Following the crumbs... Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 15:21-28 (39) 7 November 2021
About a week ago, my family and I were on our way back towards Frankfurt airport to fly home after our vacation. And for a good part of the drive, we drove alongside the Black Forest. The Black Forest is of course famous for the black forest cake. But the vast and dark forest also evokes the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, especially Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel, you might remember, is the tale of the two children of a woodcutter and a wicked step-mother. When the family falls on hard times, the step-mother convinces the woodcutter that they should abandon the children in the middle of the forest to die, so that they themselves would not starve. The woodcutter reluctantly agrees. However the children overhear their conversation and so Hansel, the eldest, gathers a pocketful of white stones, and as the woodcutter leads them away into the forest, Hansel drops a stone very so often so that he and Gretel can follow the path back home.
Sometime later, the wicked stepmother convinces the woodcutter again to abandon the children. This time, Hansel is unable to gather white stones, and so instead he lays a trail of breadcrumbs to find his way home.
Do you remember how the story went? The breadcrumbs were all eaten by the birds, and so the children wander the forest until they come upon a house made of cakes and candy – this apparently is where the idea for gingerbread houses came from. The owner of the house is a witch who likes to catch and cook children, and she captures Hansel and Gretel. The witch tries to fatten Hansel up before cooking him, but Hansel tricks her. Eventually the witch decides to cook Hansel anyway. She lights the fire in the stove and when she checks if it’s hot enough, do you remember what happened next? Gretel pushes the witch in, and the witch is burned to death. Quite a gruesome ending...
It's funny, I’m not sure if we ever told that story to our kids. Disney hasn’t done any remakes that tell the whole story. Perhaps the world has changed a bit, especially the stories we tell our kids!
Why do I tell you this story? The breadcrumbs got me thinking. Sometimes we need to follow the breadcrumb trail see what’s at the other end.
Because our Bible story today has a breadcrumb trail that leads to a pretty great ending, but the ending may not seem so obvious on the first reading.
So why don’t we pray that God would show us the breadcrumb trail today as we open his Word?
Our heavenly Father, please teach us today from this section of the Bible. Show us your heart, and your plan to save people from all kinds of backgrounds. Help us to trust you in this. Amen.
So we have just 3 weeks left in our series from Matthew 13-16, the series we’ve been calling Hidden Treasures. It’s been about listening to Jesus, and looking into his miracles, and working to understand the deeper meaning.
And we have another passage today that isn’t necessarily that easy to understand at first glance. In fact so much so that I thought about skipping over it. But a little bit of digging deeper and I think you’ll see that it has an important message for all of us. So let’s get digging!
The Story - Location
We are reading Matthew 15:21-28, and it’s on the back page of your service handout.
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Do you know, I think the very first sermon I ever preached in a church, it was this story, the version from Mark’s gospel, anyway. And I remember reading it the first time and thinking, what is this story about?
Well at its core, it is the story of a mother with a sick daughter. Look again at v22. A mother comes to Jesus crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon- possessed and suffering terribly.”
This mother has a sick daughter, and she has either seen Jesus perform healings, or she’s heard about him.
After all, by this time Jesus had been travelling around the region for almost 3 years, preaching and healing and performing miracles and casting out demons.
What does it mean that the daughter was demon-possessed? The Bible isn’t afraid to talk about the spiritual realm. Jesus had confronted the demonic many times before. Satan himself had tempted Jesus right at the beginning of his public ministry (you can read about it in ch4). And then Jesus regularly healed those who were demon-possessed (you can see that in Mt 4:24, 8:16, 9:33, 12:22). In fact, the demons knew who Jesus was – we saw that back in chapter 8 when Jesus healed the two demon-possessed men and the demons went into the herd of pigs. Those demons knew exactly who Jesus was – they called him ‘Son of God’... (Matthew 8:29)
So there was, and is, a spiritual realm as far as the Bible is concerned. Does that mean that we see demon-possession in modern times? I want to be careful how I answer, because I don’t want to attribute too much influence (or too little influence) to things that I don’t know very much about.
