My first words to you in July last year were words that expressed a great sense of gratitude and excitement to be standing among you all. And it is with great regret that my final words to you don’t embody the same enthusiasm. Today my final words carry deep sadness of what cannot be, and as I mentioned at the beginning of our worship I would like to couch them around one of my favourite texts … this amazing story of the Caananite Woman from the Gospel of Matthew. And I preach it today because well may my heart be sad, and well may yours be that and more, we cant let those feelings dominate us … and so I would like this text to nestle into our hearts … and with it to allow God’s grace to speak to us through the writer of Matthew in telling this story.
The historical background of this Gospel is critical to understand the text. Matthew is writing to a fractured, hostile and divided community. Pressure was palpable from Jews who, well after the Roman ransacking of Israel and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, were wanting to hold on to the only thing that kept them going – the sacredness of their religious tradition. They would not let it be corrupted. And so there was this purging of the faith, most brutally felt by the Christian Jews who were being ostracized by their kindred. And in the midst of this hostility, they too said we must bunker down, we must hold to our treasured beliefs, particularly of Jesus as the Messianic redeemer and of them being the chosen and, therefore they hounded and vilified all those who threatened that, the Gentile Christians, those outside the sacred line of David.
And so if see this as a critical historical issue context of this Gospel, then the message of Matthew becomes so much clearer, because he gives voice to it in his retelling of the stories of Jesus, that they the church might find a solution to their bitter rancor. And the solution goes to the question of inclusion of the Gentiles – to embrace them.
And so right at the beginning we can see in a literary way how Matthew wants to shape this issue. The infancy narratives, the Saviour is born, and what Matthew does is that he intentionally has Magi – wise men from the East – to come and adorn Jesus and welcome him as the Song of David, Son of God. Gentiles not Jews. In fact what is alarming is that no Jew is present in the story. These Gentiles, these Magi, see what the Jews do not, they see not a Star, not the Star but in the Greek it is His Star. The Star of David. And what is introduced at the beginning will end the same way – but more of that in a moment.
More than the other Gospels Matthew is the reconciler but he does it in a literary and carefully crafted way for all his Jewish Christian listeners. He builds them all up and then takes the rug away from them such that their position becomes untenable. In the Jerusalem community Peter was revered but Matthew and certainly Mark take a bit of dim view of him. It is in Matthew that Peter ascribes the right designation of Jesus at ch 16 – Jesus you are the Messiah and the Son of God. Yes – Jewish understanding and Gentile appreciation. And because of this he is given the keys of the Kingdoms of Heaven, he is ascribed as being the Rock on which the Church is built. Amen would all the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s church be saying to this, Amen because of what they have heard and understood. But just after this great endorsement Matthew has a scene where puffed up Peter takes Jesus aside and says to him ‘Jesus you cant do this cross business, you can’t die, we are going to be lead to this glorious rebuilding of our people’. And Mathew has Jesus rebuke the prized priest of the church – Get behind me – Satan and in Greek the words are stark … you are the stumbling stone of the faith. In lovely biting satire, the Rock has become dismantled in an instant. And what Peter didn’t get, and what the Jewish Church community didn’t understand was that the faith is fundamentally about mercy … what Jesus and God require is for them to embrace the least, especially those who are on the outer.
I could go on but in leading up to explaining our text, let me point you to chapter 10 when Jesus issues his first missionary challenge to his disciples and sends them out to evangelise: What is important for us to hear is where he sends them? SLIDE He sends them out only to Jews, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All the Jewish Christians listening to this story would puff their chests out and say … ‘yes, see, we are the ones, Jesus said so and did so with the first believers’. But as the story gathers momentum things don’t go quite to plan … Matthew recounts that these first missionaries struggle with understanding the essential message of the faith, things go wrong, and then finally Jesus meets a Gentile. Chapter 15.
As the text describes Jesus and the disciples are positioned geographically in the further most point from Jerusalem. Tyre and Sidon. It is Gentile territory. But the metaphors often escape our western minds. Here the furthest point from the heart of the faith Jerusalem, here in Gentile territory after all that has been said in terms of mission, here Jesus meets a woman. This woman is a Gentile, but worse she a Canaanite! Remember them in the OT. Matthew says yep…that’s right …she was one of them. Hated and despised by the Jews. This Gentile…sorry this Canaanite … sorry this woman!!! confronts Jesus. Son of David could you help me?
What does Matthew have Jesus do in this story … he plays the Jewish line. First, he says nothing. Ignores her. Then he says, ‘I am only for the Jews – they are the chosen’. Rejects her. Remember, he has just sent out the disciples in their mission only to Jews so he is reinforcing that. But what happens next: she doesn’t go away but begs Jesus: ‘Please, I know who you are, I know what you are saying and the place of the Jews – they sit at the table of Yahweh but I beg you … help me … I can take a small place I can take the place behind I can take the small crumbs that fall from the table but please I beg you … I see you I know who you are … help me. In this woman are the cries of the Gentile Christians in Matthew’s church. Help me, embrace me
And at that Jesus answers her: What you … what your people want … is done. Done … not just is your daughter healed but your people are recognized, included in the vision and mission of God. Jesus embraces her! And he says woman ‘Great is your faith’. No one else is heralded in this way in the Gospel of Matthew. Even the most close to him … the disciples in ch 8 have little faith, and often struggle to understand Jesus. Peter certainly not. This Gentile, though, has great faith.
