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Preaching Matthew 15:(10-20)21-28

 

 

Preaching the Lesson - Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

The optional verses for this Sunday introduce the idea of clean and unclean, a subject that continues in the encounter with the Canaanite woman. While the preacher might touch on the first section, the second pericope forms a more cohesive story.
In this passage, we have all the elements of a good drama. The main character and his sidekicks are in a shady neighborhood, a dangerous place where their enemies dwell. Enter the antagonist, who creates a big problem for our heroes. As they confront one another, tension mounts, and the tension is heightened when the main character acts in a way we don’t expect. At the climax, the woman responds in a way that shows she is different than we perceived, and at the end, the action resolves with this great scene of affirmation, when the main character steps over the line and stands with the woman.
The problem with most sermons on this passage is that we preachers rush to tidy everything up, because the text makes us uncomfortable. Jesus makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want Jesus to look bad, so we apologize for him, make excuses for him. We explain away his words with platitudes about how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, as if Jesus needs us to protect him from the judgment of others.
When we do this, we rob the congregation of the opportunity to enter the text, and we spoil a really good story. This kind of passage cries out to be preached in the manner in which it was written. That means the sermon should allow the people to feel the tension inherent in the text. There is discomfort in this passage, and we need to let the people sit with the discomfort.  
The sermon should help hearers feel the tension, see how it builds, rather than rushing to resolution. Such a sermon requires restraint on the part of the preacher.  
The main theme of the passage is who is out of bounds. The story is set in a geographical area that was out of bounds of where good Jewish people would usually go. The Pharisees avoided the area, because they worried that just being there would make them unclean. The disciples must have been uncomfortable about being there, and sure enough, in this troubling place, trouble found them. A Canaanite person, a woman, no less, who should have known that women don’t go up and talk to strange Jewish men, came running to them, shouting at the top of her voice. She cried out for help, telling Jesus that her daughter was tormented by a demon. We are not told exactly what ailed the girl; in New Testament times, many different medical conditions were thought to be caused by demons. But the mother’s worry for her daughter is clear. With a mother’s intensity, she persisted in seeking help from the one she had heard to be a healer.  
We understand her coming to Jesus for aid. What we may not be able to understand is Jesus’ response. We can view it through either the divine lens (“from above” christology) or the human lens (“from below” christology). With the divine lens, we would say that Jesus’ plan all along was to test the woman and to teach the disciples. Reading through the human lens, Jesus learns something here, and his boundaries are expanded.
If we continue to think of this passage in terms of its dramatic teaching value, we might conclude that in his response, Jesus held the disciples’ prejudice in front of them like a mirror, taking it to the extreme in this phrase about throwing the children’s food to the dogs. He said out loud what they may have been thinking! It is always a shock, and somewhat shaming, when we hear our prejudice on the lips of someone else.
I am reminded of the difficult character, Mrs. Turpin, in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin sets our teeth on edge. At night, when she couldn’t sleep, she would occupy herself by “naming the classes of people.” She took pleasure in deciding who was at the bottom of the heap and who was at the top. So satisfied was she with her own place in life, she cried out loud, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything just the way it is! Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!”1
In O’Connor’s story, the taking of prejudice to the extreme functions much like Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman: it is a wakeup call that exposes things we often don’t see in ourselves, things to which, in truth, we would rather stay blind.
We should create a sermon that is true to the nature of the passage, does not destroy the drama with apologies or explanations, but invites the listeners live with the tension of finding themselves inside the story. As the tension builds, the circle of exclusion tightens to the point of pain, and the listeners long to push against it, to fight back the boundaries, to find some relief. When at last the circle is broken and Jesus steps outside the constricting lines, we feel the freedom of release, a deep breath filling our lungs with the grace of God.
This is the kind of text that can perplex the preacher, but when we approach it aright, we have the great joy of expanding minds to see a difficult passage in a new way, and expanding hearts to take in the good news of the great grace of God. In a powerful way, this text allows believers to experience the truth that God’s love cannot be contained by human boundaries.

Dawn M. Mayes

Notes
1. Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 491, 499.                         

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