The deserving poor? (Matthew 15:10-28)


‘And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from the region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”’ (Matthew 15:21-22)

One of the most formative experiences in my career as a priest happened in the first couple of months of my time here at Trinity. It had to do with people coming to the door asking for money.

I instituted a policy early on wherein anybody who had a decent story got $5 out of me. I figured that by keeping the limit reasonably low, I could afford to work on a ‘give to him who asks’approach, which is surely what Jesus told us to do. It had not occurred to me initially that the low limit might be counterbalanced by high numbers. It did not take long before I had an enormous number of persons coming to claim their $5 on a weekly (if not a daily) basis.

One day I simply ran out. I was using my own money and not the church’s funds, and I simply had nothing left in my wallet. One of the regulars – a particularly obnoxious fellow – came to the door asking for his regular allowance. ‘I don’t have any spare cash today’ I said. ‘That’s OK’ he said.‘I’ll wait here while you go to the bank and get some more.’ ‘No’ I said. ‘I’m not going to the bank to get some more. I simply can’t help you today.’ He got very shirty at this point. He beckoned me outside and pointed to the sign alongside the door. ‘What does that say’ he said. ‘It says Rectory. This is the church, and you’re the priest of the church, so it’s your job to look after people like me.’

It was a formative moment. I decided at that point that it was not my job to look after him. I also stopped handing out $5 to everyone. In fact, I haven’t handed out a lot of money since. I‘ve given out food, clothing, and other articles in abundance, but hardly any more money. Why? Because I can’t afford to, and because I’ve decided that it’s not, fundamentally, my job.

Maybe that was the wrong decision. I know it makes me look like a hard bastard whenever I turn someone away, and for the most part I do try to refer people to other welfare agenies in the area when they are looking for help with their bills. Even so, I never feel quite right about hiding behind a ‘no cash on premises’ policy either, which is why I regularly fail to keep to it.

The problem is that when you don’t have a policy to hide behind, the only alternative is to try to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving cases. This is difficult, as it involves checking out often long and involved stories. And even when you can check out the story, it still involves passing judgment – deciding who deserves mercy and who does not – and that’s not something I’m really sure I’m in a position to do!

It’s easy for me to say ‘you don’t deserve financial assistance because you put all your money through the pokies’, but even it it’s true, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the guy or girl may be genuinely hungry and in need of sustenance. Maybe this is the best way to teach them a lesson! But who am I to make that call? And who am I to know what led that poor person to pour all their money into the pokies in the first place?

Even if I know that the guy at my door who is asking for $5 to buy a hamburger, is in fact an alcoholic who really wants the money to buy a beer, who am I to say that this man with a serious alcohol dependency does not, in a very real sense, need a beer more than I need the $5. Indeed, who am I to say that he doesn’t need the beer more than he needs a hamburger?

We find ourselves making these judgements all the time – between needs and wants, betweendeserving and undeserving, between good guys and bad guys even though we know that our judgments are at best based on only a partial knowledge of a situation, and at worst are based more on cultural biases and prejudices, than on spiritual values.

No. It is far easier to work with a simple iron-clad policy that gives us a straightforward way of determining who, if anybody, receives assistance. If only the New Testament gave us a clear policy. Well … we may have just found one – if not a full-blown policy, at least a passage from which such a policy could be formed. It’s all here in Matthew chapter 15 – the story of a woman whom Jesus considered to be unworthy of his assistance!

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the nation of Israel”, Jesus says to this woman, in an attempt to dismiss her. She falls down and begs him, we‘re told, and Jesus responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the puppies.”

I’ve used the translation ‘puppies’ here (which is found in the International Standard Version) because it sounds a bit more friendly than the normal translation, ‘dogs’. Translators I’ve consulted though do suggest that however we translate it, we need to appreciate the fact that the term is not intended as a compliment,

Thankfully none of the translators I read invoke the more obvious Australian term for female canines. I’m thankful for this, as I cannot imagine Jesus using that sort of language. Having said that, the puppy policy still seems like a remarkably hard line for Jesus to take, whatever terminology he uses!

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the puppies.”

Was Jesus being playful? Was the testing her? Was He… What was he doing?

Let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at the bigger picture.

As we pick up the story in Matthew 15, Jesus is trying to get away.

In chapter 14 Matthew recorded the fact that King Herod had put John the Baptist to death – had had his head served on a platter to his current wife if you remember. Jesus seems to have taken the news of the death of John quite hard, and this is now His third attempt to get some time by Himself since hearing that news.

