Today, I thought we’d do something a little different by talking first about Biblical interpretation and then applying what we talk about to the Gospel text for today (Matthew 15:21-28).
We all do interpretation every day. We interpret things people say or do or write in order to make sense of them; and we have an internal “dictionary” that provides us with our guidelines for how to do this. There’s even a field of forensics called “Statement Analysis” that attempts to discover what people’s internal dictionaries are for the purpose of discovering the truth of what they say.
In similar way, we have a dictionary or guidebook of sorts that we use to interpret the Bible, but if we use the wrong guidebook, we’ll mis-interpret things.
If you were to walk up to someone on the street and hand them the Bible and ask them what it means, they might give you any number of different answers. And they would arrive at all these different answers because, unknowingly or not, they are using some sort of guidebook to unlock what the Bible says.
So, the question is then, what is our common guidebook that we as Christians use to understand the Bible? If we were to want to unlock the text from the Gospel of Matthew today, which is what we want to do, how do we go about it?
Well, our guidebook consists of three main keys that we use to unlock the Bible.
The first key is the understanding that the Bible is centered around Jesus Christ and reveals to us God’s promises fulfilled in him. Thus, Christ is the beginning, end, and center of our faith. The Bible is God’s revelation to us of His saving acts that He has accomplished for us through Christ. So, when we look at a text from the Bible we should consider how it reveals Christ and his saving acts to us; this goes for both Old and New Testaments as well.
The second key, which is closely related to the first one, is the knowledge that in the relationship between humanity and God, humanity is always the sinner and God is always the justifier. Humanity gets the blame for sin, and God gets the credit for saving humanity from our sins; this is a Father-child relationship.
What this also means is that God is the one who gives, and humanity is the one who receives from God, because humanity can offer nothing to God, since everything we have was first given to us by God. The whole Bible, then, is the story of sinful man being justified in the sight of God by God Himself – God makes sinful man right in His eyes through Jesus Christ. So, when we look at a text, is it showing man as sinner and God as the one who justifies? As a corollary, we believe that God is restoring the whole creation through Christ.
The third key, closely related to the first two, is the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” What does this really mean? There are 66 books in the Bible, how do we interpret them? Which books do we use as the magnifying lens for the others? In order to let Scripture interpret Scripture, we must place some Scripture above others in order to use them as our interpretive lens. Thus, some books of the Bible provide clarity to other books.
I won’t go into the history of the development of the Biblical cannon here today, since there is a lot that can be said that we don’t have time or space for. But, I’ll summarize things by saying that the books of the Old Testament are in our Bibles because the Old Testament Church considered them God’s Word and authoritative due to their connection with the prophets. The books of the New Testament are in our Bibles because the New Testament Church considered them to be authoritative due to their connection with the Apostles.
So, in the canon of Scripture – in our Bibles – we have 66 books that are considered authoritative and God’s Word due to their prophetic and apostolic nature. In order to interpret Scripture with Scripture, we then have to privilege some books above others; we have to make some the master key to unlocking the others.
Therefore, we interpret the Old Testament using the New Testament, believing that the New Testament provides clarity to the Old Testament. For example, in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John, Jesus interprets the account of Moses raising the bronze serpent in the wilderness, recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers, in light of himself. What didn’t seem to make much sense in Numbers is now made clear in John; the New Testament shines light on the Old and in this incident we see how it was pointing to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Then, how do we interpret the books of the New Testament? Well, basically, we use the Gospels, Paul’s epistles, 1 Peter, and 1 John as our master keys to the other books of the New Testament. We also use Paul’s epistles to help understand the Gospels, for while the Gospels tell us mainly “what” Jesus did, Paul elaborates upon “why” what Jesus did is important to us.
So, Paul is our interpreter of the Gospels. There are valid historical reasons why we place the Gospels, Paul’s epistles, 1 Peter, and 1 John above the other books of the New Testament, but I’ll save the details for another time. Suffice it to say, though, that these groups of books in the New Testament are our “canon within the canon,” providing clarity to the other books of the New Testament.
So, for example, we interpret things like James’ epistle where he says, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26) in light of what the Gospels say and what Paul says in his letters, such as “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). We use Paul’s epistle to the Romans in order to interpret James’ epistle. And so from the two verses I read, and from the Gospels, we understand James’ statement that “faith apart from works is dead” to mean that true faith in Christ naturally produces good works, just as fruit grows from a healthy vine; and this is precisely the point that Jesus makes in John chapter 15.
