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Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, send us your Holy Spirit, to me that I may preach well, and to all of us that we may hear well. Amen.
In our reading today, we get to see the wonderful way in which the Gospel goes out to all people. It is a natural thing for Christians to want to share their faith in Jesus. And in the history of the church, Christians have always sought to spread the Gospel not just among people in their own neighbourhoods and down their own streets, but to all nations. I am not simply talking about helping people of all nations in material ways. We know that there are many people all throughout the world who live in poverty, and need water, food, and all kinds of physical help. But I am talking about bringing the message of Jesus Christ, crucified on Good Friday and risen from the dead on the third day—this message still needs to go out to the ends of the earth.
In our reading today, we have Jesus travelling. He has just been in Jerusalem, talking to the Pharisees and the scribes. Now, he goes north to the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is in modern day Lebanon. This was a long way to travel in those days, and would have taken a few days on foot. For us today, it wouldn’t take very long, since Jerusalem in Israel to Tyre in Lebanon is about the same distance as Maryborough to Brisbane.
And so, Jesus goes a long way on foot, to another country, a foreign land, to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and a Canaanite woman comes out to him. Now what is significant about this?
Canaanites were descended from a man in the bible called Canaan. Often, when we hear the name “Canaan”, we often think of a place, like when Abraham was sent to the land of Canaan. But this was the land where the descendants of Canaan lived. Right back in the book of Genesis, we read about Noah and the flood, and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japeth. In Genesis 9, we read: The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japeth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) [The author here makes a special point of telling you about Canaan here.] Then it says: These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
Now after this, we read about a very unusual event, where the old man Noah decides to go out and plant a vineyard. We read: Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
Now what’s going on here? Why was Noah so harsh in dealing with Ham and his son Canaan because of this? This little event reveals something about Noah’s son Ham, that for a long time he has secretly despised and hated his father. Then one day, when he catches his father having done something stupid, instead of covering up his father’s shame, he goes and tells his brothers about it. This passage teaches us a wonderful lesson about the way in which we might think about our own father. Our earthly fathers were all sinners—I am a father too, and I know that I mess up being a father constantly. But do we then expose the shame of our fathers and make fools of them?
So, what happens as a result of this event, is that Noah pronounced a curse on Ham’s son Canaan, meaning that he and his descendants would be a servant of servants to his brothers. God’s chosen people, the Jewish people, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and even Jesus himself—were descended not from Ham and Canaan, but from Noah’s son, Shem.
So what does this have to do with our reading? The woman in our reading was a Canaanite, meaning that she was a person who came under the curse that was a upon this family, or tribe. And we should also take notice of the fact that this is a woman who comes to Jesus, not a man. Abraham was told to live in the land of Canaan, and yet, he did not want his son Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman. When Isaac was older, he said to his son Jacob: You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Isaac and Jacob had to go back to their own people to choose a wife.
And yet, here comes a Canaanite woman to Jesus. She comes from a tribe that has been under a curse almost from the time of Noah’s flood, and she is a woman—the kind of woman that even Abraham and Isaac would never have wanted as a wife for their own sons.
And so this woman comes to Jesus and she says: Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.
This woman is a desperate woman. She is helpless, and she comes to Jesus on behalf of her own daughter. He daughter will grow up to be another Canaanite woman, just like her. And she says that her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.
It’s a strange thing that in the bible, there is very little mention of demons before Jesus comes along. There are maybe 4 or 5 passages that mention them in the whole of the Old Testament. But as soon as Jesus begins to preach, all of a sudden there are people who are demon possessed, or oppressed by demons everywhere. In fact, when Jesus first preaches in the synagogues, it is the demons that cry out first and recognise him as the Son of God.
Now, in our culture, people generally don’t believe that demons exist, and this is important, because it means that very few Australians would probable ever come to Jesus themselves and ask him the same thing that this woman in our reading asks him. People sometimes think that if Jesus were alive today, we would be simply talking about these people as being mentally ill. But it’s not as simply as that—illness is illness, disease is disease, and mental illness is mental illness. Demons are demons, and sometimes they have something to do with things and sometimes not. Sometimes people need medical treatment, and sometimes some problems can only be healed with prayer. In the Gospel of Mark, it says at one point: Jesus healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. Jesus did both things: they were not always one and the same thing.
Now, we believe as Christians that God created visible creatures, like human beings, men and women, and animals and birds and insects and reptiles and fish, and all kinds of things. But he also created invisible creatures, which we call angels. Angels are creatures made by God, which don’t have physical bodies. God the Father and God the Holy Sprit also doesn’t have a physical body, and neither did Jesus, the Son of God, until he took on a human body when he was conceived in the Virgin Mary’s womb. But the difference between God and angels is that God is the creator, and angels were created by God like us.
Now, a demon is an angel that has fallen into sin. But demons weren’t created in the image of God, only human beings are created in the image of God. And so, Jesus only died on the cross to save his fellow human beings, like us. He did not die to save Satan, or to save demons. Jesus sends his fellow human beings the forgiveness of sins, and he cast out Satan and his demons and sends them back to hell where they belong.
What has happened in our reading is that a demon has entered into this woman’s daughter, an unclean spirit, or an evil spirit, a rebel angel who has nothing better to do than to make a pest of himself. And this has resulted in something strange happening to the woman’s daughter, which we’re not told about. But whatever was happening made this woman so anxious and worried that the only thing she thought she could do was to come to Jesus.