If you remember what happened the first time, he wandered off to a lonely place, everybody followed him, and he ended up having to feed them all out in the desert, lest any of them should collapse for lack of food on the way home (which is an indication of just how remote a spot Jesus had picked).

After the feeding miracle, you may remember that Jesus sent all the people away and sent the disciples on ahead of him over the lake, while He Himself went up into the hills alone to pray. But He was needed out on the lake if you remember, as the disciples weren’t managing too well in the boat. That story was last week’s reading.

Jesus now makes a third attempt to get away – wandering off into the region of Tyre and Sidon – an area where no self-respecting Jew would follow him. And it seems that this time He has been successful in finding some space. Or at least it seemed that way until a rather outspoken and pushy woman started following Jesus around, shouting “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon”.

Now it’s easy for us to say that Jesus should have just turned around and helped her right then and there. After all, wasn’t that Jesus’ job?

Perhaps that is how you perceive Jesus – as some sort of divine milking machine, dispensing miracles and human kindness on demand to every man, woman and child who asks for it?

Isn’t it everybody’s right to come up and put the coin in the slot and turn the handle, saying ‘Jesus, I’ve got a problem’ and expect the response to pop out, ‘how can I help?’

People do treat Jesus like that – certainly today, but back then too. And generally Jesus just responds, but there are other factors at work here:

We don’t understand exactly why Jesus needed to get away, but we do know that He felt He needed space. We do know that these miracles used to take something out of Jesus. We pick that up sometimes in the Gospel stories. We can appreciate that if Jesus helps out this one Canaanite woman, then chances are he’s going to be surrounded by Canaanite women (and men) by sundown. And we know that Jesus had a sense of His mission priorities, and that He saw His own preaching and healing work as being fundamentally a mission to Israel..

Taking these factors into account, I guess it makes sense that when Jesus finds that he can’t ignore this woman, he turns to her and says, “Lady, you are not my responsibility. This is not my job.” Even so, the dialogue that follows is confusing.

It’s not a dialogue that anyone would have expected Jesus to enter into. Not only do Jews not normally talk with the locals of Tyre and Sidon, but a woman normally would not address a man in public (and certainly not with so much assertiveness!)

It would appear that this woman is desperate. Jesus evidently takes this seriously.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” Jesus says.

She takes the response seriously. “C’mon!”, she barks back, “even the puppies pick up the scraps that fall from the children’s table.”

And Jesus seems to be taken aback! He is impressed!. “Great is your faith, woman! Off you go. Be assured that your daughter is doing just fine.”

It is great news, and it’s just the response the woman is looking for. Even so, it’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant when he complimented the woman’s great faith.

Did he mean, ‘great is your faith in my ability to heal’ or ‘great is your faith in thinking that I (a Jewish Rabbi) would give a damn about a person like you’ or did He mean something altogether different again. I assume that he didn’t mean, ‘Great is your understanding of the fact that I am the long-awaited Messiah come into the world.’

However we understand the affirmation of Jesus, it certainly stands in sharp contrast with his surprised exclamation to his own disciples a few verses earlier, where instead of saying ‘Great is your faith’ we find Him saying ‘Where is your faith?’ And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to distinguish between who is deserving and who is undeserving of help, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

The disciples seem to be such a faithful bunch at times, but at other times we know that they can be completely hopeless. This woman, on the other hand, appears to be completely hopeless, but she turns out to be a person of great faith!

She’s an example to us all! Or is she? Perhaps she’s just another person who came to Jesus looking for welfare assistance, got what she wanted, and then went home. There is certainly no suggestion in the passage that she stuck around and became a disciple.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter in the end how we evaluate the persons in this story. Perhaps that’s what we learn from this story – that we can’t evaluate people. If this passage stands out to us as one where Jesus demonstrates a policy for distinguishing between deserving andundeserving, it is equally clear in this story that He Himself did not keep to that policy.

Perhaps all that we need to pick up here is that Jesus, in the end, has room for all of us – goodand badJew and Canaaniterich and poorcourteous and offensivesick and welldeservingand undeserving. Jesus made room for us all. If so, we’ll need to make room for everyone too.

I have a great fear for this church. I’ve shared it with you before. It’s that we might one day become that church that Mark Twain spoke of, where ‘nice respectable people gather to listen to a nice, respectable man teach them how to be nicer and more respectable.’ I fear this more and more nowadays, for I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nice group of people in this church before! And I look at myself and I fear that I too am becoming nicer and, dare I say it, more respectable!

May God grant us a constant stream of pushy undeserving strangers, intruding their way into our midst, so that we might be continually challenged to grow as an open and compassionate community, so that we might learn from them something of the meaning of faith.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2005. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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