rude to her again. Very rude to her this time. He answered, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.'

    Did we hear that right? Did Matthew write that down in his gospel correctly? This woman, who wanted his help to heal her suffering daughter - did Jesus really call her a dog???

    There's no getting away from it - and many writers and theologians and preachers have tried to get away from it over the years - but you really can't: yes, Jesus was calling her a dog. Not just her, but all her people.

    'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.'

    Meaning: 'It is not fair to take the food of the people of Israel and throw it to the Canaanites.'

    Or: 'It is not fair on the people I've come to save, for me to waste my time on you.' How very, very rude was that....!

    This woman wasn't a hypocritical religious leader who, you could argue, deserved to be put down by Jesus's words. This woman just wanted his help to heal her suffering daughter.

    And this remarkable woman didn't get angry, even after those three insults, she didn't walk off having taken offence like the Pharisees had.

    No doubt thinking more than anything else about helping her suffering daughter - instead, the Canaanite woman showed that she had completely understood what Jesus meant by that terribly rude 'dog' comment he'd made,

    'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.'

    And she took the comment about her being a dog and she threw it back at him, saying,

    'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.'

    Now it's normally Jesus who says something at the end of a conversation which turns everything on its head. Like when he said 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's', and 'Unless you become like a child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven'.

    And it's normally Jesus who shows such great insight about something that it turns the heads and the hearts of the people he's talking to. Like when he said 'No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit', or when he said, 'The first shall be last and the last first'.

    But in this conversation Jesus, the rude one, is silenced by what the Canaanite woman says to him,

    'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.'

    Now Jesus isn't rude to her any more. Because he's seen that the Canaanite woman has faith enough in him to move beyond his rudeness.

    Now Jesus is quiet for a few moments as he realises that the Canaanite woman believes that even if he's come to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel, his power, his holiness, his grace, his healing, is large enough to extend to others too - to people like her.

    At that moment it might have dawned on Jesus that the woman must have heard about the feeding of the five thousand, which had happened just a little bit earlier the way that Matthew tells it.

    And Jesus would have realised that she had got the message from that extraordinary miracle - Jesus had taken five loaves and two fishes, blessed and broke them and gave the crowd everything they needed - fed all his people - and after they had all eaten - there were twelve baskets left over...

    'Yes, Lord,' she said, 'yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.'

    The Canaanite woman had heard about Jesus's generous miracle on the hillside with the twelve baskets left over and she'd seen the symbolic meaning in it: that Jesus has enough to share with everyone, even those not included, even those on the outside, even those rejected or left behind.

    The Canaanite woman would have been aware of the ancient story of Abraham and Sarah, with God's promise to Abraham and Sarah which was not just for Jews to be blessed for their own sake but that they might become a blessing to all the families of the earth. [Genesis 12.1-3]

    And, closer to home and in more recent days the Canaanite woman may have also heard about Jesus's words to the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his son. Jesus told him: 'I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel'.

    No wonder, then, that the Canaanite woman rode all Jesus's rudeness and demanded the crumbs from his table.

    Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly.

    This is a story, then, about a woman's faith in a God who is for all people, not just one nation.

    It's also a story about a woman refusing to be put off by Jesus's rudeness, keeping her dignity and integrity despite his scandalous behaviour towards her.

    We can take a lot of good things from this story when we think of the Canaanite woman and her example.

    But what of Jesus, the rude one? Why would he be so rude, what was he thinking?

    The writer David McCracken wrote a book called The Scandal of the Gospels where he looks at the stories of Jesus being rude to the Pharisees and then being rude to the Canaanite woman, and he says this,
    The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast [reveals a lot to us], for the opposite of offence is faith. [1]
    So by being so rude to the Pharisees and to the Canaanite woman, Jesus was testing their reactions. And their reactions told Jesus that
    [The] pious and law-abiding Pharisees lacked faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith.
    The writer David McCracken reminds us that in Matthew 11:6 Jesus said to John the Baptist's disciples: 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.' [2]

    So Jesus was pushing it a bit with the Canaanite woman, being rude to her three times and very rude indeed the last time - but she passed the test of faith.

    And Jesus was pushing it a bit with the Pharisees, being rude to them on this occasion calling them hypocrites and repeating his criticisms of them on many other occasions - they failed the test of faith and crucified him.

    What is the message in this for us?

    I think it's this: that if we take our faith seriously we should expect to find that Jesus will push it a bit with us.

    If we take our faith seriously then we will find that Jesus makes difficult demands on us which intrude in our lives: love your enemies, for instance, pray for those who persecute you. How rude, how awkward, how uncomfortable, is that?

    If we take these demands seriously then there's two ways me might react to them. We might find them offensive and walk away from them, or we might see them as tests of our faith, as ways to help our faith to grow.

    So the message for us from the Canaanite woman must be: when Jesus makes difficult demands on us which intrude in our lives don't be offended; keep faith, keep talking to Jesus about these things; he will help you; he will teach you; and blessing and healing and growth will surely come from that.


    Notes
    [1] David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense.
    [2] Further David McCracken references from notes for the week's readings in girardianlectionary.net