Is anyone considering checking out the Psalm for this week? “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (See Introduction). That would make for a much friendlier sermon today, wouldn’t you agree? Instead, we have Paul talking about the place of the Jews (yes, even those who haven’t accepted Christ as Messiah) in God’s salvation work. And we have Jesus on what seemed to be an off day in Tyre and Sidon.
First of all, it is not your responsibility to defend our Savior from the story that Matthew tells. It is a natural impulse of many a preacher to put in some explanatory words to help soften the harshness of this moment. You can even find it in some commentaries. Some will write that Jesus was just testing everyone, the disciples and the woman herself. Others will write that he was tired from a long day of teaching and healing and was just looking for some time off. Still others make a big deal out of the fact that the word Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth isn’t really dog; it’s more like puppy. We don’t want to give the food of the faith to little dogs. That doesn’t sound so bad. Right?
On the other hand, letting the whole incident pass without comment runs the risk of allowing racial slurs to be permitted; after all, Jesus did it. Maybe we don’t have to excuse; and maybe we can’t really explain; but something significant is going on here. Some have argued that Jesus’ whole view of his mission and ministry changed that day, or that this was the pivot that turned a Jewish prophet concerned with his own people into the Savior of the whole world.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the first time Jesus sends the disciples out he tells them to go nowhere among the Gentiles (10:5); but by the end of the Gospel, Jesus sent them to make disciples of all nations (28:19). Could it be that he remembered the lesson learned in the district of Tyre and Sidon? Was it truly the woman’s persistence that caused Jesus to rethink how the crumbs would fall from the table of grace?
Paul speaks of grace, too— the grace of God’s gifting. Throughout the book of Romans, he has been speaking to both Jewish and Gentile Christians. But here, he speaks most specifically to the Gentile followers. Some believe this is so because he has heard of a sense of superiority creeping in to some of the Gentile disciples. In the verses the lectionary skips over (and as an aside, it is always a good idea to read through the skipped verses to understand the flow of the argument. Though in this case, you’d have to read from Chapter 8 to really get the flow!), Paul talks about boasting as if it might be happening. As usual, he tries to put the boasters in their place by reminding them that it is not by their own merits that they have attained their place in the tree of life; therefore, it would behoove them to be a bit humbler.
The thrust of his argument, however, comes in the assigned verses. “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable”(11:29). While there might be some debate as to precisely what Paul was going for here, it does seem clear that he doesn’t want to write off the Jews who have not claimed Christ. They are still the chosen of God; God does not renege on the covenant, no matter what. His hope, it also seems clear, is that through patience and perseverance, those who follow Christ can live in such a way as to show that this is indeed the way to life. That was his hope for his own life and example, and it would be the same for us. We are called to live in hope with open doors, open minds, and open hearts.
If you add one more verse past the reading for this week, you end with this: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are [God’s] judgments and how inscrutable [God’s] ways!” (Rom. 11:33) This is what we mean by God’s how is our why. We can’t always figure out what God is doing; we can’t always explain everything that Jesus said and did. But we don’t have to. We just need to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbor, all our neighbors, any neighbors, like ourselves. And when they ask why, we say “because God!”