The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 8/18/96
Text: Matt. 15:21-28
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

What do you think of that story? Not much, I suspect. For those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, this might make us wonder what we have done. After all, at first blush, this lesson makes the Lord sound like something of a jerk. My first reaction is to want to "rescue" Jesus, find some way of explaining away this conversation that will put him in a bit more flattering light.

The commentators are all over the lot on this one. Some have said that Jesus was just having a bad day - he and the twelve had gone north, out of Galilee (the only time the Gospels have Jesus leaving his native land). He had been having trouble escaping the demanding crowds; things were dangerous politically (King Herod had recently beheaded his cousin, John the Baptist); he was frustrated in his efforts to make any headway with the religious establishment and he was regularly misunderstood by his own closest followers. Now, he heads out of town for a little "R&R," a place where perhaps he could get some peace and quiet, but no - he is confronted by this insistent Momma, and instead of reacting to her as he normally might, first he ignores her, then he tries to blow her off, then he insults her, and finally, he wises up and acts decent again. Bad day. Even the Son of God is entitled to one every so often. That is what some commentators say.

Do you buy that? I do not. And for one basic reason: these Gospel records we have did not come from transcriptions of cassette tapes or film on the 11:00 o'clock news - the source for these stories is the gathered and sanctified memory of the community of the faithful perhaps FORTY or FIFTY YEARS after the fact. Why in the world would any follower of Jesus want to record for posterity such a less than flattering portrait UNLESS the portrait is not so unflattering after all? Hmm.

Some commentators say that this encounter was part of the Lord's growth and development - a learning experience for him. If "as the book of Hebrews says, our Lord learned obedience by the things he suffered, he also learned largeness of heart out of the life situations he faced. He did not cease increasing 'in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man' as a boy of twelve."(1) His growth continued as an adult. Jesus grew up a Jew, of course, and Jews did not think much of Gentiles (fuel for the fires of Hell, as a matter of fact). Now Jesus is confronted with faith that is not nurtured in his native tradition, he has to acknowledge its validity, and through the encounter learns that divine love knows no boundaries, racial or otherwise. This was a LEARNING EXPERIENCE for him.

Do you buy THAT? I guess I could LIVE with that one (although not enthusiastically). How about some other possibilities?

OK. Other commentators say that this bantering back and forth between Jesus and the woman was merely the Lord's way of teaching something. By his initial reluctance to care for any Gentile, he was simply giving voice to the not-so-quietly harbored feelings of his Jewish followers. By finally coming around and acceding to the woman's cry for help, Jesus was demonstrating the inclusiveness of God's love and thereby taught his disciples that racism had no place in the Kingdom. This encounter was simply one more of Jesus' parables, this time, come to life. TA DAH!

Possible. I think that is a stretch, though. How about the language of the encounter? At first glance, Jesus sounds awfully rough. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She had already heard him say he was sent only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," and she knew perfectly well how much animus there was between Jews and Gentiles. But calling her a DOG to her face? Rough. Even Ruff, Ruff, Ruff.

Again, folks explain that away. After all, calling someone a dog is a term of abuse, if ever there was one. As one writer has it,

The pariah dog was not an estimable animal in Near Eastern culture then, any more than he is today. But it is not the pariah dogs that are intended here...It is the dogs beneath the table...household pets, the children's playmates; and this is confirmed by the fact that the word for 'dogs' used by both Jesus and the woman is a diminutive...The woman was quick-witted enough to deduce from Jesus's words the kind of reply to him that would win the granting of her request: 'Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children's left-overs!'"(2)

Sharp lady. And it worked. Her daughter was healed.

OK. I can live with that (although still a little reluctantly). I can live with it even more comfortably when we realize that we have a wonderful opportunity to misunderstand because TONE OF VOICE is not transmitted on the printed page. For example, take the simple sentence, "I didn't say you were a fool."(3) Depending on your emphasis, you convey different messages. By saying, "I didn't say you were a fool"...implies that someone else did. Or "I didn't say you were a fool"... implies that I said something else. How about, "I didn't say..." (but I thought it). Or "I didn't say you..." I said Charlie was, and so on. Yes, conveying tone of voice is a problem. Perhaps we are getting closer to an answer.

One more classic explanation to the puzzle of this text comes from Elton Trueblood in his book, The Humor of Christ.(4) He writes, "there is more widespread recognition of this encounter as humorous than of any other particular part of the gospel record. Thoughtful readers are more likely to recognize the humor here than at any other point. This is because they can see that any alternative is intolerable".(5) He is certainly correct there.

To be honest, none of these explanations have ever been completely satisfying to me, and until yesterday I was content to come into this pulpit and tell you I have no idea how to understand this encounter, but I am WILLING to say that there must be more here than I can fathom, because I the depths of my being, I know...that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, would NEVER mistreat anyone, particularly a helpless mother, desperate for the healing of her child. There is a wonderful message here, even if we have to wade through some material we might not understand to get to it. More about that in a minute.