Certainly other cultures, Eastern, African, more traditional cultures, are often more tuned to the spiritual realm. As modern Westerners, certainly the background I came from, we are much less likely to jump to the demonic as a reason for illness or misadventure.
Long and short – the mother says her daughter is demon-possessed and we don’t have any further information, so we have to take it at face value. Jesus doesn’t contradict her. But he also doesn’t jump to heal the girl.
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
The disciples don’t seem concerned. They just want to get rid of her. And Jesus doesn’t really do anything – he doesn’t speak anyway. This is unusual for Jesus. And it makes me wonder why is this different from any other healing?
You know in real estate they say, location, location, location...
The answer is there in v21 and 22. It’s all about the location. Jesus is traveling through the region of Tire and Sidon, two port cities located in modern day Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. Historically Tire and Sidon had belonged to the powerful Phoenecian empire, an empire so strong that God’s people had failed to conquer them during the conquest of the Promised Land. The Phoenicians were later besieged by the Babylonians, and conquered by Alexander the Great, then the Persians, then the Romans. But they never became part of Israel – they always retained their Phoenician identity and their Phoenician gods.
So as Jesus travels through this region, he is not traveling amongst God’s people. He is traveling and speaking and teaching amongst a people whose values are vastly different from his. They are Gentiles, to use the language of the Bible. Pagans.
The woman herself is a Canaanite, a member of the pagan tribe that were the arch-enemies of the Jews during the period of the conquest. If you remember your Old Testament, the Canaanites worshiped the gods of Baal and Asherah and Chemosh and Dagon. The problem was that God’s people often intermarried with the Canaanites and found themselves caught up in the worship of these foreign gods, worshiping at their altars and even sacrificing their children in the fire, as was the case with Chemosh-worship. Even the great King Solomon built altars to these foreign gods in his old age.1
So Jesus is in foreign territory, encountering someone culturally very different from himself.
Now it might occur to you that as Christians in the United States in 2021, we live in foreign territory, and we daily encounter people who are culturally very different from ourselves. The United States of 2021 is not the United States of the 1950s, or whenever we imagine the golden age of Christianity in this country to be. Culture has shifted. Religion has shifted. And that’s OK.
I think we actually find ourselves in a better situation than 60 or 70 years ago, because cultural Christianity has more-or-less died off. Back then everybody said they were a Christian, or a Catholic, whether it made a difference to their lifestyle or not. Most people went to church, but that was just because it was expected culturally and you’d be shamed if you didn’t. But all of that meant that many people were just going through the motions in terms of Christianity.
That was the story of a Muslim guy I met a few years ago at our church back in Sydney.
He came along to our Alpha course because he was in Australia on a work assignment for a few months. And he wanted to take the opportunity to find out about Jesus, which he couldn’t do back in the country where he lived. In his country it was expected that everyone would live like a Muslim, and go to the mosque, and pray 5 times daily. He did all that, but in his private life it meant nothing to him. He was just going through the motions. And so when he had a chance to encounter Jesus while he was in Australia, it changed his life. Eternally...
I tell that story because I think we are in a better position than my friend from Iran. We live in a country where people are free to hold a religious viewpoint, or not, but nobody has to keep up religious appearances. I think that’s one of the killers of genuine religious exploration.
And so if you’re a Christian, you’re a bit like Jesus in Tire and Sidon. We’re in foreign territory, amongst people who are culturally very different from ourselves. And that presents us with a great opportunity...
1 Chemosh and Molek were possibly the same god, according to 1 Kings 11:7. 4
The Twist - Timing
And that’s why the next segment of the passage is such a surprise. We expect Jesus to have compassion, and heal the girl, but instead he stands there somewhat impassively. He says nothing.
