Bible Passage: Matthew 15:21-28
Pastor: Pastor Schlicht
Sermon Date: August 20, 2017
A white nationalist rally was held in Charlottesville, VA last Saturday, and since then news of protest violence has developed at a frightening pace. The rally was organized in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate’s top general. However, the forces behind the rally run much deeper than a piece of stone. Cultural prejudice is deeply embedded in the history of our nation and unfortunately is still alive and well today in America. The Southern Poverty Law Center records that there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the U.S. 917 groups of people are regularly meeting together to encourage racism, prejudice, and in some cases even violence against other ethnicities. 917! And those are just the ones they know about. Wisconsin harbors 9 of these hate groups, but thankfully none of them are located in the Madison area. That’s something I think we should take pride in and be thankful for, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any cultural prejudice in our community.
It runs deep here in Madison as well. For instance, go to Forest Hill Cemetery, where one of President Thomas Jefferson’s half-black sons, Eston Hemings, is buried. Ask yourself why he isn’t buried at Monticello with the rest of the family, and then ask yourself why his presence in Madison isn’t something you already knew about. Prejudice in Madison may not be as easy to see as in Charlottesville, but it exists here. It’s found in how segregated Madison is; it’s found inherently in people’s refusal to believe that there could be any racial inequality in Madison. Cultural prejudice is found in every city because really resides in every sinful human heart, to a greater or lesser extent. There is no easy fix for the inner sin of cultural prejudice that humanity has, but the best cure, the only lasting cure, is to look at the Gospel. Because the Christian Gospel is multicultural. The message of sins forgiven and new life in Christ is an invitation that transcends all ethnic culture. The Christian church is meant for all people and cannot let prejudice thrive among its members. That’s why, today, we are going to study an extremely pertinent portion of Scripture found in Matthew 15, which definitively demonstrates the truth of Christian multiculturalism. And through it, we see not just the cure to the problem in Charlottesville, but the cure to prejudice in any heart, even our own.
In the beginning of Matthew 15, Jesus and his disciples had been questioned again by the Pharisees. Sadly, those religious leaders could see nothing in Christ but a breaker of their man-made cultural traditions. So Jesus and the disciples went away from them and crossed over the border into the northern region of Syro-Phoenicia near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This was Gentile land, no longer Israelite territory.
Matthew 15:21-22, Jesus left that place and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. There a Canaanite woman from that territory came and kept crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! A demon is severely tormenting my daughter!” In Mark’s gospel she is called a “Syro-Phoenician woman” which makes sense because they were in Syro-Phoenicia, where people were called Syro-Phoenicians. But Matthew calls her a “Canaanite,” which is very odd. This is the only use of the term “Canaanite” in the entire New Testament. And that is because Canaanites no longer existed. The Phoenicians descended from the Canaanites who were the original inhabitants of Palestine. So to call someone in Jesus’ day a Canaanite would be like calling your friend who is part Norwegian a “Viking.”, or a calling someone who Scottish a Celt. So what is Matthew doing? Well he reminds us that this woman is a descendant of the ancient Canaanites, the people whom Israel fought against for possession of the promised land, the people who lost to Israel, the people who sacrificed children to pagan gods, the people who had seduced some of Israel’s sons and daughters into sin and slavery. These people were the enemy. By calling her a “Canaanite” Matthew brings up the cultural prejudices and ethnic hatred that still boiled beneath the surface. There was such a significant cultural dread of the pagan Phoenicians that usually self-respecting Jews wouldn’t even set foot in their land. The Jews reviled these people. Verse 23, His disciples came and pleaded, “Send her away, because she keeps crying out after us.” The disciples were repulsed by her. Send her away! They didn’t care about her or her daughter. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and this woman, this Canaanite, didn’t deserve him.
This is what happens when followers of Christ hold onto prejudice. Not only do they sin personally, but, even worse, they send people away from Jesus! Prejudice leads Christians to present Christianity as monocultural and therein a deeply-seated sin of self-righteousness is committed. Because, just like the disciples, if you attach your ethnic culture to Jesus, then you will feel like, in a way, you deserve his love and others don’t. For instance, if you grew up in a church that was completely monocultural, you might’ve seen the same cultural and traditional practices repeated over and over until they kind of seem like part of what Christians are. These neutral things, like skin color, a certain type of dress, a certain type of music, a certain type of behavior, etc., are not part of the Gospel. And yet when we see them so much, these neutral, non-essential things begin to be associated with Christianity. We need to be conscious of this. Because all human hearts, the ones that beat in the chests of the disciples, the ones that beat in Charlottesville, and even ours as well, love to create man-made categories, that we just happen to easily fit into, as requirements for being “good” Christians. And if our own categories put us closer to God apart from Christ, then we are believing that in some ways we are more deserving of God’s love. That is self-righteousness.
And the second, and worse thing that Christians do when they hold onto prejudice, is send people away from Christ. This is devastating. Maybe we’ve never said, “Send them away!” like the disciples, but have we ever, by our actions or attitude self-righteously presented the Gospel as monocultural? If our prejudice or hate of a person different from us hinders them from knowing Christ then we must beg for forgiveness. If someone ever comes into Eastside Lutheran and is made to feel unwelcome because of their hair cut or their skin color then I ask forgiveness for every one of us. Because when it really comes down to it, cultural prejudice goes against the very heart of God. God loves the whole world, every person of every tribe, nation, and language and so should we. I cannot say this strongly enough. The true gospel is multicultural, Christ died for all people! God have mercy on the soul that presents the Gospel, whether by word or deed, as monocultural. What special place in hell must be reserved for those who deliberately deny the gospel to those Christ died for? What reward will the devil pay his own who sit inside the church and say “Send them away.” This is an issue close to my heart; I’ve seen too many people driven away by a cultural understanding of Christianity, who feel like they have to become white, or be a republican, or give up their own culture to really be a Christian. I pray this is important to you as well. It certainly is close to God’s heart and we’ll see that as the rest of the story unfolds in Matthew 15.