I say I did not truly understand this encounter until yesterday. It was before daybreak. Morning prayers were over, and I wanted to get started on my work. I sat down at my computer, but instead of loading the sermon materials I had been working on, I logged on to PresbyNet. There was a note about this passage from a lady named Susan O'Shea.(6) She wrote, "It sounds to me like typical good teaching among those who are not dependent upon reading and writing: The witty exchange of cliches to a new conclusion...

Actually, it reminded me very strongly of an experience I had as a physician's assistant in India 30 years ago. We had been trying mightily for a long time to encourage the Harijan (the outcastes) to come to the clinic, as they (being toilet sweepers) were at high risk for disease."

The Harijan, for whatever reasons, at that time were willing participants in the caste system of that continent (remember, it was NOT a Brahman who shot Gandhi for attacking the caste system). They had their own interior and social structures for dealing with it.

One day a Harijan finally did come to the clinic. The very fact that he appeared there, among the 280 casted persons in the waiting room, told us that he was unusual. His good grooming, his body stance, and his speech told us that he was a man of dignity, self- respect, and appropriate entitlement.

Speaking what was on everyone's mind, I said to him loud enough for everyone to hear, "What's a pig's son (standard form of address) doing here? I thought only casted people got sick."

"Even pigs bleed red," he replied, holding up a bloody hand, "like Americans." (Americans like myself were considered to be outcaste; also 'red-blooded American' and 'Yankee pig' were phrases that were well known.)

Conclusion: If folks took caste seriously, why were the casted people willing to come to an outcaste [Susan] for treatment? They could jolly well welcome another outcaste who came for treatment. It was an absolutely brilliant reply on his part and brought the house down.

From then on we had no trouble with the Harijans hanging back from seeking medical care.

Thank you Susan O'Shea. NOW I understand. My problem was that I was looking at this text through Western eyes and not through those of the culture of the Middle East or even the Orient. As we all can occasionally be, I was a victim of my own ethnic blindness. Thank you, Susan, for helping me see.

As I said a moment ago, until I learned this new lesson, I was content to admit not having a clue about dealing with the conversation. I simply wanted to note the wonderful demonstration of faith that this woman had.

Here was a lady - the kind of mother we wish every youngster had - who would go to any lengths on behalf of her child. She had enough chutzpah to go up to someone she had never met, through his whole entourage, and everyone of them of a nationality that despised hers - it was as if a black woman had gone, looking for help, into a Ku Klux Klan rally. How much help could she possibly expect? On top of that, remember that this was a WOMAN...women were not permitted to address men in public in that society. But this woman did. Once those hurdles were climbed, she gets this healer of whom she has heard so much to actually acknowledge her existence and he does so by calling her names...playfully, OK, but still. This lady hangs in there. She banters right back. She finally hears those words that, deep in my soul, I know SHE KNEW she was going to hear. "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

The lesson in all this is that there is no substitute for faith. As Jesus said on another occasion, it can move mountains.

You church historians among us will remember what a hopelessly debauched prodigal young Augustine was. Many parents would have thrown up their hands, yet his mother absolutely refused to give up hope that be could become great in the sight of God. As he went from bad to worse she prayed day and night, sharing her broken-hearted pleas with priest and bishop. Even the most distressing news of his last escapade could not break her faith in his eventual salvation. Finally, the weary bishop concurred and wrote to her: "It is not possible," he said, "for the son of all these tears to perish."(7) How right he was. How right she was. How right was the mother of our lesson. "And her daughter was healed instantly."

The place was a suburb of Detroit. The speaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The subject: "After Auschwitz, Can We Still Believe!" Jews and Gentiles alike filled the great synagogue to listen to the recollections of one who survived the furnaces of Dachau. Thin and fragile, Wiesel stood at the podium for nearly an hour telling one story after another of the horror and despair of those bleak days in the '30s. His stories were of people confused with their imprisonment and sometimes destroyed with their release. Painfully, silently, the audience relived the events of Wiesel's young life when he was the only surviving member of his family. Finally the stories ceased. His eyes dropped to the floor. There was no sound at all in that mammoth room for what seemed an agonizing eternity. Then he repeated the question, "After Auschwitz, can we still believe!" He shook his head slowly, sadly, "No, no,..." before concluding powerfully, "but we must!"(8)

Concerning whether or not to have faith, there is no choice. There was none for that Canaanite mom, none for Elie Wiesel, there is none for you and me. The message of this wonderful mother is "Hang in there!"

In the beginning, it may have been more great desperation than great faith, but sometimes they come down to the same thing. When you have endured long hopelessness, hang in there. When every attempt to find help has ended in disappointment, hang in there. When it seems that your prayers get only as high as the ceiling and then stop, hang in there. When things get so bad that you just want to curl up and die, hang in there.

You see, once upon a time there was this woman...a mother... who came to Jesus...


1.Hillyer H. Stratton, Preaching the Miracles of Jesus, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1950), p. 99
2.F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 110-111
3.Borrowed from an idea of Merv Skey, via PresbyNet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 08 18," 8/13/96
4.Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 116-125
5.ibid. p. 116
6.Susan O'Shea, vis PresbyNet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 08 18," #124, 8/16/96
7.David Redding, The Miracles of Christ, (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 140
8.William R. White, Speaking in Stories, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), p. 116

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