But this also takes us back to the difference between God’s chosen people, the Jewish people, and the Canaanites. When the people were to enter into the promised land, God gave them a particular warning not to do the things that these people did, especially with respect to worship. In Deuteronomy 12, we read: When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
This is what God says about the Canaanites. And yet this woman has broken the trend—she is not going to solve the problem of her demon-possessed daughter by burning her, like many of her people, in order to appease some false god. Instead, she comes to Jesus, the true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and she wants to listen to him. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses says: These nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. But the LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [like Moses] from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.
This prophet that Moses prophesies about here is Jesus. Moses says: It is to him you shall listen. When Jesus was being transfigured on the mountain, and the cloud came down, God the Father even says: This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. Jesus fulfils this prophecy of Moses. The people should listen to this prophet, and not listen to the fortune tellers and the diviners of the nations, of the Canaanites.
Isn’t it amazing? Jesus had been just talking to the Pharisees and the scribes, who were Jews—they were God’s chosen people. And yet, they didn’t want to listen to Jesus. And yet, here’s a Canaanite woman, who comes from a people who have a terrible history, and terrible practices, and she turns her back on all of that, and she comes to Jesus. She wants to listen to him.
Now let’s look at the conversation that happens between this woman and Jesus. This woman has quite some struggle—and Jesus seems behaves in a way that is not the way we are used to seeing him behave.
After she came to Jesus and presented her need to him, we read: But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” Maybe she thought that the disciples could put in a good word for her. But Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In some sense, we see this is true. Even though Jesus later sent out his disciples all throughout the world, he himself stayed close to home. It’s as if Jesus were gathering his disciples close together, and training them before he sent them out. All of the disciples were Jews, and every book of the New Testament was written by lost sheep of the house of Israel, like his disciples. But here Jesus is in another country. He helped people at home, why not here? Why did Jesus go to Tyre and Sidon, if he was only send to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?
But then the woman doesn’t give up. She comes to him desperate and helpless and anxious. We read: She knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” But Jesus did not change, but answered her with harsh words. He said: It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But the woman also does not give up, but she takes Jesus words about dogs, and she is happy to take the insult. If the hat fits, wear it, she thinks! I know that my people are dogs—I know that my ancestor Ham was a dog, laughing at his father while he was naked, and drunk as a skunk. I know that my people sacrificed their own children to their false gods. I know that I am a woman of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Jesus—you are my only hope—if you call me a dog—even if I must grit my teeth between my tears—a dog I shall be. And so she says: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.
And then Jesus says: O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. And we read: Her daughter was healed from that hour.
Now, we can too often misunderstand this passage as if when we pray to God we actually have to overcome him and beat him at his own game and force him to answer our prayer. We might also think about Jacob who wrestled all night with God. We can often think that in prayer we have to wrestle with God and defeat him.
But if this is what we think, it’s not going to take us long to realise that this conflicts with everything else that the bible teaches us about prayer and about God himself. An old Christian writer says: “We must try to find an interpretation which is in harmony, both with what God is, and what prayer is, and this is proclaimed to us throughout the whole bible.” (Ole Hallesby, Prayer, p 105).
So why didn’t Jesus answer the woman when she asked for help, and even asked in such a humble way? Is this because he didn’t care about her? No—of of course he cared for her. And why did Jesus say that he was only sent to God’s chosen people? Jesus had healed the servant of a Roman centurion before—he wasn’t a Jew.
When Jesus has a strange way of doing something, we always know that he has a special reason for doing it in that particular way.
Think about the words from our reading: Jesus did not answer her a word.
Maybe you have cried out to Jesus about something, and yet from Jesus, it seems as though all he has to say to you is cold silence. And then after some time again, it seems that all he has to say is some harsh word, some stern word from the Scripture, that crushes you. Think about the woman here who heard Jesus say that he was only sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and what he says about the dogs.
But don’t we know that God is generous, and loving, and friendly? In James chapter 1, it says that God gives generously to all without reproach. We know that Jesus has the capacity to give us everything we could ever dream of, and more!
You might know the passage about when Mary and Martha asked Jesus to come and heal their brother who was sick. But Jesus didn’t come. But when he did come, he was dead. The sisters said to him: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But did Jesus not care for them? He comes later, not simply to make him well, but to raise him from the dead.
And so, here is this woman in our reading, a desperate woman who cares about her daughter. And Jesus cares about her daughter too. But Jesus cares about the mother too, and he wants to show to everyone what a great faith this woman has. Jesus wants to bless her, and gives her the cold shoulder only so that he can show her the light of his face even more brightly than she could have ever expected. She realises that the whole conversation was not a fight, but a gentle game of her loving Saviour drawing her closer and closer to him. And this woman is then for us one of the most amazing examples in the bible of what it means to persist in prayer and to throw ourselves at the mercy of God.
And what a wonderful thing it is for us too, to have the same Saviour, who has allowed the gospel to preached even in our country too, so that the words of the psalms are fulfilled even here among us: Praise the LORD, all you nations! And then what a wonderful thing it is to come to Jesus just like his disciples and to say to him: Lord, teach us to pray!
Lord Jesus, we thank you for rescuing us and bringing us into your sheepfold. Encourage us, and lead us, and guide us, and even when we feel discouraged help us to trust in you. Amen.