The disciples want to get rid of the woman. In fact, I think they want Jesus to heal the girl just so that the mother will stop crying out to them. (The Apostle Paul did the same to a possessed slave girl in Acts 16 after she kept prophesying about them day after day... It just became too much for him!)
But the reason for Jesus’ inaction is something different. Look at v24. 24 [Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
If real estate is all about location, then comedy is all about timing.
For example: what’s the difference between a good and a bad joke timing? Timing.
For Jesus, the timing of this woman’s request was all wrong. Jesus was on a mission, given to him by his heavenly Father, and his mission was to the Israelites. To God’s chosen people. And this woman wasn’t part off the target audience. She wasn’t mission-critical.
I’ve worked with people who have a razor-sharp focus on their mission. In some ways it’s amazing, because it gives them complete clarity on what is important, and what isn’t. What they should do, and what they shouldn’t waste their time on.
That’s part of why we have a mission statement as a church. Our mission statement at Yountville Community Church is ‘sharing the hope of Jesus in the Napa Valley and beyond’. Everything we do hopefully contributes to us sharing the hope of Jesus here in the Valley, or somewhere further abroad. If an activity or ministry doesn’t help us to achieve that outcome, then we probably won’t pursue it long term. Because our mission helps us to keep our critical goals in our sights, and it helps us decide what we do and what we won’t do.
For Jesus, his mission was to reach the Jewish people, the lost sheep of Israel, as he calls them. And this woman is outside his mission parameters.
And this is where the idea of timing comes in.
If you’re like me, then you’re often on a mission. You’re on a mission to get a job done in a certain amount of time. You’re on a mission to get the shopping done. You’re on a mission to
get home for dinner on time. Or to knock off a list of chores. Perhaps you’re on a mission to get home from church in time for the 49ers...
And if something gets in the way of that mission, you will activate mission priority, and you’ll say no to any distraction.
The problem is, what if that distraction is someone asking you about Jesus? What if it’s someone needing your help, someone who God is putting in your way because He has a divine plan for your conversation?
I have a friend who prays for ‘divine appointments.’ That’s what she calls them. She prays every morning for divine appointments, for God to put people in her pathway who she can talk to about Jesus, or about spiritual things. Jo and I spent a day with this lady and her husband, and God answered her prayer 2 or 3 times right in front of us, as our friend kept making conversation with people we met on a hike, with the cashier in a gift shop, with a lady sitting on a bench. Our friend was seeing opportunities to connect wherever she went, even though our ‘mission’ for the day was to spend the day together at Bodega Bay, or so I thought. She taught me that there is always the chance of a divine appointment, if you make the time for it...
Well, Jesus makes time for the woman. She begs him: Lord, help me!
Then Jesus says something unusual in v26 – probably the hardest part to understand in our passage.
Jesus says: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Imagine you’re at the dinner table, and instead of feeding your kids, you took their food and put it in the dog bowl for your dogs to eat. And your kids go hungry. Jesus is saying it would be like that if he healed the little girl. Somehow it would be taking a blessing away from the children of Israel. It wouldn’t be right.
Now we could read Jesus’ comment about children and dogs, and see it as offensive, or pejorative.
But the mother’s reply shows that she understands Jesus’ language. And in fact she pushes back using the same analogy, because she trusts that Jesus is not being harsh with her.
She replies (v27):
“Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Seems like even back then, dogs were part of the family. They are fed from the table, and nobody minds. It’s just how families work.
And for this Gentile woman, even though she wasn’t part of the Old Testament children of God, she knows that she still has a place in God’s household.
And that’s where we come back to the idea of timing. Because the whole Bible is a story of God creating a people so that he can bless them. That’s how the Bible starts, with Adam and Eve in the garden, living under God’s blessing. Sin changes all of that, and since Adam and Eve, we all live with the consequences of our sin and our selfish choices. Sin is the great problem of the Bible, it’s the thing that prevents us experiencing all of God’s blessing.
