This was a dark week in our country. Images of evil and hate filled our screens. In times like this, I find myself looking to the scriptures for glimmers of hope. This time I found myself in chapter 15 of Matthew’s Gospel. In this chapter, Matthew tells three stories that lead the reader to the same deep root message – a message of hope and possibility for these dark days. Here’s how the stories go…
In the first story Jesus is in the Jewish city of Gennesaret, which means “garden” in Hebrew. While ministering to the sick and outcast, a group of religious leaders came from Jerusalem to rebuke Jesus for not following the ceremonial rituals of hand washing before eating. After Jesus refuses to be trapped by their arguments, he turns their rebuke on its head by saying to them,
Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, and lies. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there.
While the religious leaders are concerned about external customs, and rituals, Jesus is concerned about the heart.
Right after this heated exchange, Jesus leaves the garden city of Gennesaret and heads to the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. These are gentile cities with a difficult and strained history with the Jewish people. For Jesus to leave the lush religious landscape of Gennesaret and head to the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon, we can be sure that he is about to communicate an important message…
This is where the second story starts. Matthew says,
[Jesus and his disciples] had hardly arrived [in Tyre and Sidon] when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”
Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”
Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.”
Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.
The first person Jesus interacted with when he entered Tyre and Sidon is a Canaanite (gentile) woman from the hills with a daughter afflicted by an evil spirit. Any religious leader of the day would want to avoid this woman at all costs. She had four major strikes against her:
First, she was a woman, and women had no standing in the ancient world,
Second, she was a gentile, often referred to as ‘dogs’ by the religious,
Third, she was from the hills or the wilderness, meaning she was isolated and suspect,
And fourth, she had a daughter with an evil spirit, making her religiously unclean.
Culturally speaking, this woman had no right to approach Jesus, who was seen by many as a religious rabbi.
Upon a cursory reading of this story, Jesus comes across very rude. However, after sitting with this story, I realized Jesus is actually illuminating something profound about who God is and what God thinks about different people groups.
Initially Jesus ignores the woman, a behavior that would be expected by his disciples. Then Jesus tells the disciples that he came for the lost sheep of Israel – which could easily be interpreted by them as, ‘I didn’t come to help this woman.’
Then Jesus says the controversial words, ‘It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”
Is Jesus calling this woman a dog? If so, none of this behavior would seem out of line or rude to the disciples. However, when it seems that Jesus leaves the disciples without a surprise, Jesus sees the woman’s faithful persistence to see her daughter healed and he commends her faith. This woman went from an unclean outcast to a model of faith.
Connecting to the previous story, this is an example of someone whose externals are judged as unclean but Jesus sees faith pouring out of her heart. In a great reversal, this woman becomes the exemplar of pure faith and the religious leaders become the exemplar of hypocrisy. Jesus found this faith in Tyre and Sidon and not in the garden city of Gennesaret.
The third and last story in this chapter is the story of Jesus feeding four thousand people. It goes like this,
Then Jesus walked along Lake Galilee and then climbed a mountain and took his place, ready to receive visitors. They came, tons of them, bringing along the paraplegic, the blind, the maimed, the mute—all sorts of people in need—and more or less threw them down at Jesus’ feet to see what he would do with them. He healed them. When the people saw the mutes speaking, the maimed healthy, the paraplegics walking around, the blind looking around, they were astonished and let everyone know that God was blazingly alive among them.
But Jesus wasn’t finished with them. He called his disciples and said, “I hurt for these people. For three days now they’ve been with me, and now they have nothing to eat. I can’t send them away without a meal—they’d probably collapse on the road.”
His disciples said, “But where in this deserted place are you going to dig up enough food for a meal?”
Jesus asked, “How much bread do you have?”
“Seven loaves,” they said, “plus a few fish.” At that, Jesus directed the people to sit down. He took the seven loaves and the fish. After giving thanks, he divided it up and gave it to the people. Everyone ate. They had all they wanted. It took seven large baskets to collect the leftovers. Over four thousand people ate their fill at that meal.
“All we have is seven loaves of bread.” In Hebrew, the number seven is signifies “completion.” The disciples were saying they brought enough food for themselves. In other words, there was enough for their tribe. There was enough for them and no more.
However, Jesus takes what they have and it miraculously becomes enough food for everyone with seven baskets left over. With seven overflowing baskets left over, Jesus redefines “complete.” Essentially Jesus says there is enough for everyone, including those who are different than the disciples, including the unclean and outcast. God’s meal is now open to all.
All three of these stories share a common root message: Jesus redefines who is in and out. In the first story, Jesus shows that the heart is the best judge of one’s soul, not outward religious and cultural expressions. And all people have the opportunity to know and learn their own heart. In the second story Jesus illustrates the first story by showing that even a gentile woman from the wilderness with a disturbed daughter could become an exemplar of faith. And lastly in the third story we see that Jesus does not operate from a position of scarcity but abundance. All are invited to eat – there is enough for everyone.
I’ve been wrestling with these stories during this difficult week. Racism and hate were publically on display in some pretty horrific ways. What happened in Charlottesville was deeply disturbing. And as I processed these events, these three stories in Matthew 15 profoundly speak to the place our country finds itself in today.
Much racism and tribalism finds its roots in an ideology of scarcity.  When we believe there is not enough to go around, we start only looking out for ourselves and those who are like us. For example, a lot of the hate filled protesters come from economically depressed regions where people like our President communicate that outsiders are coming in and taking away jobs and resources – focusing on a perceived sense of lack can often help to foster a culture of scarcity and fear.
In a analogous way, the religious people of Jesus’ day held tightly to their faith and customs. The idea that someone could be a part of their religious tribe without following their religious customs and birthright was often unthinkable. I imagine phrases like these were common:
“This is our God.”
“These are our people.”
“This is our food.”
“This is our city”
However, Jesus upsets the ideology of scarcity and fear by revealing an ideology of abundance. God has no lack. God is overflowing and invites those who follow to live from a place of resource, possibility, and abundance.
The good news is that:
There is room for those who think different, look different and live different.
There is room for those who don’t have it all together as well as those who think they do.
There is room for you and for me.
And thankfully the only prerequisite is a heart – a heart of faith.
Thanks be to God.
* All Scripture references are from The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson