August 20, 2017
Matthew 15: 21-28
I’d originally planned to preach from the Old Testament this morning. I love all the twists and turns of Joseph’s story. But after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, after listening to the national conversation brewing around me, I realized that I had to start over and preach about the Gospel.
Because right now this story is our story.
Jesus and his disciples are on the move, visiting the region of Tyre and Sidon. These two places have been repeatedly condemned by the prophets of old. The Israelites were instructed to stay away from this region when they entered the promised land. And while Jesus and his disciples are there, this Canaanite woman approaches. The Canaanites were held-up as “enemy” by the Israelites, identified with idolatry and perverted religion. Additionally, this is a woman, with no clout, status or voice. So this Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon is at least trice marginalized — by her race, religion and sex.
This woman is pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. This is what Jesus does! The stories of his healings have been told far and wide; that’s what attracts this woman to Jesus. But does Jesus take this desperate mother into his arms? Does he turn to her with care and concern as we’d expect? No! Jesus starts by completely ignoring her. He sees her desperation, he hears her pleas, and he doesn’t answer her at all.
Like I said, unfortunately, this is our story. This is how it began, and, as much as we like to think we’ve moved on to a fresh new chapter, this is how it has continued for centuries. The names and faces have changed, but the story remains. We’ve pretended not to see the pain of people who have been marginalized. It’s easier to look away than to get involved.
And so we write them out of our history books. Pervert our science and political ideals to make them worth less. Ignore their pleas for help. Create structures that allow us to see them only when necessary.
This is what allows the cancer to grow and spread.
When Jesus doesn’t respond, the disciples urge him to send this woman away. She is such a nuisance, interrupting their work and their peace. Not one of them suggests that Jesus heal her, even though they see her need and know first-hand the miracles that Jesus is capable of. She is not one of them; her pain does not affect them. And so they too become complicit, playing their own parts in this all-too-familiar story.
They move away from her neighborhood. Send their kids to different schools. Avoid those kinds of places.
But it gets worse. Without addressing the woman, Jesus coldly explains himself to the disciples. He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Apparently she is outside his circle of concern.
We’ve all heard, or maybe unthinkingly spoken, these sorts of defensive explanations before. Some things are necessary to keep our children safe, to make our country great. After all, there may not be enough for everyone.
It’s hard to know how the unnamed Canaanite woman feels about all this. Possibly this sort of treatment is so common that she is numb to the hurt and exclusion.
After all this time, she’s probably learned not to wear her hoodie pulled over her head. Not to show emotion to police officers. Not to go alone into bathrooms. She knows where it is safe to shop in her head covering, and which restaurants will serve her without jeers, and which men can be trusted not to touch and hurt her.
She’s learned how to survive.
Maybe under ordinary circumstances she would have walked away, ashamed and embarrassed. But her daughter’s life is at stake. And so despite Jesus’ iciness and the disgusted looks from the disciples, the woman kneels in front of Jesus and begs him again: “Lord, help me!” Now Jesus doesn’t just ignore her, he downright insults her by comparing her to a dog who doesn’t deserve the children’s food.
Often scholars and commentators try to explain away Jesus’ bad behavior. Maybe Jesus was really putting on a show for his disciples so they’d see how ugly their behavior was. Maybe Jesus was testing this woman’s faith. Maybe this was a friendlier conversation that it seems – the Greek word for “dog” in this passage really means “pet dog” so the insult wasn’t so terrible after all. Maybe this conversation is a later addition.
Or maybe not. Maybe this was Jesus. A fully human Jesus that makes us uncomfortable because he saw this woman from the lens of his cultural and religious and racial background and perspective. No one raised when and where Jesus was would expect God’s favor to extend to this woman. And Jesus, it seems, was no different. In his humanness, like us, he was subject to the bias, explicit and implicit, of his time and place. Jesus hadn’t yet begun to see the extent of the unearned privileges that were his because of his sex, his race, his religion.
His religion didn’t stop his family from immigrating to Egypt to escape violence in their homeland. No one assumes he isn’t qualified for his job because of his sex. He could shop in the fruit and olive stands without being followed or harassed because of his skin color.
So the woman persists. She knows that she needs mercy, and believes that Jesus’ God is merciful and compassionate. And so she creatively answers Jesus and exposes his faulty reasoning: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” It shocks us, but at this moment in time, the vision of the Kingdom of God of this foreign, impure woman aligns more closely with God than Jesus’ vision does.
Peppered throughout the story of our country, there have been countless people like this Canaanite woman. People bravely speaking up even though they are met with jeers and violence and sometimes even death. People marching and writing and preaching and loving and imagining a more perfect vision into being against all odds. People like Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and now, tragically, Heather Heyer.
But the Canaanite woman doesn’t give up on her vision of a loving and compassionate God. And so she ends up changing the scope of Jesus’ ministry. She changes the story. She knows Jesus, as it turns out, better than he knows himself. This is a turning point for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
That’s when the Jesus we expect shows up – the one who so lovingly tells her: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” He listened to this woman and learned from her and was open to changing. And from then on, we see his ministry expand to include all kinds of unexpected people — women, sinners, foreigners, and Gentiles — all within his healing touch. This is when Jesus begins to fully understand that people that might be considered disposable to society are essential to God. From then on, Jesus knows their story is part of his story - and part of God’s story - and part of ours. This is the story that we are still writing with every fiber of our beings.
I’ll close with one of my favorite prayers from our prayer book, a prayer “For the Human Family”:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.