Room For You
All through the month of January we’ve been working our way through a series of sermons called One Year From Now. And throughout this series, we’re trying to help you become the person you want to be one year from now. And you know, that’s not an easy thing to do because we all have different things that we want to accomplish in our lives over the next twelve months.
But even though we all may have different goals that we want to accomplish when it comes to our physical or mental health, or our finances or relationships with our families; there is at least one goal that we – as followers of Jesus – should all have.
So what goal should we all have? Well, this is the way that the Apostle Paul explains it in a letter he wrote to some of the first followers of Jesus. In Ephesians 5, Paul says:
1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2 (New Revised Standard Version)
So Paul says that our goal should be to imitate God. But what does that mean? Well, when Paul tells us to be imitators of God, Paul is telling us that we should try to follow the manner or the character of God. So ultimately, Paul tells us our goal as followers of Jesus should be to be more like Jesus. So that’s the goal we’re focusing on throughout this sermon series. One year from now, we want to help you be more like Jesus.
One year from now, we want to help you be more like Jesus.
But in order to become like Jesus, we have to know who Jesus is. So all month long, we’ve been working our way through the book of Matthew – which is a biography of Jesus – so that we can learn more about who Jesus is. And we’re going to continue doing that today by looking at one of the most challenging passages in all of the Gospels. We find this passage in Matthew 15, and it’s challenging because of the way that Jesus speaks to a woman who came to him for help.
But before we dig deeper into this passage, I have to tell you that as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the movie Forrest Gump. And I know it may be weird to think about a movie when Jesus seems to be talking down to someone, but let me explain what I mean.
There are few movies that have ever captured the public consciousness like Forrest Gump when it was first released. It took home the Oscar for best picture, best actor, best director, and best screenplay – something that only twenty-two other films have ever accomplished.
But Forrest Gump is so much more than just an award-winning film. It also introduced more than a handful of phrases into our cultural lexicon – causing thousands of Americans to walk around saying things like, “Stupid is as stupid does,” or “Life's like a box of chocolates,” or probably the film's most quoted line “Run, Forrest, run.” It's a film that taught us there are at least twenty different ways to prepare shrimp…which include everything from barbequing it to making a sandwich out of it. And it's the only movie I can think of that actually launched a restaurant, where you can sample any of Bubba Gump's famous shrimp concoctions.
But more than any of these, Forrest Gump is a film that gave us all a front-row seat to some of the defining moments of the latter twentieth century, experiencing them all through the eyes of Forrest Gump. And what a life this fictional character lived. He shook hands and shared too much information with Presidents. He spoke at the March on Washington and talked with John Lennon on The Dick Cavett Show. He played football at the University of Alabama and was a world-renowned ping-pong player. And that's barely the tip of the iceberg.
Which makes Forrest Gump pretty unrelatable to me. I mean, I've never met a President (but I have been within a few feet of the First Lady). I’ve never marched on Washington or been a guest on a talk show. I was an average high school athlete that isn't coordinated enough to be any good at ping-pong. I've lived a life that is probably better described as average than interesting. But there is at least one part of Forrest Gump's story that I have no problem relating to (well, maybe two if you count our mutual love of running).
It's a scene that plays out twice in the film, and both times Forrest has just climbed aboard a bus. Both buses are brimming with people – the first is filled with children headed off for their first day of school, and the second is filled with grown men who had just enlisted in the Army. And as Forrest begins walking down the center aisle in search of a spot to sit, the response always comes back the same “Seat's taken.” And poor Forrest is left feeling rejected and alone.
We've all been there, right? Whether it happened on an actual bus when no one wanted us to sit by them, or on a playground when we got picked last for a game of kickball. It's happened on our first day of school when all we've wanted was to find someone to sit beside at lunch, and it's happened on our first day at a new job when all we want to see is a friendly face in the cubicle next to ours. It's happened at big family gatherings, and even during church services. There have been times when we have all felt rejected and alone.
There have been times when we have all felt rejected and alone.
And that was even true in biblical times. And it was definitely the case for the woman Jesus interacts with in Matthew 15. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn to Matthew 15 where we’ll start reading in verse 21. Matthew writes:
21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”
Matthew 15:21-22 (Common English Bible)
Now let's pause here for just a minute. In just the first 2 verses of this passage, we're given the basic information for a fairly typical event in the Gospels. Jesus is traveling from one town to another when someone shows up who needs Jesus' help.
And, since we know a little about the Gospels, and since we know a little about Jesus, we all know what’s supposed to happen next. We’ve seen this movie before. The woman asks Jesus for help and Jesus helps her...that’s just what Jesus does.