So, this then, is our Christian guidebook to the Bible: we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament; we use the Gospels, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, and 1 John as our master key to the rest of the New Testament; we understand Christ as the center point of Scripture in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled; and, we understand the Bible as the account of the one Holy Triune God justifying sinful humanity purely out of His grace and mercy through Christ’s cross and empty tomb. This also means, then, that there is just one Church which spans both Old and New Testaments, and this Church is the bride (and hence, body) of Christ.
Now think about things you’ve heard people say about God or the Bible, either in your personal discussions with people or things you’ve heard on TV. I would suggest to you that when people interpret the Bible incorrectly they are doing so because they’re violating the principles I just mentioned – they’re using the wrong guidebook.
So this, finally, brings us back to our Gospel reading for today. Let’s use this guidebook to unlock the text. And let us use Paul’s statement in Romans 11:32 to frame our understanding of the Gospel text. Paul wrote: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
So, in the Gospel reading, a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus to beg him to have mercy on her daughter. Notice that this non-Jewish woman says to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Do you see the significance of what she is calling him? She is acknowledging him as both Yahweh – the eternal, almighty God – as well as the Son of David, descended from the ancient king David through the flesh. She looks to Jesus as the incarnate God, her Savior, from whom all blessings flow.
Contrast this with what happened at the beginning of this chapter of Matthew. This wasn’t in our text for today, but I’ll summarize it. Some scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said to him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” Wow, the Canaanite woman acknowledges Jesus as the incarnate Lord and Messiah and begs for his mercy, while the Jewish scribes and Pharisees come out to see him to complain that his disciples don’t wash their hands. And Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Isaiah 29:13).
In contrast, this Canaanite woman begs for Jesus’ mercy, but at first he doesn’t say anything to her. His disciples say something, though. They begged Jesus too; they said, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” So, Jesus says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This kinda begs the question, doesn’t it? Just who is of the house of Israel? Do you think that maybe Jesus says this in order to get his disciples to think about who Israel actually is?
The Pharisees and scribes sure thought that they were of the house of Israel. They were descended from Abraham and from the sons of Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. Surely, they were God’s people. They did all the right things: they washed their hands, they did no work on the Sabbath, they were “good” people, because they followed the traditions of the elders. Surely, they were much better than this Canaanite woman; a woman descended from the “Goyim” or “nations,” those Gentiles who were not descended from Abraham and Jacob.
But, this woman shows to whom she belongs. She comes and kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.” This word translated as knelt can also be translated as “to worship.” The King James Bible actually uses this alternative translation. The Canaanite woman worships Jesus and calls him Lord. This is a far cry from what the scribes and Pharisees did when they went to Jesus.
So, here’s this Canaanite woman, descended from the wrong ancestor, born among the wrong people, not doing all the right things. But, she kneels at the feet of the man she calls her Lord and begs for his mercy. So, I ask you, who truly is of the house of Israel?
If we use the keys of our guidebook that I mentioned earlier, we can unlock what’s going on here. In the Old Testament, Israel included all those who attached themselves to God’s promises that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Thus, Israel is the Church, beginning with God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, and counting Adam and Eve and their son Seth, down to Noah, and finally down to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it certainly included some of Abraham and Jacob’s descendants, but it also included people from the nations, or Gentiles.
So people like the prostitute Rahab, who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho, and the Moabite woman Ruth, who followed her mother-in-law back to the land of Israel, saying to her “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” – these people who were not born from the line of Jacob were yet counted as among the people of Israel, because they attached themselves to God’s promise of salvation and called upon His name.
They were those of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke: “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” (Isaiah 56:6). And in fact, Jesus’ ancestors on his human side would include these two women; they were his human ancestors as the son of David. These two women – Rahab and Ruth – were born among the wrong people, not doing the right things, not following the tradition of the elders, but they were part of the nation of Israel, united with all those who called on the name of the Lord.
So, now we look to the New Testament to understand who Israel is; let us use the New Testament to shed light on the Old. Jesus says that he “… was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Who is this Israel? Well, we’ve already seen in the Old Testament that Israel was not just those who were descended from Jacob. In fact, even those who were descended from Jacob were not necessarily part of Israel.
