Is God Smiling?

MATTHEW 6 of 12

Last week we were in Matthew 14 and saw Jesus doing the impossible. Jesus was doing what only God does; Jesus was walking on water. Jesus had just fed a crowd of over 5,000 Jewish people and then Jesus went for a leisurely stroll on the sea of Galilee. Now, that story gets told other places by other gospel-writers, but we saw that what intrigues Matthew is that someone followed Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel-writer to tell us about Peter walking on water too. Peter—someone with only a little faith—took the impossible step and began following Jesus. That was the end of chapter 14.

But here in middle of chapter 15, all of Jesus’s teachings throughout the entire gospel of Matthew—every bit of his teaching about loving enemies and having mercy—it all comes to a head. It’s all called into question. The rubber meets the road in our passage today.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 15v21-28)

This is a bit of a troubling story. It surprises us, stretches us, throws us off balance. It makes us struggle with Jesus. All of which is to say it’s a terrific story. But especially in light of race relations across the globe right now, this story feels particularly troubling. Because this is a story where Jesus—on first read—Jesus might seem a little racist.

Jesus has gone into non-Jewish territory—he’s on the coast of the Mediterranean between the cities of Tyre and Sidon (v21), and a woman approaches him begging him to heal her daughter. She’s heard of Jesus—of his spreading the kingdom of God—of his love and mercy and kindness—and she’s sought him out for help. Seems like a pretty typical story so far.

Seems like a pretty standard day for Jesus: “Your daughter has a demon? She’s suffering terribly? Well, let’s go heal her.”

Or Jesus doesn’t even have to go to her house. Back in chapter 8, Jesus had healed a Roman commander’s servant without ever even seeing him (8.13).

This seems like a pretty typical story until it turns out to not be. This woman is crying out to Jesus—begging Jesus—“My daughter is suffering—didn’t you hear me? My daughter has a demon—!” And Jesus and his disciples are. not. stopping. They just keep walking.

Verse 23: “Jesus did not answer a word”

And so this woman keeps pursuing, keeps chasing, keeps calling. This woman must be hysterical because the disciples get to the point of saying (v23): “Can we please just get rid of her? She just keeps crying.”

This is not a story you see every day. This woman is crying out for help, and Jesus and twelve just keep walking. This hysterical woman just wants her daughter to be healed and the great teacher of loving everyone—even your enemies—just keeps walking. She’s crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” but the Son of David appears to have no mercy for her.

What’s going on here? Matthew tells us at the beginning of verse 22. This is a local woman, a woman from the region of Phoenicia. Mark is the only other gospel-writer to tell this story and he just calls her that: “a Syro-Phoenician woman.” Matthew calls her “a Canaanite.” Now, to be sure, this is the general area where the Canaanites used to live. But—best we can tell—there was no group of people called Canaanites in the first century. Matthew is doing something intentional when he calls her “a Canaanite.”

We’ve seen before that Matthew is an extraordinarily Jewish telling of Jesus’s story—he seems to be writing for Jewish people—and this is another example. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a Canaanite is the enemy of Israel par excellence. Canaanites represent everything opposed to the reign of God in the world. They’re the outsiders that are so toxic to the world—so despicable, so opposed to God—that Moses and Joshua said: “Just kill them. Just get rid of them.” The Canaanites aren’t just the enemies of Israel, the Canaanites are considered the enemies of God. That’s how wicked—how bad—the Canaanites were.

And that’s what Matthew intentionally calls this woman. For whatever reason—where she’s from, how she lives, what she believes, whatever—from the perspective of good first-century Jews, this woman embodied everything opposed to the kingdom of God. She’s a “Canaanite.” That’s why the disciples want to get rid of her. That’s why the disciples keep walking.

We can maybe understand that from the disciples—they’re like us, mostly idiots—but what about Jesus? Why does Jesus keep walking? Why does Jesus keep silent? What does the silence from Jesus mean? How do we understand that?