And what we can see in a literary way in this Gospel is that henceforth there is a change in Jesus. This encounter, this story then becomes the bridge in the Gospel story, the turning point which climaxes right at the end at ch 28: 19 and we who are evangelicals often miss the significance of it, but here at the end is Matthews clear message to his church … Do you remember it?? The risen Jesus says to all those around him, in his last parting words, ‘Go now, go to all the world and teach and baptise’. Here you see Matthew again pulls the rug out of what was said at ch 10. Here is a new missionary call. Jesus wants us to embrace Gentiles and Jews, everyone – all are included in the plan of God. Here therefore because of the Canaanite woman’s faith, an unnamed Gentile, is God’s blueprint for mission and how we are to respond in all of our relationship building: all are to be embraced; and that is what Matthew therefore wants to say to his church. Let not difference or division divide you. Embrace each other.
Now, I wanted here to give you an understanding as to what ‘embrace’ might mean technically. But that might weigh heavily with you, so instead I thought I would tell you a story. A story about a love affair between a young girl and her doll. Its a true story and I’m not telling you the source. The girls name was, lets say, Rosemary and when she was 3, she was introduced to her rag doll. Rosemary and her family were flying overseas. And when they arrived at their destination there were tears of exhaustion in the child’s eyes and on her cheeks. At the airport friends were waiting to greet them. One of them had bought her a welcome gift – the rag doll. And there at the airport arrival lounge, began a love story though in the beginning Rosemary was too tired to fully acknowledge this new person who would enter into her life or even say thankyou to the person who gave her this new friend. She did however clasp the doll to her face, basically to hide the tears, and then to wipe her tears dry.
That night Rosemary went to bed with her rag doll, the friendship wasn’t strong, they really hadn’t become fully acquainted, but it was clasped tightly in her arms, still drying the tears.
Next night the tears were gone but not the rag doll, nor the next night or the next as days turned to months, months to years. That rag doll became the most precious thing Rosemary possessed. She had other toys of far greater value – but none that she loved as much as she loved her rag doll.
In time the rag doll became more a rag than a doll – it got dirty and apparently wasn’t holding too well in the wash. The clothes were worn, an eye had dropped off. The sensible thing to do was throw out this bundle of rags. But that was unthinkable. It was still adored by Rosemary; she loved this doll, this bundle of rags; she loved it like nothing else, it meant so much to her: this doll had shared intimate moments with her, it had shared the good and the bad, and even Rosemary’s deepest secrets. The two had become inseparable, at night anyway.
And it became clear that, if you loved Rosemary you respected her love for the rag doll. If you were to be thinking of Rosemary, if you were to embrace her you embraced what she held dear.
Embracing another means cherishing who they are and accepting them. That’s hard, that confronts us and sometimes it can be quite challenging. But if you love someone, if you really love, then you respect them: you value their experience, their culture and their situation. You listen, you welcome, you hold them, you value them. You may not agree with them, you may feel offended even by them – and it might even be like Rosemary’s rag doll, that you have this driving compulsion to get rid of that which has become an eye-saw to you. The disciples wanted to get rid of this woman, and no doubt the Jewish Christians in Matthews church wanted to get rid of the impure Gentiles in their midst. They were challenging too much of what they held dear.
BUT if you truly love then you respect who they are and what they love. If you truly love you tell the truth, the honest truth, and that way you can understand, you can unpack things; that way hopefully you can learn the depth of this word ‘embrace’. The Kingdom is proclaimed, the Kingdom is lived the Kingdom is experienced, not with imposed constraints, not with rejection, not with fear, not with judgment, not with hostility, but with love.
This word, embrace, this experience, this lesson from Matthew is what I would like to leave you with. I am sad to say that here my experience has not been one of deep embrace and it has not been one where I can say I have had much time to fulfill my calling. And now you and I – Minister and Church – need to let go of some dreams. Well that may be, but what we are called to do, always in the faith, is to keep loving, and yes to embrace. And this is what we must do now, especially now as we as Church go through some hard times. This is Matthew’s call to his church, and this is Matthew’s message to each of us: to rally with each other, to hold each other in mind. Yes we may be sad and perhaps angry but hear Matthew’s plea to his church. Embrace each other in love. Embrace each other in warm hospitality, tell truth, peel away the rancor, wrestle with the deeper questions and the hurt honestly and openly, address what we must, respect each other and look toward the hope that I spoke about last time. It will be difficult, but when we do that, as we do that, I believe Jesus says to us ‘Great is You Faith’.