St. Paul’s Congregational Church
August 16, 2020, Matthew 15:21-28 – 15A
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
These days I’ve been asking the question, “what’s wrong with this picture” a lot – so much of what’s going on around us leads us to wonder – maybe you have too. And today’s gospel passage telling of this confrontation between Jesus and the woman might lead us to ask that same question, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
We meet Jesus – the Jew - as he has moved on to Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast where those called Pagans traditionally lived and where there was a long standing ethnic feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people in this area – this story is still being played out all over the Mideast, indeed in other places in the world, isn’t it, with terrible consequences. Jews would have nothing to do with Canaanites, pagans – and the very fact that Jesus, the faithful Jew, went into this territory ought to give us a clue that something important is about to happen.
This Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus is obviously desperate – we understand that. We know that a mother, a father, will do anything for their child – there are no boundaries when a child is sick – nothing will stop a parent from doing everything they can to save their child. This woman – we don’t know her name - she knows that Jews will have nothing to do with Pagans – she also knows that women just don’t ordinarily speak to strange men. But she bursts out of the crowd shouting: “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” The disciples want Jesus to send her away –most of the time, though, he either ignores them or scolds them, and goes about his preaching, teaching, healing, touching, as usual.
But not this time. That’s one of the most haunting scenes to me – his shows his compassion over and over again – in feeding the 5,000; the multiple healings he does throughout his travels, his incredible patience, his listening skills. What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, maybe Jesus’ human side is coming out here – he’s tired. He’s overwhelmed by need. I’ve behaved in less than compassionate ways when I’ve been overstressed and tired – I know that. But Jesus? In the context of the times, his behavior isn’t so unexpected – but it is – it is to us.
Why didn’t Jesus answer her right away?
Because she‘s a woman? Because she’s a pagan Canaanite? Because she was way out of line? According to Jewish tradition, Jesus ignoring her would have been the correct behavior.
These reasons don’t make sense either, do they, based on what we know of other encounters Jesus has, especially with women. The longest conversation he has with anyone in the Bible, including those with his closest disciples, is with the Samaritan woman at the well. We know how radical his teachings are – so very counter cultural. Don’t we expect more of him than to conform to the expectations of society?
Then when Jesus does speak it’s still not what we expect: he tells the woman and the crowd that his mission is aimed only at the lost sheep of the House of Israel – the Jews.
The Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would reconstitute Israel and gather the scattered sheep. This is what Jesus has been doing throughout Matthew’s gospel – but still…. We can’t imagine Jesus treating some people as outsiders – but that’s what he’s doing here.
This woman doesn’t quit though – her daughter needs help now. Another stunning response: he says, it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Children was a term of the time for the Jews. Dog was a term of the time for others – for Gentiles like her. But she takes his words and throws them back at him – yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
Jesus appears to be amazed at her persistence – she’s not only a woman, but she is a woman arguing points of theology with a rabbi! And even more, she’s a gentile who supposedly knows nothing about theology. But she does know something about Judiasm – the cry “have mercy on me” is often found in the scriptures. And in using the term, “Son of David” she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah.
After all this, Jesus does respond to her request and gives her what she wants – he heals her daughter. And he even says to her, “Woman, Great is your faith.”
What just happened here?
Maybe Jesus changed his mind – maybe his mind opened in a new way – so much so that the woman convinced him to help her in spite of everything the culture of the time demanded.
Maybe what happened is that Jesus learned a lesson.
Now, that statement can seem a little crazy. We’ve been taught that Jesus is God. We’ve been taught that God doesn’t make mistakes, that God doesn’t have to learn anything. Well, maybe we forget that Jesus was fully human too. We forget the great mystery of our faith that calls Jesus fully human, fully divine. We forget the passages of the Bible that show his humanity: he got hungry. He got thirsty. He was afraid. He got tired. He got angry. He felt all the emotions that you and I feel. Oh yes, Jesus had a divinity that none of us have, but sometimes even Jesus struggled to get in touch with his divine nature.
It’s almost as if Jesus is responding to this woman automatically – as he was expected to do – but then he suddenly stops and thinks, “Wait a minute – what’s wrong with this picture?”
Right here in this story is the time when Jesus expands the circle – right here in this story is the time when we see his mission expanding to include all people – not just the Jews. “Great is your faith” he says to this woman. The gentile woman. The pagan woman. This is a remarkable statement – a radical statement. Just a few verses before in this gospel Jesus has been marveling at the lack of faith and understanding among his closest disciples – but this woman’s faith is in such contrast to the lack of faith among those in Jesus’ inner circle. They don’t understand. But she does.
