Moving the boundaries

Pentecost 10. 2014

Matthew 15:21-28

Marian Free


In the name of God who is constantly breaking down barriers and opening new possibilities for existence. Amen.

The account of the Canaanite woman is perhaps the most confronting story in the New Testament. Our familiarity with the Gospels means that we are not at all shocked by the way that Jesus befriends sinners and eats with them. Nor are we surprised that he allows a woman of the street to wash his feet. It seems perfectly reasonable to us that Jesus should heal on a Sabbath. But this story is shocking Jesus is rude and unsympathetic. He refuses to respond to a mother’s agonised cry for help. Worse still, not only does Jesus ignore the woman’s pleas, he adds insult to injury when he justifies his refusal by likening the woman to a household pet that does not deserve the same food as the children.

This hard, uncompromising Jesus is almost unrecognisable. Is this, we might ask, the same Jesus who only a short while ago had such compassion for the crowd that even though he needed to be alone he healed the sick and fed more than 5,000 people?

What is going on here? Such an unflattering and unexpected description of Jesus demands further explanation. Why would the Gospel writers include an account in which Jesus is so uncompromising, so rude? What is it that causes Jesus to withhold healing in this situation? Did he think that he would find the peace he was seeking outside Israel’s borders and did the woman interrupt that peace? We may not be able to find a satisfactory answer to those questions, but we can draw the conclusion that the purpose of this story in Matthew’s gospel is to explain how it is that the Gentiles have come to faith in a Jewish Messiah. – why it is that the faith community consists of both Jew and Gentile.

There are two versions of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman in Mark and Matthew. A comparison between the two accounts shows that Mark’s record of the meeting is much less confrontational. Matthew has heightened the contest in a number of ways, which makes the outcome even more surprising. He elevates the position of the woman and he emphasises Jesus’ refusal to help. The woman recognises Jesus as the Son of David and falls down and worships him. This makes her a more formidable combatant than the woman in Mark’s account as she knows who Jesus is at a time when Jesus’ disciples have not yet made up their minds. The battle lines are more clearly drawn In Matthew, Jesus ignores the woman’s request not once but twice and his refusal to acknowledge her is supported by the disciples who urge him to send her away. Jesus’ response to the woman is strengthened by the assertion that his responsibility is only to the lost sheep of Israel. Matthew makes the woman stronger, Jesus harsher.

The basic elements of the story are the same in both gospels. Tyre and Sidon are on the Mediterranean Sea – a long way from Galilee and in territory that is primarily Gentile. It is Jesus, not the woman, who is out of place. The woman who seems to appear out of nowhere is desperate. An evil spirit oppresses her daughter. When Jesus rejects her plea for a second time she is not deterred. So confident is she in his authority and in his ability that she informs him that the crumbs will be enough. In her wisdom (or humility) she has understood that there is more than enough to go around and that even the left-overs will be more than sufficient to meet her need[1]. By helping her daughter, she suggested Jesus’ ministry to Israel would in no way be diminished.

Jesus is outside his territory on the woman’s home ground and she demands that he take her faith seriously. Consciously or unconsciously, the woman foreshadows the future. After Jesus’ death, the gospel will be preached in the regions beyond Israel. There the Gentiles will recognise Jesus and will demand their place in the community of faith.

In the final analysis, this account is much more than a story about one woman’s faith. It is in fact a reflection about boundaries, boundaries that turn out not to be rigid and immovable but fluid and ever-changing. The world into which Jesus was born was very clear about who was in and who was out and the lines between the two were fiercely guarded. Belonging was more than a birthright it also required adherence to strict purity laws. One could be born a Jew but still be an outsider. Anyone with a disability or skin disease was considered unclean, tax collectors and prostitutes were excluded. Temporary exclusion could result from contact with a corpse, a flow of blood or a failure to observe the purity laws. It was close to impossible for anyone from outside to be given admission to God’s chosen people. The woman’s insight and her refusal to be denied made it clear that the boundaries were moving and that Jesus’ message was intended not just for a few, but for the whole world.

Our readings today remind us that God doesn’t observe conventions or maintain strict boundaries. Genesis tells us that by default Joseph, the Hebrew slave of Pharaoh, becomes the ruler of all Egypt. In Romans Paul reminds us that, contrary to expectation, wIld olive shoots (the Gentiles) are grafted on to the rich root of the olive tree (the Jews).

The faith that grew in Jesus’ name shattered all previous boundaries and admitted as full members those who were previously on the outside or who were languishing in the shadows.

The Canaanite woman demanded and received recognition for her faith. She challenged Jesus’ narrow mind-set and forced him to think differently. In a world in which boundaries are becoming drawn ever tighter or being raised against perceived threats or new fears, perhaps it is time for us to consider where we stand and to ask ourselves whether our fences represent the mind of God or whether they are simply there to separate ourselves from others and to protect the ways of the past.

[1] An interesting insight in view of the quantity of leftovers from the feeding of the 5,000.


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