Pentecost 14A, 2008
Matthew 15:21-28

A Liturgy is also available


'When I asked why the eight Burmese had not been settled in Australia
in accordance with international law there was an embarrassed silence.
Eventually the answer emerged.  The Howard Government had ordered they stay put.
They had been left rotting on Nauru because the Howard Government
wanted to maintain the myth that third country settlement was possible.
Sadly, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers had sunk this low.
The treatment of asylum seekers has been controversial in Australian political debate
for many years.  The length and conditions of their detention
has been a particular focus of criticism'
(Minister Evans, 29 July 2008. Quoted by Kerry Murphy in Eureka Street eZine, 30 July 2008).

This morning we re-enter the world of politics.
Not just the world of ‘party’ politics, as heralded in the statement,
be it a welcomed one, from Minister Chris Evans
on refugees and asylum seekers.

But also the politics of some of the early Christianity movements,
as heard in Matthew’s story, be it a risky one,
which at some points has no other parallel
in the rest of the New Testament.

So let me back up just a little as I try to put this story in context.


Change was happening all around Matthew and his small
Syrian ‘Jesus Movement’ community.
The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.
Judaism was beginning to be reshaped.
A bloke called Paul was gaining both Jewish and ‘god-fearers’ converts
to his personal “mystical experience” (Wilson 2008:126) Christ Movement.

The Movement as Matthew saw it, expressed in Peter’s then James’ leadership,
was having battles on all fronts.

And so with an early copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark in front of him,
along with some other writings we now call The ‘Q’ Gospel, and maybe
even some comments out of Paul’s letter to the Galatians,
Matthew sets out to tell his version of the story,
some 50 years after the ‘new Moses’, called Jesus,
and some 20+ years after Paul.

Internal political manoeuvrings were beginning to take shape.
“One branch… aimed its evangelistic efforts at the Judean community in Palestine.  This branch was led by Peter, then later by [the other] James, the brother of Jesus.  Paul, on the other hand, understood his missionary work to be focused on pagans and gentiles”  (Funk & Hoover 1993:204).

In the ‘fair dinkum’ department, Paul and Peter did not get on together!
For instance, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,
the mob of whom Paul says was “perverting the gospel of Christ” (Gal.1:7b),
some scholars now suggest, was the Jewish Jesus Movement in Jerusalem.

Secondly, Paul’s mission strategy was to visit Roman provincial capital cities
and approach the so-called in-between group, known as “god fearers”,
who were pagans, not Jews, but who were attracted
to some of the teachings of Judaism.

For Matthew as for his Syrian community in Antioch, this action by Paul
was definitely seen as ‘poaching’.  And they resented it.

On the other hand, there is also an underside to Matthew.
Matthew wasn’t too fussed about the ‘continuing’ Jews either,
and that gets expressed in “undistilled anger and hostility” (Wilson 2008:194)
towards Judaism, the Torah, and the Jewish leaders.

So the gospel we call Matthew is, simultaneously
“the most ‘pro-Jewish’ gospel we have, as well as the most ‘anti-Jewish’ one.  The former aspect was evident in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses…  The anti-Jewish side, however, comes out in his sustained attack on the Jewish leaders of his time” (Wilson 2008:182).

Perhaps theologian Bill Loader’s comments will help:
“A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, an other, against whom to define ourselves.  This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival...  There's 'them' and there's 'us'.  This is the stuff of prejudice.  Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place” (WLoader/web site, 2008).


Now to this ‘them’ and ‘us’ story.

Matthew’s story puts Jesus right in the middle of a very tense scene,
which portrays Jesus expressing a racist stance, only
to abandon it when put under pressure.

The ‘Gentile’ Canaanite woman who was doing all the pestering,
was from a group of despised, diminished and dispirited people,
much evident in the society of the times.

Unfortunately, in our day we too might have used disparaging words…
like 'dagoes' or 'wogs' or 'boongs' or 'illegals' to describe her.
When Matthew’s Jesus does make a response,
he uses the word, ‘dogs’.

Again Bill Loader offers a comment:
“It is hard not to draw the conclusion that [Matthew’s] Jesus… had to make a transition, had to learn” (WLoader/web site, 2008).

So let me invite you to ponder this story around three issues.

First, this story doesn’t show Jesus in too gracious a light.
Traditionally we have been encouraged to think of Jesus as
caring, compassionate, responding and sensitive.
Not much of that here.

Let me ask Bill Loader’s question:
“Is it embarrassing that Jesus was human, too?  Does it make the gospel any less valid if the historical Jesus also had to struggle to come to terms with the negative in his upbringing? (WLoader/web site, 2008).

Second, but perhaps we can sympathise with Jesus.
The woman was determined to be heard – persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging.

All of us know or have persons like that we would like to avoid, evade.
Sometimes we too will try anything not to have to be in their company.
Does this make us less human?

Third, the heroine of this story is not Jesus, but the woman.
The persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging, woman.

As one commentator puts it:
“The story reminds us that members of despised or oppressed groups must be bold in seeking relief of their misery.  The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced her daughter deserves to be given a chance at living a normal, productive life.  Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who can change things for the better, is rewarded” (DHare. Commentary on Matthew. Pg: 179. Quoted on B Stoffregen’s CrossMarks web site, 2008).

Perhaps this is why modern day asylum seekers risk everything,
and continue to try and come to this country?
Even in leaky, substandard fishing boats!


A colleague was complaining because she had to read Matthew’s
genealogy of Jesus – all that ‘someone-begat-someone-else’ stuff.
‘What good is all this’, she moaned.

Her New Testament professor responded:
‘This is a great story.  Because it shows the best can come out of the worst.  And the worst can come out of the best’.

Think about it!
Perhaps this is also part of how we should ponder this story
and our relationships with others, especially those who,
under international law, are convinced their children, like ours,
deserve to be given a chance, any chance,
at living a normal, productive life.

Funk, R. W.; R. Hoover. 1993.  The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan.
Wilson, B. 2008.  How Jesus Became Christian. Canada: Toronto. Random House.