But God is so mission-focused on bringing blessing to his children, that he won’t let even something like sin get in the way of the blessing that he wants to shower on the world. And so from the twelfth chapter of Genesis – just a few pages after Adam and Eve first sinned, God reveals his plan to bring blessing to all the peoples of the earth. And it starts with creating a chosen people – that’s Israel. But God promises that through his chosen people, he will bring blessing to every other nation.
And we get the first little tastes of that in the OT, when salvation comes to the most unlikely Gentiles. Like Rahab the prostitute, who helped Joshua and Caleb when they were spying out the promised land. Like the Queen of Sheba who came from Africa to worship the God of Israel in the time of Solomon. Like Naaman, the Syrian general who was healed of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha, and put his faith in the God of Israel. Yahweh, as we just sung before.
But it is not until the NT that God’s plan to bless all the nations comes into its fulfilment. Because it is not until Jesus that the problem of sin is really addressed. But the cross fixes the problem of sin, opening the way for sinners to become children of God once again. And that message of forgiveness, of salvation, that message of God’s loving mercy – Jesus sends his disciples out to the ends of the earth with that message. And from that point on it wasn’t just the Israelites who were counted as children of God, but now everybody who puts their faith in Jesus is a child of God, and chosen, and adopted and blessed as part of the family.
You see, it was always God’s plan to shower blessing on all who call on him. And in fact, that never changes throughout the Bible.
The woman in our story, perhaps her turn should have come a little later. Perhaps she could see the plans that God had in store to bless all the nations. Or perhaps she just hoped that Jesus would heal her daughter, I don’t know. But Jesus sees her great faith, and he heals the daughter.
And right after this section, Jesus goes on to heal crowds of Gentiles, as if to show that his blessing is truly for all. The feeding of the 4000, which I haven’t printed here, looks almost exactly the same as the feeding of the 5000. But look at the location, and the language, and it is
most certainly Jesus showing the disciples that his salvation is not just for the Jews, but for all nations, and for all people.
And that brings me back to us here at Yountville Community Church. Our mission to share the hope of Jesus in the Napa Valley and beyond, it’s actually a continuation of the mission that Jesus gave his disciples, to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
And that’s why we are so keen to keep sharing the hope of Jesus with all kinds of people. Not just the kind of people who we would expect to listen, but with all different kinds of people. Do you have Muslim friends? They need to know about Jesus. Do you have atheist friends? They need to know about Jesus. Do you have tattooed, biker friends? Do you have friends who are venture capitalists? They all need to know Jesus. Vegans. Carnivores. Foreigners. Tourists. Old Napans. Those with weekenders here in town. Red wine drinkers, craft beer drinkers, whisky drinkers. Young parents. Parents of teenagers. Empty nesters. Divorcees. Widowers. Whoever you can think of. They all need Jesus.
So we need to pray for divine appointments. Pray for opportunities to share the hope we have, the hope of Jesus, the experience of blessing, the joy of community at church, the peace of God’s presence, the relief of his forgiveness. Pray that God would put people in your life with whom you can share the hope of Jesus. And make time wherever and whenever the opportunity arises...
Lastly, I have a word for those of you who perhaps are thinking seriously about Jesus for the first time. Or perhaps you’re not thinking seriously about Jesus, you’re thinking that he’s not for me. Either way I want you to consider this possibility: perhaps if you’re listening today, it’s because God has brought you here for a divine appointment. Perhaps God wants you to receive the blessing that we’ve spoken about today.
If that’s you, I’d love to know. Because I’d love to help you meet Jesus, answer any questions you might have, help you take the next steps in your journey of faith. If that’s you, pull out your smart phone and open the camera and scan the code for the Connect Card. Or you can fill out a paper Connect Card. And let me know what God is doing in your life. In fact, for anybody who has been moved today, let us know so that we can praise God with you, or pray alongside you.
Because life with Jesus is a life of blessings. And that’s something worth sharing. Will you pray with me?