August 17, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
We are not in charge. We have to take things on faith. We exercise courage. We look for mercy.
Maybe it’s just me, but I sometimes feel that, even though during Ordinary Time the lectionary is basically supposed to move through the Scriptures in a continuous fashion, in practice it seems to dump all the difficult passages on a single weekend. Yesterday, looking at Romans 11 led us to consider the difficult history between Christians and Jews. Today, we have one of the oddest incidents in the Gospel of Matthew—and one that is ultimately connected to that difficult history.
Jesus has withdrawn from Galilee, where he was debating with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-20), and is now traveling through Tyre and Sidon (both are in modern Lebanon.) A Canaanite woman approaches him—the Gospel of Mark also reminds us that she is definitely a Gentile (Mark 7:26). As with many people who approach Jesus, she asks that her daughter be healed, but Jesus’s response is surprising given his behavior when approached for healing in many other places in the Gospels. At first he ignores her, then he refuses her, saying that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). However, she is both persistent and unafraid to match Jesus toe to toe and quip for quip—while it’s not universally thought that the exchange about the dogs is a kind of sarcastic joke, this is one way it’s frequently preached and taught. At any rate, Jesus relents and heals her daughter instantly.
Inés Velásquez-McBryde wrote a marvelous devotion on this passage earlier this year, focusing on the courage of the woman in this situation:
She has a whole history of prejudice stacked up against her. The two most polarized bodies in all of Jerusalem come face to face in this borderland region. She crosses socio-political and invisible borders seeking and begging for mercy. When you belong to the margins and have been relegated to the margins, it takes a whole lot of courage to beg for mercy. How liberating and yet how brave of this mother! She knows there is mercy in his name.
I completely agree with Inés’ picture of the woman here. I am also fascinated by Jesus in this story. For someone in whose name there is mercy, he doesn’t seem to be showing a lot of it at the beginning, focused as he is on his mission to the Hebrew people. And yet, in a way, the way the story plays out has echoes of Romans 11. (Without getting too deeply into the dating of Biblical books, it is enough to say that although the exchange between Jesus and the woman occurred before Paul wrote to the Romans, Matthew wrote down this narrative of it some time after Paul wrote to the Romans.) A plan is made for God’s historically chosen people. An alteration is made to the plan, and someone not originally in the plan is grafted in through faith in the promise and receives mercy.
Taken together, yesterday’s reading and today’s remind us of how much we ultimately do not know about the plan of salvation—it was Paul who exclaimed near the end of Romans 11, after all, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). We are not in charge. We have to take things on faith. We exercise courage. We look for mercy. And we find it.
How do you react to Matthew 15?
How can you render the deeds of mercy?
As with yesterday, I didn’t have a song in mind when I wrote this, so I went looking for one—and I’m in love with the one I found. Scholar and songwriter Kathryn Wehr wrote a song about this passage—in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament! (Don’t worry, the English is on the screen.) As she repeats her continual cry for mercy, let it become your prayer as well.
(Prayer for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost in the Book of Common Prayer) Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Banner image by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Perseverance in the Age of the Quick Fix.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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