Only it’s not what Jesus does in this passage. Instead, as we keep reading in verse 23, Matthew tells us:
23 But he [that is Jesus ] didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
Matthew 15:23-27 (Common English Bible)
So what's going on in this passage? I mean, when we read this passage, we expect Jesus to help this poor woman's daughter…but he doesn't. And Jesus not only avoids helping this woman, he flat-out tries to avoid her altogether. And when Jesus is finally forced to deal with this woman, Jesus isn’t very Christ-like in his behavior.
Let's just be honest here, Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus in this passage. As a matter of fact, Jesus kinda sounds like a jerk. And because Jesus sounds like a jerk in this passage, most religious experts and theological scholars struggle to understand how Jesus could behave this way. As one prominent Christian leader, Brian McLaren puts it:
Their encounter is disturbing because Jesus certainly appears to be a racist. He responds to her request for mercy and healing for her daughter first by ignoring her, then by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, and then by using language that to our ears sounds indefensibly dehumanizing and racist – “dogs” – to refer to her people. Some readers, trying to “save” Jesus from the appearance of racism, along with the appearance of changing his mind, would say that Jesus was simply engaging in wordplay with the woman – that he knew all along that he was going to heal her daughter. However, playing with a distraught mother, and using dehumanizing language to do so, wouldn't “save” him or anyone in my opinion.
And you know what? When you read these eight verses, McLaren is right. This passage does sound racist. We begin seeing this almost from the beginning. In verse 22, Matthew tells us that the woman who approaches Jesus is a Canaanite woman. This is a description that we usually skip right over, but it's there for a reason. However, we simply assume that this is just another biblical place that we don't know much about, so we'd rather hear the rest of the story.
But when we skip over this description we miss out on something important. Let me explain. When this passage refers to this woman as a Canaanite, it’s the only time that the word Canaanite is used in the entire New Testament. And there’s a good reason why this is the only time the word Canaanite is used in the entire New Testament. And do you know what that reason is? Canaanites no longer exist at this point in history, they were conquered long, long ago.
So why does Matthew tells us that this is a Canaanite woman? Well, she was from the area that was once known as Canaan, and she was a non-Jewish woman, but the real reason that Matthew tells us she is a Canaanite woman is to remind us of a particular time in Israel's history, a time when Israel was invading the land of Canaan – a time in history recounted in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, which says:
7 Now once the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to take possession of, and he drives out numerous nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: seven nations that are larger and stronger than you— 2 once the Lord your God lays them before you, you must strike them down, placing them under the ban. Don’t make any covenants with them, and don’t be merciful to them. 3 Don’t intermarry with them. Don’t give your daughter to one of their sons to marry, and don’t take one of their daughters to marry your son, 4 because they will turn your child away from following me so that they end up serving other gods. That will make the Lord’s anger burn against you, and he will quickly annihilate you.
5 Instead, this is what you must do with these nations: rip down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their sacred poles, and burn their idols
Deuteronomy 7:1-5 (Common English Bible)
Are you beginning to see why Jesus referred to this woman as a dog? It's because to the people of his day, she was one. This woman was an outsider. She was someone that Israel has been told to destroy. She was a person that Israel was meant to despise. And Jesus behaves just like any other Jew would have behaved. He ignores this woman and her plea to “Have mercy on me,” because the book of Deuteronomy told the people of Israel they are to have no mercy on these outsiders.
But there's more to this story than first meets our eyes and more to this story than the eight verses of scripture we've read so far. We actually have to rewind a bit, turning back to verses 10 through 20, to see the bigger picture. And this is what these verses tell us:
10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”
12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
16 Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? 17 Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. 19 Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. 20 These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight.”
Matthew 15:10-20 (Common English Bible)
But what does that have to do with Jesus' interaction with this Canaanite woman? Well, Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman gives him the chance to practice what he preaches in these verses. In these verses, Jesus says that what makes a person acceptable to God is what comes out of their mouth...but all of his followers believed that this Canaanite woman was unacceptable because of who she was.
So Jesus used their own stereotype to give the woman the chance to stand against it and prove that her faith was every bit as strong as any of Jesus' followers. And that’s what she does. Jesus even tells her, “Woman, you have great faith,” right before he heals her daughter.
But what is it that makes this Canaanite woman's faith so great? Well, to put it in the simplified logic of Forrest Gump, for her entire life this woman had been told that the “seat's taken.” It's taken by people who are smarter than you, richer than you, more powerful than you, people who are just better than you. It's just the way it was.
But this Canaanite woman refused to accept this reality. She knew that the “seat's taken” mentality wasn't the way the world was supposed to be. She knew that there was room for her, room for her daughter, and room for anyone and everyone like her. And she wasn't going to back down until she was able to have a seat for herself.
So when she meets Jesus, Jesus shows her who he really is. Jesus shows us that God always says, “You can sit here if you want.”
Jesus shows us that God always says, “You can sit here if you want.”
Because in God’s kingdom, there is always room for anyone and everyone including you.