Surprise Me: A Lesson for Preachers from Matthew’s Gospel

Surprise Me: A Lesson for Preachers from Matthew’s Gospel

In a recent interview with music YouTuber Rick Beato, the musician Sting made a comment about songwriting that warrants reflection. Asked about his frequent use of less predictable notes in his “uncopiable” melodic compositions, Sting responded, “To me, the essence of all music is surprise … composition is really about surprise.”

This, I think, is a profound observation. And I’d be willing to go further and suggest that all good art is, in some way, characterised by surprise. Such surprise could arise from the technical, aesthetic, emotional, or other dimensions of a work. But whatever the case, surprise is essential to an artwork’s ability to allow us transcendent experiences, moments of wonder, and public and personal renovation. It is when our expectations are up-ended, our predictions pulverised, that there develops the disequilibrium necessary to open our minds and hearts to new possibilities—to transformation.

It is for this reason that preaching—an artform, to be sure—must engender surprise. Not mere entertainment, mind you, nor an obnoxious or abrasive kind of shock, but surprise. Entertainment, after all, breeds consumers, and shock is more about the ego of the preacher than the gospel that is preached. But surprise is about making the seemingly familiar once more unfamiliar, that it might awaken our souls from the drowsiness that too easily besets us.

How can those of us who preach better cultivate surprise in our sermons so as to transport our hearers to new places of possibility rooted in the subversive gospel of Jesus Christ? I’m not sure I have a good answer. But one inspiration for learning to be more surprising in our preaching is surely the author of Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, he is a master of surprise. From emphasising Gentile women in the Messiah’s genealogy (Matt 1:2-6) to including reports of tombs opening and dead saints visiting people in Jerusalem (27:52-53), Matthew is skilful in knocking the reader off-balance in order to proclaim the surprising good news of Jesus the Messiah.

Now, it is well-known amongst biblical scholars that Matthew depicts the story of Jesus as a fulfilment of the Old Testament story. But Matthew frequently does this in unexpected ways. One striking example is the string of stories found in Matthew 14:13-15:39, which include the episodes of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ walking on water, the Canaanite woman, and the feeding of the four thousand.

In Matt 14:13-21, we find Jesus in a deserted place, inundated with crowds from the villages. Having healed their sick out of compassion, evening arrives. The disciples seek to send the now more than five thousand people home to the villages so they can eat. But Jesus objects and, eventually, miraculously feeds them from five loaves and two fishes.

Any good Jew would have recognised this story as recapitulating the feeding of the people in the wilderness in Exodus 16. There are, after all, twelve baskets leftover, which doubtless represents the twelve tribes of Israel. Indeed, Matthew’s story pictures Jesus as having surpassed even Moses since Moses merely acts as a mediator in Exodus 16, whereas Jesus is himself responsible for the miracle in Matthew’s story.

Moreover, this meal also signals towards a future event: the messianic banquet to which many Jews looked forward at this time. In Jesus’ feeding of the people, the past and the future have come together, with Jesus—the one greater than Moses—as the fulfilment of the past and the sign of the future to come.

The following story, in Matt 14:22-33, sees Jesus walking on water. Again, a first-century Jew would have recognised this story as a recapitulation of the story of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). And, again, Jesus is pictured as surpassing even Moses since, while Moses relied on God to split the waters as God had done at creation, Jesus simply traverses them himself; he, like God, is the master of creation.

This story also points to a future reality whereby all creation will eventually be re-ordered according to the design of the master. Again, in this story the past and future are brought together as Jesus fulfils the story of Moses and the Israelites and acts as a sign of the coming renewal of creation.

Eventually we come to the story in Matt 15:21-28 of the Canaanite woman. Matthew has created a pattern in the preceding stories of Jesus surpassing Moses. A first-century Jew would hear the reference to a Canaanite woman and immediately think back to the stories of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. After all, there are no Canaanites in Matthew’s time; calling someone a Canaanite would be anachronistic. The name “Canaanite” is clearly a literary device, a rhetorical flourish, one that Matthew adds intentionally (compare the same story found in Mark 7:24-30). This Canaanite woman represents a traditional enemy of Israel and, in a sense, of God.

We know from the pattern set so far where story is leading. If Jesus is greater than even Moses, then surely he will finallyfulfil the command found in the Law to wipe out the Canaanites. As biblical scholar Grant LeMarquand reminds us, Deuteronomy 7 commands that the seven nations that include the Canaanites should be destroyed and shown no mercy:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

But then the Canaanite woman cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David” (Matt 15:22).

How very strange: a Canaanite referencing the military champion of Israel, King David. Surely if Jesus were truly the Son of David, he would finally put an end to Israel’s enemies, starting with this Canaanite. He’s not going to show them mercy; he’ll do what the Law commanded and show them no mercy!

Jesus, for his part, seems at first to fulfil some of our expectations, indicating his ministry is not open to the woman: “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). But this only deepens the woman’s resolve: “Lord, help me,” she cries (v. 25). Jesus responds again in a way that seems to fulfil our expectations: “It is not a good thing to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v.26). The woman’s response is sharp and faith-filled: “Yes, Lord; for the dogs also eat, from the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Upon this declaration of faith, everything turns. Jesus acknowledges the greatness of the woman’s faith and heals her daughter.

This wasn’t how the story was meant to go. Jesus was meant to surpass Moses, to do what Moses and his generation were always meant to do: destroy Israel’s enemies, showing them no mercy. And yet, Jesus embraces the Canaanite. Mercy is shown where mercy had not been shown before. And Matthew leads us to this point where we must reckon with the truth that Jesus has surpassed Moses, but not in the way we might expect.

The next story sees Jesus feeding another crowd. This time, they are in a Gentile region and there are over four thousand people. How can they be fed? Jesus is given seven loaves and some fish and, taking the seven loaves and giving thanks, he again feeds an enormous crowd. And when all have had their fill, the disciples collect the leftovers and there are seven baskets remaining. Where Moses had said to destroy seven nations (Deut 7:1-2), Jesus heals and feeds them.

Again, the past and future are brought together, with the story of Moses being fulfilled in a deeply surprising way, and there being a foretaste of the future messianic banquet in which all nations come into communion with God and one another.

I can imagine this story creating a blessed disequilibrium in its audience, both then and now. It confronts all manner of nationalisms and ethnocentrisms, as well as all temptations to use religious traditions and political histories for division and detestation. And, of course, it reminds its audience of the way in which humble-yet-powerful faith might be exercised by those we least expect—indeed, even those we consider beyond the pale.

To return to my earlier question: how might we cultivate this kind of surprise? I entrust this question to you.  May we continue to grow and learn from Matthew how to preach, in surprising ways, the story that surprises the world.

Matthew Anslow
Educator for Lay Ministry, Vital Leadership Team


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