When dog food is more than edible (Matthew 15.21-28)
It is not particularly difficult, it seems to me, to understand why not everyone likes Jesus. Sure, he is kind to some, but it’s not always particularly obvious who he likes, and even why. And even among those who claim to like him – or even to love him – it’s quite rare that they would have ever heard Jesus affirming them with those longed-for words, ‘great is your faith’. I mean, not even his own disciples were ever so praised. In fact, it is recorded that Jesus only ever spoke these words to two people, both non-Jews – the centurion, a commander of a century in the Roman army from Capernaum, and this Canaanite woman of which St Matthew speaks.
So what did this woman do for Jesus to say that? Only this: she came to him, trusted in his promises, stretched out her hands and held them there until he filled them. That’s all she did – this woman who didn’t belong there; this woman who had no cultural right to be anywhere near Jesus, let alone talk with him; this woman who didn’t even know the right stuff about God. But here she is, crying out ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon’ (15.22b). That’s how faith begins, doesn’t it? … by daring to come to Jesus even at the risk of being disappointed, for we read in v. 23 that Jesus ‘did not answer her a word’ (15.23a).
And that’s how it often is for us too, isn’t it? We come to God with our needs, we bear our hearts to him, we cry out to him to do something, and he seems silent. Job felt it when he cried out to God for nearly 40 chapters and God was silent. The psalmist said, ‘I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.’ John the Baptist felt it when he questioned if Jesus really was the Messiah. And the disciples felt it too. God’s silence is one of the loudest things we can ever hear! The disciples couldn’t handle it. They had to fill it with words: ‘And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us”‘ (15.23b). This woman was an embarrassment. But she was a determined embarrassment. And what stands out to me about her is that she preferred holding on to the silent Jesus rather than depending on others.
But of course, the cross was the greatest silence of all, even though God spoke more loudly there than at any point in history. Helmut Thielicke said,
There the night of darkness dispatched its last troops against God’s Son; the demons were released and the ugliest instincts since Adam unchained. But God said nothing about it. Only a dying man cried aloud in that silence and asked why – yes, why – God had forsaken him. God still remained silent, when even dumb nature began to speak by a shuddering gesture and the sun withdrew its light. The constellations cried out but God was silent. Yet it is precisely at this point that the great secret of that silence conceals itself. This very hour, when God gave no word, no syllable of an answer, was the great turning point of world history. This was the hour when the veil of the temple tore and God’s heart was opened to us with all his surprises. By being silent God was suffering too; by being silent he entered with us into the brotherhood of death and the deep valley, knowing all about it and … doing his loving work behind the dark curtains. The silence of that night on Golgotha is the basis for our life. What would we be without the cross? What would we be without the knowledge that God sends his Son to us in the silent abysses and dark valleys, that he becomes our companion in death – while his ‘higher thoughts’ are already pressing on mightily toward Easter…. There is no silence of indifference in God (nor in Jesus); there are only those higher thoughts – and not for one minute a silent fate. The woman who comes to Jesus knows that. Therefore she waits out the silence and never draws back her outstretched hands.
And how does Jesus respond to her waiting? Not with encouragement but with hard words: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (15.24). ‘And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”‘ (15.26). In other words, ‘Even though I’m gonna go on to feed thousands of people, I’m not gonna feed you because you don’t belong to the one group of people who have been entrusted to me. You’re not a Jew!’ He who said ‘Whoever comes to me I will never cast out’ seems to be doing some serious casting out here. What a hypocrite! Did this Canaanite woman have to realise that God really is good but he is not good to me? that Jesus Christ really is the Saviour, but he is not my Saviour?
And I wonder just how many people there are in our community like this woman who look at the Church and say, ‘I don’t belong. I can’t belong. It’s not for me. I would love to believe what you believe. I’d love to walk on the road you’re on, but I can’t. I don’t have enough faith. And even if I did, my life is a mess’. But you see, faith is realising that you are useful to God not in spite of your scars and your doubts, but because of them!
And so in between Jesus’ two dark statements rings v. 25: ‘But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”‘ (15.25). In other words, ‘It’s you or no-one Lord. I’ve haven’t got a Plan B in my back pocket. I’ve no security blankets tucked away somewhere. If you don’t come through for me, then I’m done’. She echoes Psalm 142, ‘Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need’. And Psalm 13: ‘How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?’
And sometimes that desperation leads us to the brink of despair. But that’s precisely where we discover the merciful arms of God. That’s where we discover that God has not been silent after all – for even though God’s lips have not moved he has all the time been drawing us, like with this woman, to himself. He has been creating faith in us, not always in the center of life, but more often on the edge, in the zones of discomfort.
I’m encouraged that the ones that Jesus called blessed aren’t those who’ve got their life all together. They’re the ones who know that they are empty and broken and hungry and thirsty without him and who find themselves trusting him for their very life. They’re the ones who say with the Apostle Peter, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ They’re the one’s who say with the psalmist, ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73.25–26)
Jesus said, ‘“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”’ (15.26–27). In other words, ‘Lord, you have every right to ignore me. You have every right to push me away. You have every right to not help me. But I will not let you go, because you are all I’ve got.’ It reminds me of Job’s prayer, ‘Even if you kill me God, I will hope in you!’ As one commentator put it,
She does not stay to argue that her claims are as good as anyone else’s. She does not discuss whether Jew is better than Gentile, or Gentile as good as Jew. She does not dispute the justice of the mysterious ways by which God works out his divine purpose, choosing one race and rejecting another. All she knows is that her daughter is grievously tormented, that she needs supernatural help, and that here in the person of the Lord, the son of David is one who is able to give her that help; and she is confident that even if she is not entitled to sit down as a guest at the Messiah’s table, Gentile ‘dog’ that she is, yet at least she may be allowed to receive a crumb of the uncovenanted mercies of God.
This is the nature of all true faith, isn’t it. And so at that point, Jesus can’t let her go without being a hypocrite. As Luther said, she ‘caught Jesus in his own words’. Jesus said that he loved the hungry, the thirsty, and the poor in spirit … well here she is! She took his words seriously, and then she waited and waited and waited and waited until he came to take them seriously too. ‘Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly’ (15.28).
The Christian life is not so much about how you live or what you believe so much as it is about whom you trust! And so it’s a great challenge to our egos, to our pride, to our futile attempts to please God in our own strength, even to save ourselves. So what are you trusting God for at the moment? And will you trust God even when he seems to be silent? Will you trust God even when you feel like giving up? Because you can trust this one who has already taken your death into his. You can trust this one who has already gathered up all of your doubt and fear and shame and mistrust in his own person and has already presented you in himself as faithful before the Father. There’s no doubt that your faith will fail him, but this God with your name written on his nail-scared hands will never fail your faith. There is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in you or I. And there is more belief in Christ than there is doubt in you or I. He hangs on when we can’t. He believes for us when we can’t. He prays for us when we are exhausted from praying or don’t know how to. He is drawing us to himself even when he seems to be silent.