The story is told of a trial in a small Southern town. The prosecuting attorney called his first witness to the stand, a grandmotherly, elderly woman. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”
She responded, “Why yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you’ll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”
The prosecutor was stunned, no one had ever spoken to him like this before. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”
She again replied, “Why yes, I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. Yes, I know him too.”
The defense attorney nearly died. There was a stunned silence in the courtroom.
Then the judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and said in a very quiet voice, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll send you both to the electric chair.”
Do people know who you are? Do they know who you really are? On the one hand, of course, it really doesn’t matter what others think of us. What really matters is what God thinks of us. In our gospel reading today we have the story of the Canaanite woman and we see what Jesus really thinks of her.
In this story Jesus seems to act completely out of character. He first seems to ignore this lady; he talks to his disciples as though she is not present, and then he insults her by comparing her to a family’s pet dog. This is not how we usually see Jesus act is it?
In real estate the important thing to consider is location, location, location—in Scripture the important thing is context, context, context. We cannot fully understand or appreciate what is going on here unless we see a full context, until we step back and see a view not only of this story but even the whole book itself.
When Matthew wrote this gospel, for whom did he write it? In other words who were the people who first listened or read this book? This gospel, like the letter of James, was written for the Jewish believers living in Palestine. The primary theme of this gospel is that Jesus is the rightful heir to David’s throne—that Jesus is the king, the Messiah of Israel. In fact Matthew quotes over 55 prophecies from the Old Testament to prove this claim –far more than any other gospel. In Matthew Jesus mostly interacts with Jews. But every so often we see a Gentile, a non-Jew, show up. In the very beginning we see the wise men—they come to give their affirmation that Jesus is the king of the Jews. The next non-Jew we meet is the centurion who lives in Capernaum. You recall he had a servant who was very ill. And then today, this is the third meeting Jesus has with a non-Jew.
She is described as a Canaanite woman. This is the only time the word Canaanite is used in the entire New Testament. Now when the Jews heard this word they would remember the Canaanites were the heredity enemies of the Jews; they were ones with whom the Jews were to have no dealings. That this woman is called a Canaanite is significant because it sets the tone for how the Jewish readers now are seeing this woman.
This woman cries out to Jesus saying, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me—my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Jesus ignores her; pretends not to even hear her; doesn’t even look at her.
But does this behavior deter this woman? Does she get embarrassed and turn and go home? No, instead she turns to the disciples and starts pleading and crying after them. Perhaps she thinks that they might be willing to help her. But no, they follow Jesus’ lead and try to ignore her too. After a while though, apparently she gets on their nerves because she just won’t stop. So they say to Jesus, “Come on, will you do something about this woman? She is driving us crazy.” (that’s a paraphrase—not a direct translation from the Greek.)
So Jesus stops, turns around and replies to the disciples, still ignoring the woman and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” How does she respond now? Does she put her head down and shuffle away thinking to herself, “Well there is nothing I can do about my parentage is there? I guess I should just give up.” No, she goes back to Jesus.
She goes to Jesus, bows before him; and from her knees and at his feet she says, “Lord, help me!” Now we think Jesus is certainly going to help this poor lady. But no, now he says the most discouraging thing of all. “It is not right to take the children’ bread and throw it to the pet dogs.” So now, she has gone from being ignored, to being talked over, to being called a household pet dog.
Now what; does she weep; give up? Does she get angry at Jesus or bitter, saying, “What kind of God do you serve any way to let a little girl suffer like my girl is suffering!?” No, she continues to persist; I am not one of the children, you are right, Jesus. But, but even the pet dogs get the crumbs from the table.
Jesus loves it; you see he really does know this woman. “Oh Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” He had been testing her faith and she comes through with flying colors! To how many people did Jesus say this? How many? Only two people demonstrated this kind of great faith, the Roman centurion and this Canaanite woman, both of them non-Jews.
What was Matthew trying to communicate to his Jewish readers? First anybody even non-Jews can find admittance to God through Jesus by their faith. This was a big issue in the early church, whether or not Gentiles should or even could be included.
The second great lesson is about faith! Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter last week after he pulled him back up on top of the water? He said, “Why did you doubt oh you of little faith! If we were to look at the times Jesus gets frustrated with his disciples it is almost always because of their lack of faith. This woman had great faith. There was no wavering, there was no faltering. She was determined and persistent.
Faith is at the heart of our Christian life. On the one hand faith is a gift from God; some of us are given a lot of faith, others not so much. But Jesus told us that even if we have just a little faith, the faith the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. All of us have been given faith. And yet faith is not only a gift it is also a choice we can make. We have no control over the amount of faith we have been given but we do have control over our choices. When the storms of life and problems rise up around us, and rise up around us they always will; we have a choice. We can choose to focus on those problems and let them occupy our minds and hearts and then give over to fear, discouragement, and doubt. We can choose this. Or we can choose to fill our minds and hearts with the promises of God that are in His Word; we can choose to believe that God is in control and receive His peace. We can choose this too. And if we feel like Jesus isn’t paying any attention to our prayers and ignoring us like it seemed he did to this woman, we can just give up. We can choose to stop praying for whatever it was we were praying. Or we can keep on persisting in our prayers believing in Him to hear and answer us. We can keep praying and persisting like this woman did. We have a choice. We can choose to believe or we can choose to doubt.
Do people around us know who we are? Even if we have not been, let us come to be known as people of faith like this Canaanite woman, faith in how we deal with life’s problems and faith in our prayers. Let us learn to choose to trust in God; let us trust in Him because we know he loves us. Like it says in Romans 8, If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” We are so loved by God; let us learn to trust in Him. Amen