Scripture: Matthew 15:10-28 ESV
I promise I’m not going to tell a story about Ringo, our family’s beloved English springer spaniel. This time I want to tell you about another springer that we owned back in the ’90s and 2000s—Presley was the dog we had when our three kids were born and growing up. And like all babies, my kids each spent a lot of time sitting in high chairs. And let me tell you… they were slobs. Just no hand-eye coordination at all! They spilled food everywhere!
So every morning, every afternoon, every evening—for years while our kids were little and being fed by one of us—our dog Presley learned to park himself underneath the baby’s high chair, waiting for every little Cheerio that would fall on the floor—at least a couple of handfuls before all was said and done.
Or maybe our child would spill a bag of Goldfish on the floor… No problem! Presley was on it! It was wonderful.
Maybe you’ve had the experience, too. If so, then you can relate to the Canaanite woman’s analogy found in verse 27: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, they do. And it’s important to remember: Jesus and the woman are using an analogy—one that those of us who’ve had children and dogs can all relate to!
I say this because this passage in verses 21 to 28 contains what has become known as a so-called “hard saying” of Jesus. Because many contemporary readers are bothered by Jesus’ words about dogs. Is Jesus comparing this woman to a dog? We know, for example, that Jews in the ancient world would sometimes use the word “dog” as an ethnic slur against Gentiles. Is that what Jesus is doing? If so, how could Jesus be so rude, so bigoted, so prejudiced?
Some recent New Testament scholars go so far as to say that this is an example of Jesus’ “humanity” on full display—that Jesus was tired and irritable after a long day’s journey—the way any of us would be—and these words just slipped out of his mouth in an unguarded moment. And this woman, according to these scholars, set him straight.Or maybe Jesus didn’t yet understand that his Messianic mission wasn’t simply to Israel but to all the world. So, according to these scholars, this woman taught Jesus something that he didn’t already know.
How do I put this delicately? These recent scholarly interpretations are… utter nonsense. Don’t believe them for a moment!
First of all, how could Jesus be a bigot? Jesus did not sin; if he did sin, he’s not the world’s Savior and we’re not saved! Besides, back in Matthew chapter 8, which long precedes the events of today’s scripture, he already performed a healing miracle for a Roman centurion—a European army officer—and not only did he heal the centurion’s servant, he gave this European Gentile a great compliment: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Where on earth is the so-called bigotry or prejudice against Gentiles?
Also… Jesus isn’t even using the same word for “dog” that Jews might have used as an ethnic slur against Gentiles! In the Greek, Jesus is literally saying something like “little dog,” or “puppy,” or even “doggy”—a dog, in other words, that lives in a house… a family pet. He’s not referring to mangy, mongrel dogs that wander the streets scavenging for food. If you’re going to insult someone, that’s the kind of “dog” you would be referring to. Not a beloved pet.
I mean, if you refer to me as a “chip off the old block,” I’m not going to insulted because you’re calling me a piece of wood! As if you’re insulting my intelligence. I know that you’re not using the figure of speech in this way. Just as Jesus isn’t using the figure of speech in an insulting way!
Besides, do we have any indication here that this woman takes offense at Jesus’ analogy? Of course not!
But she does understand the truth of the analogy… And we need to understand it, too!
And to help us understand, we need to look at what was just happening earlier in the chapter. The chapter begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus this question: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” They don’t mean, “Why don’t they wash the dirt off their hands before they eat—for good hygiene?” They mean, “Why don’t they perform this religious hand-washing ritual so that they can be considered ‘pure’ and ‘righteous’ and ‘holy’—like us? Because if they don’t perform this religious hand-washing ritual, then everything they eat is going to contaminate them and make them unclean!”
And Jesus tells these very religious people that they’re wrong to think that by performing this or any other outward ritual they can be made righteous. Because, after all, Jesus says, you’ve got all this sin and evil right here [point to heart]. And he names some of the sins we find there: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” That’s where the problem is, and there’s no law—either in the Bible or one that you make up, Jesus says, that can begin to solve the problem that’s right here… in your heart!
See, the Pharisees’ biggest problem was not that they failed to keep God’s law; it’s that they thought they could keep it. And they thought they were already keeping it—at least well enough to be considered righteous before God! Never mind that they had all this ugly, evil sin in their hearts!
