Picks from the Pews: “Redrawing The Lines”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Matthew 15:21-28

It just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. If I had been Matthew, I would have left this story out, because this just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.

A woman, who has been caregiving for her daughter – her daughter so sick that her mother says, “She is tormented by a demon”… A woman so desperate that she resorts to begging… “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”…

This woman comes to Jesus looking for help… and I’m embarrassed to tell you how he responds. He sounds harsh, uncaring and rude. Hardly the Jesus I’ve come to know.
– first, he refuses even to speak to her and answer her…
– the disciples chime in telling him to send her away… She’s not one of us!
– then to add insult to injury to this poor woman, he insults her…(did you hear him?) “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Did I just hear Jesus call her one of the dogs?

No, this just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. So what is going on here?

We are shocked, surprised, and maybe even a bit confused or disappointed with Jesus.

But I noticed, and maybe you did to, the disciples are not shocked or surprised with his response. Neither is the woman begging and pleading for Jesus to help.  They are not shocked or surprised because they understand how their world works. No one expects Jesus to help her.

If they are shocked by anything it is that this woman has crossed the line… Hard lines had been drawn in the time of Jesus. And everyone knew you don’t cross certain lines.

Jesus and the disciples knew that there were certain religious and ethnic lines you don’t cross. Her problem you see is that she is not a Jew. She is not one of them.   She is a Canaanite, with whom observant Jews of Jesus time had little contact. She comes from the coastal region of Syria where strange gods are worshipped and ritual laws of cleanliness are unknown. She is a Gentile… not one of the chosen ones of God. She is one of those dogs—unclean. Trash.

You know, the Jews had warnings about people like her from their Bible—the Old Testament speaks clearly about the sinfulness and godlessness of the Canaanites.

They remember how their ancestors were told to stay away from them when they entered the Promised Land. Jesus had warned his disciples to steer clear of them… reminding them that their call of God was only to go to the lost sheep of Israel. We are called to take care of our own first. Gentiles were not a part of God’s mission. They were not chosen of God.

So no one was shocked or surprised by Jesus’ response and the reluctance to cross that hard line drawn by faith and culture.

We’ve seen these hard lines drawn in our own modern history.  Lines of Racial and ethnic identity.

In World War II the Germans killed 6 million people for one reason: they were Jews. Christ killers. There’s a hard line for you.

Lest we forget, there was a time in our not too distant past that we separated people in churches, in theatres at lunch counters based on skin color…racial heritage. Slavery and apartheid—all based on ethnicity—with scripture quoted to make sure we could justify our actions.

And let’s no forget that the role of women has not always been what it is today. Women may have a way to go, but as they used to say, “You’ve come a long way baby!’

Growing up, you never saw women in leadership—church or business or political because everyone knew that women’s roles were limited to that of mother, nurse, teacher and professions like those. The Presbyterian Women was a very strong organization in the church because we wouldn’t allow women to serve on Sessions. I never saw a female minister until I attended seminary. For good reason— our faith and culture taught us that there were some lines that women should not cross. Some churches still draw those lines.

So maybe we should not be not be so shocked that Jesus might be caught up in some racial or ethnic or social attitudes of his day. Let’s give him a break.

No one expected Jesus to help the Gentiles. They weren’t his people or his kind of people.

So when the Canaanite woman appears out of nowhere– no one was shocked by his response. If they were shocked by anything, they are shocked by the fact that she, a woman and a Gentile was coming to Jesus a rabbi and Jew– begging for help. The nerve of her.

But the real shock may have come when she pleaded with him. It’s not the pleading that was unusual… Everywhere Jesus turns people are pleading for help— In fact, he can’t get away from people who want what he can do for them… but that’s about all. So her begging is not so shocking.  

What IS shocking is this: She calls him by a name his own disciples and people had not yet called him, “ O Lord, Son of David.”

This is the title reserved for the Messiah, and he must have been shocked to hear those words coming from the mouth of a Gentile woman of all people. His own disciples and people had not addressed him in that way. She sees something in him his own people do not see… and she has a faith that he has not found in all of Israel.