Does it mean he agrees with his disciples? Is he just going to say, “Let’s just get rid of her”? Is Jesus just going to go along with the racial and religious prejudice of the day?

This is kind of important. Because if the headlines and news stories of the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that tension between different people-groups and religions and races still exists. And that tension sometimes leads to awful, horrible, violent kinds of things.

This is the moment when the rubber meets the road for Jesus’s teaching. How will Jesus treat those people that everyone else thinks of as God’s enemies? Are there people—like the Canaanites—whom we don’t have to love? Are there people to whom we don’t have to extend mercy?

(“I know I said to have mercy, I know I said to love your enemies, but it doesn’t really apply to them. “Because of what they believe, because of how they act, because of their color, because of their culture, we’ll just ignore them.”)

Jesus breaks the silence in verse 26 and seems to almost be thinking out loud: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” That’s not the “no, woman, now go away” that his disciples want to hear. But it’s also not the immediate “yes, your daughter is healed” that we would want to hear.

Jesus seems to be pushing back against the impression that he’s just a magical mechanic, fixing whatever needs to be fixed. Jesus is doing a lot of healing—he’s doing a lot of repair work in the world—but he’s also here for other purposes. This is a big clue as we’re reaching the middle of Matthew’s story that Jesus’s mission in the world looks different than we might expect.

But Jesus is processing that his primary mission—his primary task in the world—is not to solve every problem, is not to heal every sick person, is not to cast out every demon. Jesus is pursuing, Jesus is chasing, Jesus is calling, a particular group of people. Matthew is the only gospel-writer to record this bit about the “lost sheep of Israel.” (He records it twice—here and a little earlier in chapter 10.)

Jesus is concerned with calling the people of Israel back to God. Jesus is concerned with calling the people who are supposed to be blessing the world back to their original task of blessing the world. Jesus isn’t just one person trying to immediately heal every bit of the world. Jesus has a bigger picture in mind. Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He’s here to bring Israel into its destiny. Jesus is here to renew and recreate an entire group of people who will heal the world. And Matthew’s gospel especially is the story of Israel’s God coming among his people and his own people—to a large degree—shutting him out.

But God continues to pursue, to chase, to call even the people who are shutting him out. The story of Jesus is about take a strange turn because God himself is going to die for the people who shut him out. “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus seems to stop and say to himself.

But then suddenly this desperate Canaanite woman is on her knees (v25) in front of Jesus. Her voice is hoarse, she’s covered in sweat, from fighting the crowd and trying to keep up, and she’s begging at Jesus’s feet. “Help me, help me, help my daughter.”

If we thought Jesus’s silence was hard to interpret, Jesus’s statement right here is even harder to interpret. He says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v26).

It’s a troubling story. It’s really hard to interpret. We can’t see Jesus’s facial expression. We can’t hear tone of voice. This is either an incredibly prejudiced thing for Jesus to say or an incredibly playful thing for Jesus to say. Jesus is either being a little bit of a racist or he’s being a little bit of rascal.

Is Jesus joining a popular prejudice among first-century Jews, that non-Jews are “dogs”? That they are less worthy God’s love and mercy? Is Jesus saying that he’s here to take care of the true children of God and this woman and her daughter are just “dogs” doomed to suffer and starve?

“It just wouldn’t be right.”

Or is their some mischief in Jesus’s voice? Is he glancing around with a twinkle in his eye? Perhaps he’s saying, “Oh my goodness—it just wouldn’t be right to do this.” And all the while he just can’t wait to show the lost sheep of Israel what true love and mercy look like?

I’m here for the lost sheep of Israel, and this is exactly what they need to see. They need to see me granting mercy to someone that they hate—to a Canaanite. The lost sheep of Israel the people they count as wolves being healed. That’s the best thing I could do for them.”

You can read it either way. You can understand the story either way. There is no note in the margin of the page telling us how to interpret the story. It’s kind of left in our hands.

