Matthew 15v21-28                       Jesus and Healing                                 16 August 2020                

At first sight, I find today’s Gospel reading troubling. What is Jesus doing? The Canaanite woman came and pleaded with Jesus to have mercy on her as her daughter was tormented by a demon. Jesus did not answer her. Later Jesus says ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ What strange language to use. Who are the dogs? What is Jesus talking about?

The shocking murder by the police in America of George Floyd brought the ‘black lives matter’ movement into sharp focus, together with the related problems of racism. This is the sort of issue that is raised in our Gospel Reading, because Jesus had gone to Tyre and Sidon. This was a Gentile area and it was a local Gentile woman, a Canaanite, who comes to him asking for help. This is a story of Jesus reaching beyond the boundaries of Judaism and moving into the Gentile world, it is the only time that Jesus moved out of Jewish territory. It points to the outreach of the Gospel beyond Judaism into the Gentile world. Originally it had been ‘to the Jew first, then the Gentile’. In Matthew 10v5-6 we read that Jesus sent out the twelve apostles with the instructions ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’  By the time we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:19 Jesus commissioned the disciples to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’.

Why had Jesus gone into this Gentile territory? He had gone with the disciples, probably to get a bit of peace and quiet, to get away from the crowds who always followed him. Jesus knew that the cross lay before him and he needed to prepare for that, and he needed to prepare the disciples for what lay ahead.

But he could not escape entirely because the Canaanite woman, a Gentile woman, must have heard about Jesus and the things he could do. She must have heard of his miraculous healings and she came to Jesus and “started shouting ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’.”  It is interesting that she called Jesus ‘Son of David’, his Jewish Messianic title, she knew a bit about Jesus. But Jesus did nothing, perhaps he was wondering what to do. His disciples urged him ‘to send her away’.

The problem was that Jesus undoubtedly felt compassion for her, but she was a Gentile, and Jesus had to begin with the Jews. He said ‘I was sent only to to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ v24.  As Jesus ponders this, his compassion told him one thing, but his disciples were telling him the opposite. Then we read further But the woman came and knelt before him, saying ‘Lord help me’. Jesus response, at first sight anyway sounds a bit strange, because he said ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’  To call a person a dog was an insult then as it is now. But this is what the Jew called the Gentiles. To the Jew in those days, the Gentiles were unclean – as were the scavenger dogs which roamed the streets. In fact I understand that in the original, the word used for ‘dogs’ is not that of the street scavenger dogs, but the word for the pet dogs that people had. So when the woman replied ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’, she was saying ‘true, but even pet dogs get their share of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.’ It could well have been a bit of banter, almost an exchange of jokes, understood in that culture, if not ours today. But Jesus response was what the woman wanted to hear ‘Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly.’ v28

Here was a woman, a mother, whose daughter was sick ‘tormented by a demon’, she was desperate for her daughter to be healed. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter, so the mother’s love for her daughter – and the mother’s faith in Jesus was tested and it was proved to be real and resulted in Jesus saying ‘Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly.’

Prayer for the sick is a well established and important ministry of the church. When we pray for the sick, it is our faith that our Lord can use to bring healing.  One of the re-discoveries of the church in the late 20th century had been the healing ministry of the church.

The ministry of Jesus had one aim above all others – healing.  Healing in the widest sense of that word.  Healing of the broken relationship between people and God.  Jesus enabled people to relate freely and lovingly with God.  Healing of relationships between people.  Healing through the forgiveness of sins, and healing and wholeness of body, mind and spirit.

 In the Gospels healing is a subject which you can’t get away from.  One third of the contents of the Gospels are about healing.  Wherever there are sick people, Jesus reaches out to them.  He always did that.  He had a great concern for the suffering, for healing and health, he showed compassion.  He upset the authorities by healing on the Sabbath, he commissioned his disciples to heal the sick. And yet even in the Bible not everyone was healed.  St Paul was one such with his thorn in the flesh, whatever that may have been.   The Lord’s response to his prayers was “my grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.”  For Paul’s ministry, God’s answer to his prayer was even better than the healing that he wanted.  The thorn in the flesh made him continually conscious of his own weakness and dependence on God’s strength

The question we all ask is why are some people healed and others not.  And ultimately we don’t know the answer, it has to remain within the mystery of God. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer as to why some are healed and others are not. The story in today’s Gospel of healing in Matthew 15 is one of healing.  The faith of the mother of the girl whose daughter was possessed by a demon, led to her being healed.