Paul emphasized this point when he wrote to the church in Rome, saying, “For not all who are descended from Israel [that is Jacob] belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but Through Isaac shall your offspring be named. This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:6). So, it is the children of the promise who are Israel; those whom God has gathered together as His people united around the promise of salvation given and fulfilled in Christ. This is the Church; the Church is the “Israel of God,” as Paul called it in his letter to the Galatians.
So, who is Israel? Israel is the Church. And who is in the Church? The people of the promise. And what is this promise? It is the Gospel – God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting – salvation – given to us freely for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Gospel is the act of the Holy Lord God justifying sinful humanity through Christ. This truly is Good News; whenever you hear someone trying to describe the Gospel to you, ask yourself if what they’re saying is good news. If their definition of the Gospel involves humanity doing something to be saved, then it is no good news, and is not the true Gospel.
So, I ask you then, who is it in this text that is of the house of Israel? Was it the scribes and Pharisees who saw no need for God’s grace given through Christ? Or, was it the Canaanite woman who worshipped Jesus Christ and begged for his mercy? This woman who begged for but a scrap of God’s grace?
And what does Jesus say to her? He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This is a tough verse. Without dwelling on whether or not Jesus is actually calling the woman a dog, let’s look at it from another angle. Who is a child of God? The answer to this question is somewhat paradoxical. For, the one who truly is a child of God is the one who – through the working of God’s Law on him – feels his sins, feels that he is as but a dog before God, and hopes for God’s mercy, given through Christ. The child of God is the one who kneels before Christ and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The child of God recognizes the truth of what Paul said to the Romans, “… God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32).
For through His Law, God has “consigned all to disobedience.” This is God’s alien work, and all this means is that God kills us with His Law and shows us that we have no claim on Him and no right of our own to sit at His Table. God shows us through His Law that we are sinners and that we can not redeem ourselves from our sins through our own power; our own works can not make us righteous before him. The scribes and Pharisees thought that they were owed a seat at God’s Table due to their works, but Jesus constantly reminded them that they were not perfect and therefore failed to live in accordance with God’s holy will. And we, like them, are sinners. And so we, like them, cannot rely on our own works to be saved, for we will always fall short of the perfection that is required.
So, Jesus speaks a tough verse of Law, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And this then shows why God’s work of killing and consigning to disobedience with His Law is called His alien work – God doesn’t want us to remain in disobedience and therefore die an eternal death; He uses His Law to drive us to seek His mercy. His Law brings us to our knees before him, crying out like the prophet Isaiah when he encountered the Holy Lord God in Isaiah 6, “Woe is me, for I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5) and like the Canaanite woman before the incarnate Lord, “Have mercy on me, O Lord” And the Law drives us also to exclaim, “Lord, help me. I will take but the crumbs from your table.”
And at this point, God’s Law has done its work and God now does the proper work He desires to do, which is to credit us with Christ’ perfection that he won for us on the cross and in the empty tomb. Through Christ, God says, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And he gives us not crumbs from the table, but rather brings us to the full Table to be His guests where He serves us the true bread from heaven – Jesus Christ.
So, this Canaanite woman came to Jesus not like the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes, but as one who knew that she had no claim on God, as one who knew that she could not throw any works or merits or piety of her own before God, as one who knew that she was but as a dog, dependent on its master’s mercy. And at her trust in God’s mercy given through Christ, Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” “And her daughter was healed instantly.”
And, be it done for you as you desire. You are part of the house of Israel, God’s people of the promise, part of an ancient people, the Church. You are joined in Christ with Adam and Eve, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, Rahab, and all the faithful of the Old and New Testament Church. And just like all of them, you have received God’s mercy and He has brought you to His Table where He feeds you; for He has made you His children and feeds you with the very body and blood of Christ.
You were once consigned to disobedience, but God has made you His Children through Baptism and raised you up off of the floor to His Table. He has done it all for you through Christ. This is the Gospel – this is the Good News that is for you – that God has accomplished every bit of your salvation for you. This is why it’s called the Good News, because your salvation doesn’t depend on you doing anything, but rather depends solely on God’s grace. And He has already given you His grace and saved you through Christ, and made you His child whom He feeds at His Table. Amen.
(Image: Jesus and the Woman of Canaan, By Michael Angelo Immenraet – http://www.unionskirche-retten.de/seiten/bildpatenschaft/bild-18.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37307817 )