Is Jesus frowning or is Jesus smiling? Is Jesus saying, “It just wouldn’t be right.” Or is Jesus saying, “Oh my—it just wouldn’t be right.” You kind of have to make a choice. You kind of have to make a leap.

You have to choose how you read the story.

This is actually a larger issue than just our text today. This is actually the dilemma that we’re always facing in the life of faith. Sometimes we feel like this woman—like we’re pursuing God, like we’re chasing after God, like we’re calling out to God in a dozen different ways. And then we feel like we’re getting shut out by God. That thing in our lives isn’t getting fixed. That situation just isn’t improving. That healing just isn’t coming. And there’s no note in the margin of our lives telling us how to interpret life.

We have a choice. Not only in how we think about this small story for a few minutes on a Sunday morning. We have a choice about how we think the big story of our lives and our world. We have to make a choice. We have to make a leap. We have to choose how we’ll read the story: the story of our lives and the story of this world. Do we believe that God is frowning? That God is saying “no” to the things we most need? Maybe God isn’t even there. Or do we believe that despite the way things appear, despite the way I feel shut out by God, despite the way things don’t seem to be changing, that God is smiling? And that God is inviting us to keep pursuing, keep chasing, keep trusting?

That’s what this woman does. She makes a choice about how she’s going to interpret Jesus. Other people who were standing around might have only heard the surface of Jesus’s words. They might have heard what sounded like a “no.” But she trusts Jesus—she trusts the one she’s only heard about—and she suspects that, beneath it all, Jesus is actually saying “yes.”

And so she keeps pursuing, she keeps chasing, she keeps trusting Jesus. You can tell by the way she responds. Her response is the best clue we have on how to understand Jesus right here. She responds with a playful answer, because she hears the playfulness in Jesus’s voice. She says (v27): “It actually would be right because—Canaanite though I may be—dog though I may be—even the dogs get to eat what falls on the floor.”

It’s a bit of a sassy response. It’s a bit of playful response. And Jesus seems to love it. He calls it “great faith” (v28). Last week we saw Peter starting to follow Jesus with little faith, but this week we see what great faith looks like. Great faith looks like trusting God’s goodness despite appearances.

This woman trusts that Jesus is smiling even though she’s feeling shut out.

If you’re continuing to follow Jesus even when it looks like it’s leading nowhere—even when it looks like it’s not doing anything—that is great faith. If that’s where you are right now—if you’re wondering how to understand your own life, if you’re wondering why God is silent, if you’re aching to believe that God is there and that God is smiling—may God grant you great faith. Faith that continues to pursue and to chase and to wait and to trust even it all seems futile and hopeless and meaningless.

May God grant you faith to see his smile—that’s of course what this woman sees.

Jesus breaks into a wide smile and says, “Of course the kingdom is for you too—your request is granted. Your daughter is healed.”And in the very next story—the end of chapter 15—Jesus will go on to feed 4,000 non-Jewish people. They get far more than crumbs off the floor; there are seven basketfuls left over.

That’s why Jesus feeds another giant crowd: because he’s trying to starve racism. He feeds 4,000 non-Jewish people in non-Jewish territory, and it’s like he’s saying,

“Lost sheep of Israel, take notice: all who are hungry can eat from the table of God. The love of God—the mercy of God—is for everyone. The heart of God—the table of God—is open to all. Even Canaanites. Especially Canaanites. Especially those people you think don’t deserve it. In my kingdom, there are no dogs—there are only children invited to a great feast.”

That’s what this table holds before us every week.The overflowing smile of God and the feast of the kingdom. The place where we remember again and again the unimaginable lengths to which God pursues us. He grants us his smile even when there’s nothing good in us. Even while we’re shutting out God—even when we’re hating him and murdering him, he is giving us bread. He’s giving us his body.

May we learn to receive this body. May we taste the love and the mercy of God. May our lives reflect this love. May we never shut out any person. May we never hate any group of people for the Great Shepherd calls them his children. And may we have the great faith to see that Jesus is smiling even when the story is troubling.