(Actually two different sermons came out of this week's gospel reading, and I'm preaching the other one. It'll go up in a few days)
This, of course, is not always our favorite Jesus story.
Many segments of the church like to emphasize how compassionate Jesus was, how he reached out to the poor, the sick and the rest of the people so-called “decent folks” wanted to overlook. It seems like for a lot of people, the main thing they can call up about Jesus is that he was a nice guy.
But the way Matthew tells this story, Jesus doesn’t sound like a nice guy. Not only does he act like he doesn’t want to heal this poor woman’s daughter, he pretty much ignores her when she first asks for help. When he does finally pay attention to her, he compares her to a household dog.
I’ve heard one interpretation that says this story shows us Jesus was a human being, and like every human being, he sometimes has a bad day. He’s been around the block with the Pharisees again a little bit before this and he probably wants some peace and quiet, when this woman starts shouting at him. So he’s snappish at her, but in the end he remembers who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing and who he represents, so he heals her daughter.
In other words, Jesus is usually a nice guy, and even when he’s not, he has a good excuse, and he does what God calls him to do anyway. We should too.
I’m not sure of this – I feel like I have to be a little bit of a gymnast to follow it, nor am I sure that all Matthew wants me to see is that Jesus is still a nice guy.
Let’s check our setting again. Jesus and the disciples are traveling in the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is in upper Galilee. Most of the people in the area aren’t Jewish. Matthew says the woman is a Canaanite, which probably means she is one of the non-Jewish groups of people who live near those cities.
But when she calls out to Jesus, she calls him “Lord, Son of David.”
She probably meant something when she said “Lord,” but “son of David” wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t Jewish, or later, a Christian. Does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and his importance? Or does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and the disciples as Jews and she somehow knows “son of David” means something to them even if it means nothing to her?
It’s likely, after all, that this woman sought the help of many different healers and teachers. She would want her daughter healed and I doubt she’d much care how it happened as long as it did. So she could have called out to any number of travelers along that road or any one of the teachers that had happened by. Maybe “son of David” was a common way of addressing Jewish men when you didn’t know their names, and maybe she figured none of her people had helped so why not ask those crazy monotheistic Judeans?
So when Jesus first ignores her and then points out he was sent to his own people first, he might very well be challenging her. Are you calling out to me, or to whoever happened to be walking by, he might have asked. You called me Lord, Song of David – is that what you say to all of us? Are you asking me to heal your daughter because you believe I can or just because you’re so desperate you’ll ask anyone?
Her answer shows a little of both, doesn’t it? She is desperate, but she knows if Jesus is the man who can heal her daughter, he can do it whether she is Jewish or not. Either he can heal her or he can’t. If he can heal her, then he either will or he won’t. If I didn’t think you could do it, then I wouldn’t be asking you, might be her answer.
If I’m close on this, then that’s why I think Jesus remarks on her faith when he heals her daughter. Yes, you really do believe I can, don’t you, Jesus might have said. I can and I will.
We don’t always live our lives based on faith, even though we talk about it a lot. And maybe that’s the compromise we make in order to get through the day in a fallen world.
But sometimes we remember we’re the people who may live in this world, but we also proclaim the world the way it ought to be – whole and peaceful and reunited with God. And in those times we answer God’s call to live both in the world the way we say it ought to be as well as the world the way it is.
That’s when Jesus might remark on our faith, too.