Matthew 15: 10-28 Jesus teaches his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. Almost immediately, this teaching is tested when a woman considered to be pagan and unclean approaches him for help.
There are three key words that I want you to remember in today's gospel reading. You may think that they are DISCIPLE, JESUS, HEAL, but they aren't the ones.
The key words are: FOREIGN NUISANCE DOG
It is through these words, that we will learn what really transpired between Jesus, his disciples and a woman. FOREIGN, NUISANCE and DOG will show us the meaning of this text, perhaps in a way that we hadn't thought of before.
You could summarize today's reading simply like this: Jesus was walking through the country side when a FOREIGN woman asked him to heal her daughter; but the disciples thought she was being a NUISANCE, and even Jesus thought she was acting like a common DOG in the streets, until she said the right words to him. And then he healed her daughter.
The word “foreign” is something that doesn't belong together or of the same family, we could say - like the dust in my eye, “foreign body”; or “foreign country” a place outside of my own country. “NUISANCE” can either describe actions that make the person a problem, or something that is out of control, like weeds in a garden. Lastly we have “dog.” Dog has a dual meaning. Dog is mostly thought of as a long-time family pet; your cute and lovable pal, best friend, or your hunting companion. “Dog” can also be “dog-tired”, “worked like a dog”, or the “dog-days of summer.” But to some people, Dog is that barking beast next door, or that animal that attacked you.
Now that we are familiar with the meanings of the key words, FOREIGN, NUISANCE and DOG, let's try a summary again.
And so we find Jesus, walking through the country side, in an area that he hoped would keep him from being hounded by the“pop a rozzi” of the day - the people who had heard of his miracles and powers of healing, the ones who clamored around him wherever he went. Jesus had hoped to be left alone, except for His disciples who accompanied him on this journey. A FOREIGN woman, who cried out to him by name, begged him to heal her daughter of demons. The disciples were embarrassed by her actions. Without giving Jesus a chance to reply, the disciples step in and advise him, “Give her what she wants, get rid of her. Do you know what she is?” She was a NUISANCE and the only way they saw to shut her up was to respond quickly and end it – a common reaction.
She wasn't one of them, she was an enemy, like a common street DOG expecting more than she deserved. At first Jesus seemed to ignore her. But she had in fact, called out to him by name, hadn't she? “Sir, Son of David.” By calling Jesus “Son of David” she was using his correct name; she must have heard of his miracles.
This name, had stirred Jesus with compassion, but he didn't let her know that immediately. She might have used the right name, but who was she to call him that? She was a Canaanite Gentile – an enemy to the Jews, the Jews that Jesus came to save. It was like saying, “ok, lady, you got my attention. But how do I know you're for real? You could have overheard someone using this name with me.”
How does Jesus respond to her? He refers to her as a dog, which was a scavanger, a savage, but the woman replies that even the dogs get their share from their master. Not only was she calling Jesus by his right name, but she is telling him that she knows she is at his feet yet calls him master.
Besides Jesus, there are a few key people in this story, too. We have the disciples, the chosen few, who left their lives and families behind to follow Jesus; and we have the ones who chase after Jesus because they've heard of his love and miracles, but have never or may never want to experience them first hand, because they know what's best for themselves.
By the time of Jesus, the people of Israel had been foreigners for so long that we might think they would have had heightened sensitivity to the stranger in their midst. The Law of Moses specifically addressed the need for faithful Israelites to look out for the widow, the orphan, and the “sojourner”, someone not of Israelite descent who lived among the Hebrews. These foreigners were under the protection of God.
Listen to Isaiah 56: 6-8: “and foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord, to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.......he who gathers the exiles of Israel: I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.” This reading tells us that they were welcome at God's holy mountain, and their sacrifices were acceptable to God. But what we see in our gospel for today is that by Jesus's day, the Israelites' attitude toward foreigners had changed. Then a foreigner was no longer a member of a protected and welcome group but could be anyone who was simply unknown or away from home.
If we were to put ourselves into this story, I would imagine that not one of us would want to be the NUISANCE, the one who is so persistent that they are a pest. I also believe no one would want to be the DOG who was a scavanger, looking for more than its share. How many of you then would consider yourself a FOREIGNER? Depending on our age, at one point everyone who lived in the United States was a foreigner or a descendant of a foreigner. All of our families came from somewhere else. But few of us think of being a foreigner. Even fewer of us have had an opportunity to actually experience being an outsider. No one wants to be that either.
Now with the key words and key people together, here is one more interpretation of this text that puts our Gospel message in today's language.
And so we find Jesus walking through the country side in (your hometown). There are those that chase after him because they are skeptical – they want to see his miracles for themselves; perhaps test him, but have no real interest in experiencing his love. As Jesus is walking along the Heritage Trail, a stranger, a drunken woman of simple means immerges from the trees, and cries out to him as he passes by. She begs him to heal her daughter of drug addiction. Jesus slows but keeps walking. His followers position themselves between Jesus and the woman, and try to find an easy way to help her, to quiet her down, so that she will not bring any negative attention to their dear Lord and Savior, Jesus. Afterall, she and her kind are the drifters who have already requested help over and over and over. What is she doing to change her ways and help her daughter anyway? Because His followers know Jesus needs some contemplative time right now, they hope their efforts satisfy her so Jesus can get on with his walk. Instead, Jesus responds to her not with the same frustration that his followers used, but with a quiet tone, “You savage and scavander”as he remembers that she called him by name. He is humbled by her willingness to put herself in the public arena in the shape that she is in, and stand apart from her fellow alcoholic friends to request help from him. And when he challenges her, she bares her soul by admitting that even the scavangers and savages, even the dogs get food from their masters. She had proclaimed her faith in him. She had put herself at her Master's feet in humility. Our dear Lord and Savior Jesus praised her for her deep faith! He granted her request and her daughter was healed.
Perhaps you never thought of the key words – FOREIGNER, NUISANCE and DOG as describing your faith in Christ Jesus. We don't look at ourselves as a Foreigner until we acknowledge that we go our own way and get separated because we haven't trusted God's direction for our lives. We certainly couldn't be a nuisance could we? until we beg God to respond to our prayers, promising beyond our abilities. We could never be the scavanger, expecting more than we deserve, could we? Until we admit that we are self-righteous, and humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. Today's text makes us look at who we are as a follower of Christ, and reminds us that the same Grace (GRACE = God's Redemption At Christ's Expense) of God, the same love of Christ that is offered to the foreigner, the nuisance or the scavanger, is the also offered to each of us.
Today's text also gives the Church as a whole the image of Mission. Every community is filled with people who are hurting, tormented, sick and oppressed. The Church must be in and of the Community to share God's healing with the world. It is much easier to help to those we do not know, cannot see or hear about. In sharing the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church receives the strength to enter this world and bring comfort, healing and justice to those in need. May we see ourselves as the body of Christ and witness to foreigners the universal message of God's grace, just as we receive him ourselves.
Dear Lord, we give you thanks for women and men in every age who have devoted their lives to you. Gather us with all the peoples of the world into your wide and loving embrace, here and in the life to come. AMEN