These Pharisees failed to understand that the ultimate purpose of God’s Law is to convince us that we can’t keep God’s law, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” that we are helpless sinners who need God’s mercy and grace alone if we hope to be saved!
But again, this isn’t what the Pharisees believed and taught. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Two men go up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a notoriously sinful person, a despised Tax Collector. The Pharisee prayed like this: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” And you can hear his self–confidence. You can hear the self- righteousness. You can hear the spiritual pride. “Lord, because I am the kind of person I am, because I do all these good things, unlike all these other sinners, I deserve your mercy, your grace, your favor.”
When the tax collector prays, by contrast, he “dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’”
And Jesus said that only one of these two men—the one you’d least expect—went home “justified,” that is, brought into a right relationship with God… and it was the tax collector, the one who admitted he was a sinner and needed God’s grace alone to be saved.
This is hard for us religious, church-going people to admit. We really want to earn our place in God’s kingdom, don’t we?
One of the wealthiest men in America is investor Warren Buffett, founder of Berkshire Hathaway—he’s number three behind Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and just ahead of Mark Zuckerberg. Several years ago, Buffett made headlines announcing his plans to give away 80 percent of his fortune—which at the time totaled $44 billion. Now it’s almost double that. But at the time he explained his generosity like this: “There’s more than one way to go to heaven, but this is a great way.”
If I were his pastor I’d tell him that there’s not more than one way to get to heaven, and he can’t earn his way in by giving any amount of money! I pray he realizes this before he dies.
But I’m hardly picking on Warren Buffett! We know from surveys that a majority of the majority of Americans who identify as Christians believe that they’ll go to heaven on the basis of their own goodness; because they’re good people; because they do good things.
By the way, this is why Jesus said elsewhere that the “tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you”—before the Pharisees. Because tax collectors and prostitutes already knew they weren’t good enough to be saved; they had no illusions about their own righteousness before God, or lack thereof; they already knew they needed a Savior who could be righteous on their behalf… because they couldn’t do it for themselves!
And this brings us back to the Canaanite woman in verses 21 to 28. She has no illusions about who she is before God: She isn’t one of God’s people Israel; she’s been a pagan, an idolater, a sinner, her whole life. She doesn’t go the temple to pray. In fact, she’s never even prayed to the God of Israel. So she knows she’s not worthy of anything that God can do for her. She knows that if God’s Son Jesus is going to perform this miracle for her and heal her daughter, it won’t be on the basis of her own righteousness.
So… when she approaches Jesus, she begins with very promising words: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” That’s the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Unlike the Pharisees, she recognized her need for mercy—she recognized that she was helpless before God, that she was unworthy, that she needed grace.
But getting back to Jesus’ parable about the dog under the table… here’s the point: this woman not offended by the comparison to a dog because she recognizes the truth of what Jesus is saying with that analogy: “By all means, ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ I don’t deserve whatever soul-saving bread, life-sustaining bread you could ever give me, Lord. All I’ve done, for all of my life, is to rebel against you. All I’ve done is disobey you. And even when I’ve managed to do what you want me to do—outwardly—I’ve usually done it from ungodly, selfish motives. So like any dog in any household, you’re right, I don’t deserve to eat your bread!”
And here’s the thing: If this woman is like an unworthy dog, guess what? So are the Pharisees in the first part of the chapter! And so are you and me…
We’re all dogs!
Isn’t it amazing, therefore, what God has done for “dogs” like us! Because through our faith in Christ and what he accomplished on the cross, we are no longer dogs under the table waiting for crumbs to fall! I mean… that would already be more than we deserve…
But through faith in Christ we are transformed… from dogs under the table… to children with a seat atthe table! From dogs content to settle for crumbs… to sons and daughters of the King who eat a meal fit for a king! Today, tomorrow… and throughout eternity… we’ll have a place at that table! Amen?
So from a dog to a child of the King—that’s one important way that we’re like the Canaanite woman in today’s scripture. But I want us at Toccoa First United Methodist to be like this woman in another way, too!