There is a story in Mark 7 where some of his friends brought to Jesus a man who was deaf and dumb and they begged Jesus to lay his hands on the man to heal him.  It was other people, not relatives, who took him.  It was the faith of his friends that brought him to Jesus, and so it was through the faith of his friends that the deaf and dumb man was healed – because they brought him to Jesus.  When Jesus was on earth that is what they did, they brought the sick to Jesus for healing.  We can still do that today though in a slightly different way.  Jesus is no longer walking on earth.  But Jesus is alive, his Spirit is with us, he called upon his disciples to heal the sick.  One thing we can all do for the sick is to pray for them.  That is why we put their names on Pews News. It is why we have a Prayer Chain for emergency prayer those who are sick

This is what we are called to do.  We are called to bring people to Jesus for healing, through our prayers, through our compassion, through us being disciples of Jesus.  Not that we can demand healing as a right.  God does heal today, but in his grace and his way, not by right and not at our demand.  God knows best, and sees the whole picture that we don’t always see.  But what I do believe is that God always answers our prayers.  Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no, sometimes the answer is not yet, sometimes the answer is what we want, sometimes it is what we don’t want – but in every event, I believe, God answers our prayers. I offer some examples.

I think of Jodi, a typical lively 12 year old. Neither she, nor her family were members of our church in Morden, though known to a number through the usual networks, school, etc. Jodi was knocked down by a hit and run driver whilst crossing a road in the parish whilst I was there. She was seriously injured and put on a life support machine at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. Our church was asked to pray for Jodi and so we did.  Jodi slowly got better, though there were concerns about permanent brain damage. In the event those fears were not realised.  Jodi was fully recovered and back to trampolining.  This was due largely to superb medical care,  perhaps the effect of our prayers is difficult to quantify, what I do know is that the whole family were enormously grateful for our prayers and support for them which helped them to cope at such a difficult time. They experienced the support of a whole community.  And yet other people in similar situations to Jodi have just as much expert medical care, just as much prayer but their life support machine has to be turned off. Sadly, they die.

I think of Helen, a lady in her early 70’s, one of those hardworking folk who are the backbone of any church.  She was always around, making tea, folding Service Sheets, helping with the cleaning, etc. Out of the blue she was diagnosed with cancer and not surprisingly it knocked her back.  In accordance with James 5 she called for the elders of the Church to come and pray for her.  I went to her home with one or two from our Ministry Team, and she had invited a few of her own friends to be there too.  We prayed for her and anointed her.  It was not all that long afterwards that she died. She wasn’t cured.  But she died totally at peace with God, her family, her lot. In that sense she was healed.

I think of Paul and his family. When I arrived in my last Parish, Paul was aged about 10 or 11.  His had been a difficult birth.  His mother had a rare blood condition and was very ill herself at the birth.  Paul just survived, but had a leg amputated immediately. The whole thing had been very much touch and go.  The church was called to prayer and many others prayed for Paul and for that family. But if anybody came to terms with his disability Paul did, though schooling was difficult because once a week he would be at Roehampton hospital. The impact of his artificial leg put strains on other parts of his body.  His mum was always getting calls from school to say that Paul had broken his artificial leg, please come and collect him.  Whenever the family went away they always took a spare leg with them, and many was the trick he played on unsuspecting folk. He was a popular lad, lots of friends. The staff at Roehampton would sometimes ask him to go to the hospital after someone had a leg amputated to demonstrate to them that life could be still lived to the full. He grew to become a lovely Christian boy. He went to university, played in the disability rugby team, went skiing, etc. He is now a nurse in a children’s ward of a hospital.  There is a wholeness about Paul’s life that is brilliant to see.  Healing for Paul is from the point of view of coming to terms with his disability and living life to the full, rather than growing a new leg.

One day we will all meet God face to face.  The redeeming power of Jesus has broken into the world in which we live, but our world is still flawed, and it will be until the day that Jesus returns in glory.  Until that day our world is imperfect and healing incomplete.  We live in a “flawed here and now”, but look forward to the “perfect then and there”. At that time healing will be complete and perfect, and the mysteries with which we live today will be answered.  Until that day, the imperative is to keep praying.

Colin Wood