A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 20, 2023 by Revd Angela Sheard
Reading for address: Matthew 15: 21-28
Several months ago, I was on my way home from St Martin’s, walking up Kilburn High Street towards my flat. It was a crowded street and as I weaved my way through streams of busy people, I locked eyes with someone else in the crowd, who lingered by the side of the road. He was unshaven and had a certain tired and desperate look in his eyes. Perhaps sensing that he might want something from me, I almost immediately looked away and kept moving. A few paces further up the high street, I heard a voice behind me.
“Miss! Reverend!” With a jolt, I realized that I had forgotten I was wearing my clerical collar. No turning back now, I thought. “Can you buy us some food? We haven’t eaten for two days.” He gestured to his companion who was further away down the street and who looked at me with fear in her eyes. I agreed and we walked together down the high street, my eyes scanning the shops for a supermarket. “I think there’s a Sainsbury’s a bit further down” I mumbled. Perhaps I could get them some sandwiches? I thought anxiously. “But I want something hot – can I have something hot?” replied his companion, who had by this point caught up with us. She surveyed the cafes and restaurants in front of us. I hesitated, wondering whether this whole thing was a good idea. Did I have time for this before my evening Zoom meeting? The man who spoke to me initially looked at a specials board out on the pavement. “Could we get a full Irish breakfast – to share?” he asked.
I agreed, and as we waited for the food, he told me his story. He wanted to know about me as well, and we ended up having an extended conversation. I told him about the Connection, the homelessness charity at St Martin’s, and he said that he would visit and see if they could help. Before the food was ready, he went outside to check on his partner. “She can’t come inside, she’s got mental health problems” he explained. I collected their order and handed it over on the street. “Thank you – I won’t forget this” he said, as they walked away. I haven’t forgotten it either.
Our Gospel reading tells a story of Jesus and his disciples also being reluctantly dragged into an encounter with someone on the road. Initially, they respond not only with suspicion but with outright rejection. Jesus doesn’t answer her at all, and his disciples urge him to send her away, “for she keeps shouting after us”. Now, during his public ministry Jesus meets a lot of people on the road, and he almost invariably notices them and engages with them. So why does he ignore this particular woman?
In order to better answer this question, let’s rewind a little. In the earlier part of our Gospel reading, Jesus is giving his disciples some teaching about what defiles and what does not defile. He tells them that ultimately, what defiles is not whether someone eats with unwashed hands, or what they eat, but rather what proceeds from their mouth and their heart.
As if to underline his point, Jesus then travels into Gentile territory. More than this, he travels into the territory of Tyre and Sidon, regions which represented Israel’s historic and threatening enemies. The woman is also described by Matthew as a Canaanite – whereas Mark uses her contemporary ethnic identification of ‘Syro-Phonecian’, Matthew identifies her using the traditional way that Israel’s enemy is identified in the Hebrew Bible. All this accentuates the contrast between Jesus and this woman that he encounters on the road. The question of what defiles and what does not defile has been brought to a head, not in words but through a real-life situation. But if anything, this makes Jesus’s reaction even more puzzling. Why hasn’t he put his teaching into practice?
I think that what Jesus says and does makes more sense if we consider who is really at the centre of this story. In most of the Gospel stories from his public ministry, Jesus is undoubtedly at the centre – it is his action that, in various ways, brings about the kingdom of God. But in this story it is not Jesus but the Canaanite woman who is at the centre. When Jesus arrives in Tyre and Sidon, it is the Canaanite woman who shouts to get his attention. It is her loud and provocative presence that then prompts the disciples to speak to Jesus about her, asking that she be sent away. When Jesus answers the woman but does not grant her request, she physically places herself in his way by kneeling before him. She will not take ‘no’ for an answer! And this time, after two rejections from Jesus, she succeeds in drawing him into conversation.
In her outcry the Canaanite woman commands Jesus directly saying, ‘Have mercy on me!’ and ‘Help me!’ These words might remind us of another part of our scriptures – the psalms of lament. In these psalms, the Psalmist cries out to God for salvation and deliverance. One of the most well-known is Psalm 22, which begins with words that Jesus uttered on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These psalms are prayers of heartfelt longing, of pain at the brokenness and injustice of the world. In the tradition of ancient Israel, these psalms have a particular structure: the psalmist addresses God directly, makes known their complaint and asks God to rectify the situation, sometimes by giving God motivating reasons to act.
In her encounter with Jesus, the Canaanite woman addresses Jesus directly as ‘Son of David’, tells him of her demon-possessed daughter, and asks him directly to help. When Jesus responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the woman responds by giving him a motivating reason to act: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. The Canaanite woman is therefore, in Matthew’s Gospel, the embodiment of a psalm of lament. It is not just her words that resonate with these psalms – it is her very being. This woman courageously and honestly places the brokenness of herself and her daughter before God and insists that God fix the situation. In this story, she is a psalm of lament.
The psalms of lament have one other common feature: after naming their distress and abandonment, the Psalmist praises God for having answered their prayer. What can account for this change? Well, when these psalms were prayed in ancient Israel, the priest was thought to have addressed the people with words of reassurance which were called a ‘salvation oracle’. In the midst of their pain, fear and need, a word of God entered to transform the brokenness of the situation and to open up new life-giving possibilities. These possibilities are not about a potential future; they are about the present reality. In these psalms, the people of Israel brazenly placed their needs before God and demanded God to act; and God responded. After the Canaanite woman’s persistent impinging upon him, Jesus grants her request with the words, “Let it be done for you as you wish”, and with the healing of her daughter.
This is the lament turning to praise; the answer to her prayer. There is a surprising and rich irony in this story – this person, who has shown herself to be the full heir to Israel’s tradition of lament, is in fact not only a woman and a Gentile but a Canaanite, an enemy of Israel! Indeed, she is a fuller embodiment of Jewish traditions than Jesus’s own disciples, who try to dismiss her. Her bold and vigorous faith links her to all those in Israel who cling to God’s promises of faithfulness. She is not a Jew; nevertheless, Matthew portrays her as fully Jewish.
But there is something even more astonishing about the Canaanite woman – the effect she has on Jesus. Jesus himself was changed by the beautiful faith of this woman, and by her impingement upon him. She knows who Jesus really is – the bringer of the kingdom of God – and her insistence frees Jesus to be fully who he is. In this story it is the Canaanite woman who is the liberator. In this story, Jesus resists healing her daughter and feeding her with “the children’s food” – the food of Israel. And yet, immediately after this story Jesus goes on to heal many people who are sick and to feed 4000 men, women and children. The Canaanite woman reminded Jesus of his life-giving promise to the world, and after his encounter with her Jesus moved to fulfil that promise.
As I told you all the story of my encounter with two others on Kilburn High Street, I narrated the events very much from my own perspective. But I think the two people that I met should be at the centre of the story. I had been initially reluctant to grant their request – perhaps something in me was afraid of their boldness and their desperation. But through their persistence, they pushed me into becoming far more generous than I had intended to be, both with my money and with my time. Perhaps this story invites us to consider how we, like Jesus, can be transformed through the bold petitions of people who we might easily ignore or dismiss. The persistent and vigorous faith of the Canaanite woman transformed Jesus into the saviour he is called to be. Likewise, perhaps our own interactions with those who we consider outsiders can transform us into the saints – the holy people of God – that we are called to become.