Let’s notice something: Even when Jesus doesn’t respond to her, this woman keeps on asking. Even when the disciples complain about her, she keeps on asking. Even when Jesus challenges her, she keeps on asking. Like Jacob wrestling God in Genesis 32, the first sermon in this current series, this woman is holding on to the Lord for dear life, and she won’t let go… and she won’t take no for an answer. She’s very persistent. And there’s probably a lesson about persistence in prayer here. But that’s not exactly what I want to focus on right now… What I want us to focus on is not simply how persistent she was, but what she was persistent about; in other words, what she was praying for.
So what was it?
What was she so desperate to ask Jesus to do for her daughter?
She was asking Jesus to rescue her daughter… to set her daughter free… from the devil’s hold over her life. Right? Verse 22, “my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”
Now consider this: In giving us his Great Commission—in Matthew 28—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus challenges us to rescue the lost in the same way that this woman rescues her daughter!
Do we not realize that we are surrounded by a world of people who, like this woman’s daughter, are in need of rescue from the devil? I’m not saying they’re necessarily oppressed by the devil, like this daughter was, but the devil is happy to keep lost people from hearing and responding to the gospel of Jesus! And the Bible says the devil is going to fight us when we try to rescue the lost.
Yet this is what we’re called to do!
Last week, Kevin Watson, a professor from the Candler School of Theology at Emory whom I love and respect, wrote a blog post in which he urged churches to do whatever they need to do to reopen. It’s time, he said. And he didn’t mean to throw caution to the wind. He said there are some areas of the country where reopening might not be possible—for safety reasons. And he said that reopening might look like, well, what we’re doing here at Toccoa First—we have an outdoor service; we have a small indoor service with safety measures in place; and we continue to offer online services for those whose immune systems are compromised and for whom coming to church could be too risky. So for them, by all means, he said, stay home. We’re already doing what he suggested.
It was a thoughtful, pastorally sensitive article.
But it was also convicting to me.Here’s what struck me the most: he said, “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.” Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
You and I know that’s true… because we’re Christians. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” the apostle Paul says. The Bible teaches that the worst thing that can happen to a person is not death; it’s dying without being in a saving relationship with Christ.
And so I responded to Dr. Watson’s article by saying the following: “What if people right now are spiritually dying, apart from a relationship with Christ, because churches remain closed? Shouldn’t many of us Christians [and I’m talking about those who are healthy enough and not immunocompromised or in a high-risk category] shouldn’t many of us Christians take a risk and reopen for the sake of those people who need to hear and respond to the gospel?”
And I get it: We don’t have a lot of lost people right now who breaking down the doors of Toccoa First to hear the gospel. But do you believe that it’s always going to be like that? I don’t.
Don’t you believe that the Holy Spirit can’t do something powerful in our midst to bring revival and renewal to this church and this community? I do. And very soon you’ll be hearing about a couple of initiatives to facilitate change in the area of evangelism.
But one thing that all of us can do right now is to pray!
What if we as a church earnestly prayed a prayer modeled after the prayer of this Canaanite woman. Maybe it would sound something like this:
“Lord Jesus, I want you to rescue my child, my spouse, my neighbor, my classmate, my co-worker, my Facebook friend, my teacher, my professor—this person whom I love who hasn’t yet received your gift of eternal life… Lord, I pray that you would rescue them from the hold that the devil has over them! Because the devil is fighting to keep this person’s soul for eternity, but we pray that you would snatch it away from him! Lord, we pray that you would use me in your mission to reach the lost with the gospel. Lord, let me be a witness to them; and use other people in their lives to be witnesses to them. Rescue them, heal them, save them… for eternity… by your grace!
“Father, my heart is breaking at the thought that people I know are living and dying without being in a saving relationship with you and your Son Jesus… the thought that they could be separated from you for eternity… while knowing, Lord, that I haven’t prayed for them like I should, and I haven’t witnessed to them like I should, and I haven’t invited to church them like I should. I know I haven’t been as faithful to your Great Commission as you have called me to be. But I repent. And I’m telling you this morning that I’m willing to change, and by your grace I know I can.
“So I’m going to be persistent, like this Canaanite woman, in asking you, in pleading with you, in begging you to save the lost! I won’t give up. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer—I love these people too much to give up. The stakes are too high. So I’m going to keep praying and working for their salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
May that be our church’s prayer!