The disciples asked Jesus to send her away, but Jesus doesn’t tell her to get lost. And the poor woman comes and kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” He answered her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Most people are often scandalized by Jesus’ initial words to this woman and many commentators have performed some interpretive gymnastic routines to explain away the harshness. Some argue that the Greek word here refers, not to a wild dog, but a house dog or puppy. But in my mind this distinction is irrelevant; Jesus insinuates that Israelites are children and that this woman is a dog. That’s an insult in an age, and, in this case, it was a well-known scorn used against Gentiles by Jews. We cannot lessen the force of Jesus’ words here and we don’t need to. Jesus deliberately puts her off, requiring her to understand his true identity, so she doesn’t treat him like one of the wandering shaman or seers with fake magic, to whom Gentiles would appeal for healing and miracles. Jesus is also asking her to recognize that Israel, not Phoenicia, is the nation who worships the true God. That the “children” are firstly those who worship the Lord Almighty, not the those who run after pagan idols. And amazingly, this poor Canaanite woman not only responds well, but responds with faith that puts the rest of the disciples to shame.
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet the dogs also eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She recognizes that Jesus is no mere magician who performs feats for fame or money. By calling Jesus “Lord”, and as she first cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she had already acknowledged him as the rightful king over a nation that had conquered her ancestors, confessing more about him than most of Jesus’ own people were willing to do. And she does not dispute that Israel was God’s chosen nation, but she believes that Jesus has so much power and mercy that he will have more than enough left over from what Israel does not need to heal her daughter. And Jesus, after hearing this, drops the feigned cultural elitism, and says to her, “Woman, your faith is great! It will be done for you, just as you desire.” And her daughter was healed at that very hour. This Canaanite woman had great faith. Not the Jewish disciples, not the pious Pharisees. No, this outsider, this faithful dog was the one whom Jesus commended and performed a miracle for.
I imagine Matthew’s first Jewish readers probably winced at the idea of Jesus calling a Canaanite woman great of faith. But Matthew seems to reply, “Yes, God’s compassion extends to all cultures, even the hated Canaanites.” Matthew cites not only a Canaanite believer here in his Gospel, but he also tells of other foreign believers like the Magi and Roman soldiers—the most extreme sorts of examples. And perhaps even more telling, in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1, we find Tamar and Rahab, both Canaanites, both former prostitutes, both poor women. So even if Jesus words are hard to hear at first, you know that he could not ultimately reject this Canaanite woman for her ethnicity without condemning two of his own ancestors and really his entire mission. You see, Jesus not only saved this woman’s daughter and strengthened her faith, but he also taught an astounding lesson to his culturally polarized disciples. Isn’t it sad to think that the disciples wanted to send her away, and are recorded as showing no surprise when Jesus calls her a dog? Jesus’ first words pumped up their prejudice and elitism, so that when he dropped the act and said, “Woman, you have great faith.” Their pro-Israelite heads probably exploded. This approval of a Gentile’s faith would have been an enormous shock to the disciples; indeed to the Pharisees it was blasphemous. But this wasn’t the only time that Jesus would demonstrate the truth of Christian multiculturalism for them. Just before he left this earth he would give them the command, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
You see, he had this in mind all along. Jesus didn’t just cross cultural borders, he crossed from heaven to earth. He came and embedded himself in the messiness of human culture and prejudice. He was rejected by his own people and handed over into death by those of his own race. He was mocked and spit on by Roman soldiers who said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” In other words, he knew what it felt like to experience prejudice from his own and from foreigners. And yet he died to save them both. He died to forgive those who could not see past their cultural elitism; he died to forgive all people, even you and me. All our sins are gone, even those times we have acted in prejudice or hate, those sins are bought and paid for. We all have been loved undeservedly and fiercely by a holy God. He has made us all his children through Christ.
Today Christianity remains the world’s most culturally diverse religion. I mean, by a landslide, it’s not even close. The Gospel has permeated every continent and every culture. And it doesn’t force anyone to give up their culture, it simply asks them to give up their idols. It’s truly amazing and beautiful for to see Christians of other cultures worshipping the same God that I do. I can even witness that right here at Eastside. The success of our WELS mission work in Africa and China, especially, are incredible demonstrations of this too. It seems like God’s Word is powerful enough to break through cultural prejudice. Seems like God’s love is too big to be limited to one culture or race, even a Canaanite woman can have “great faith!”
My friends, the Gospel is multicultural. What does that mean for us as here at Eastside, as we observe the onslaught of prejudice in the world? How important is our defense of the Gospel as truly multicultural? How important is it for us as Christians to stand up against racism in our community and country? How important is it for us as a congregation to reach out to the different cultures in our community and make them feel welcome here? God bless your contemplation of these challenges and opportunities that stand before us, God bless the actions that you will take to his glory, and God bless your faith so that someday you and I will be welcomed into heaven where we will praise the Lamb who sits on the throne with all the saints of every tribe, language, and nation. Amen.