Still, that line is a hard line for Jesus. He tells her,

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”

But the woman won’t let it rest. Get this image in your mind… she is kneeling … at his feet… and says, “Lord, help me.”He seems unmoved… Can’t she hear? Can’t she take “no” for an answer. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”Harsh and cruel language coming from the loving Son of God.

What is going on here?

Barbara Brown Taylor suggested that Jesus humanity was coming through. That he was tired and weary and a long way from home. Everyone wanted something from him all the time… and he was just tired. We might say burned out from the insatiable demands of people and ministry.

As she says, we know how he may feel:

“The telephone rings and it is the Disabled American Veterans selling light bulbs, or the fire department recruiting sponsors for handicapped children, or the kidney foundation seeking donations. The doorbell rings and it is a sad eyed man in overalls looking for work… Every day the mail brings more pleas for help from every cause under the son: animal rights, the environment, child abuse prevention, hunger, cancer prevention.You have to draw a line somewhere. You have to decide what you can do and what you cannot that day…

We draw the line, and like Jesus, we may lose our tempers when outsiders try to cross it, because they are challenging the limits we have placed on ourselves to protect ourselves… It sounds harsh (to say no) but what are you going to do? You have to draw the line somewhere.”[1]

And it helps when your religion and society and culture or nation or ethnic group reinforces where the line  is drawn for you – telling you who is acceptable and who is not. Who deserves our help and who does not.

You can feel better about saying “no”.  You learn to say things like, “we need to take care of our own first.”

But then God steps in… often in a way, a circumstance or a person you did not expect. And begins to question our way of thinking- even our culture and value system—even our faith.

In our story, it is the Canaanite woman—and her stubborn, persistent faith that challenges Jesus, the disciples and the culture. She keeps at it hard:  “Yes, Lord,” she says when he calls her a dog, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

BBT observes,

“When she says that, something in Jesus snaps. His anger dissolves. Something in him is rearranged, and changed forever, a change you can hear in his voice.

“O woman, great is your faith… be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter is healed instantly.”

And the hard lines we had drawn are re-drawn by Jesus.

“The limits he had placed on himself vanish, and you can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. He is no longer a Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel, but God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, beginning with this Canaanite woman. And – “Through her faith he learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had imagined.”

At this point I do wonder if some of you are thinking… are disturbed or even shocked that Jesus may have learned something… I struggle with this.

I sort of like to think that Jesus was pre-programmed for birth. That to be the Son of God meant that he had it all together from day one. That’s sort of where I lean.

But what if… and this is a thought really more for a discussion than a sermon… but let me pose it anyway… what if, we are wrong? Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning?

Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn… that part of the incarnation means that God incarnate—allowed himself to be limited as we are…

And maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully divine is that he was willing to learn along the way… to be open to God’s call in his life… willing to listen and to grow and even to change his perspective.

What if a sign of divinity is a willingness to learn along the way? What makes Jesus divine is his ability to be open to God’s call in his life… and to listen…(I mean really listen—study your Bible and pray hard)  and to grow and to even change one’s minds and attitudes.

 There is an old saying you’ve heard… “To err is human, but to forgive divine.” I like that. But may I offer another version.

 “To be stuck in our ways of thinking is human… but to learn God’s way is divine”.

I think Matthew kept this story in his gospel because his people needed to hear it. He was writing to Jewish Christians. I bet more than once someone said to him, “We supposed to take care of Jews first—after all Jesus was sent to the Jews”

So, Matthew tells a story to challenge them and as it turns out, to challenge us.

He wants us to see that even though we may think we know who needs to come first in our mission and ministry… even though we think we know who God loves more than others… even though we have drawn hard lines about where compassion and love should be shared… God has a way of moving those lines.

And if we are going to be like our Lord Jesus—we are going to be open to God’s Spirit… we need to remain open to the people God is sending our way no matter who they are or what others may say of them… If we are going to be like Jesus… we will be open God’s spirit… ready to even change our minds and hearts once in a while… if that is what it takes to be faithful disciples of our Lord.


[1] Sermon : Crossing the Line:

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