This Canaanite woman with all her pushiness seems to understand that the grace of God present in Jesus will not be limited by existing boundaries of who is deserving and who is undeserving, who is on the inside, and who is on the outside.
Jesus was able to overcome the biases and discrimination and limits built into his own society. And that’s never easy.
Overcoming the biases and discriminations of our time and society is still one of the hardest things to do – so often we’re not even aware of them - they are built in to our culture. We grow up with them – we don’t know anything different. That is, until someone calls us out on our beliefs. And that’s what this persistent woman did for Jesus, when she said, even the dogs get the crumbs the children leave. Whatever crumbs there are to be had, this woman begs for them.
And she gets to Jesus and stops him short. This is faith! There is no more powerful affirmation of the inclusive nature of God’s love nor the universal gift of God’s grace than in this story.
This woman stretches Jesus to show us new heights of God’s love – a love that is unconditional – no matter our appearance, sin, weakness, mistakes, gender, ethnicity, beliefs or anything else. I wonder, if maybe for Jesus it’s partly because the “other” now has a face.
Jesus’ compassion shows a new dimension: his love and healing power are not just for the “insiders” – the Jews, the disciples who walk with him, but his love and healing power overflow, even to this outsider – this woman – this gentile. It doesn’t matter whether she’s Jew or gentile – her daughter is sick – she’s pleading for help. And her daughter was healed – instantly.
If Jesus struggled so with overcoming the limits, the biases, the discriminations of his society, it’s no wonder that we do too! Aren’t we in the midst of that very struggle today? And if Jesus stopped short and listened and acted, so must we.
God wants us to reach out in unconditional love to our neighbors too – no matter who they are – no matter what they look like – no matter what their abilities are – no matter what their physical, emotional, mental capabilities or limitations are. God knows that our society has limitations and God wants us to expand our circles too – God is looking for us to bring Jesus’s message of love and hope to a hurting and broken world.
Who are the Canaanites among us today? Who do we see as “other? Who do we not welcome into our fellowship? What message do we send, knowingly or unknowingly, to the “others”, the Canaanites, in our world. And are we brave enough to look into the faces of those some might consider “other.” Are we brave enough to get out of our own spaces and meet those we consciously or unconsciously consider “other?” To challenge our own assumptions?
One Martin Luther King Day holiday I took a group of children and youth in Middlebury to the local food bank with vans full of donated cereals. As they unloaded, they met some of the people who would receive them. I’d spent a sabbatical summer working in an inner city day camp there in Waterbury and some of the families I knew were there at the food bank that day – the Middlebury kids were surprised as we greeted each other – by name. Then when I took them to the local soup kitchen, I was greeted by some of the guests. Finally one of the kids said to me, “You know these people? They all know your name! And you know theirs!”
All of a sudden the “other” had faces – the “other” had names. What these children and youth had been doing for many months collecting cereal took on a whole new meaning and intensity.
The confirmands in Glen Ridge who served at the Bethel Soup Kitchen and the Pantry in Bloomfield experienced this too – as we came home from our time there, I would ask them, so was it what you expected? Some of them went there a little nervous about the people they would meet – we all have images in our heads about those who come to soup kitchens and food pantries – but what they saw challenged their stereotyped ideas – almost all of the guests who came for dinner or to receive food packages were, in fact, not homeless, but people who go to work every day but just don’t make enough money to make all their ends meet – they need help and at Bethel they get that help. They all smile and say thank you. The children grin (and their mothers do too) when we ask if they’ve eaten their vegetables before they get the ice cream dessert – senior citizens share fellowship and food at a large table where they gather – the guests are people who look like us, who don’t look like us, but all created in God’s image – just as we are – and that’s good. The need has a face – and our circles are expanded! And that’s very good. It’s by rubbing shoulders with our neighbors that we are changed – just as Jesus was changed when he really saw and heard and faced the “other”.
And let’s remember that the Canaanite woman who is still shouting at us to show mercy is among us today. Only maybe she looks like a person of color in our neighborhood or in nearby Newark or Irvington. Or maybe she looks like the refugee children and families trying to cross the border in Texas to escape violence in their homelands. Or maybe she looks like the woman shouting on the street corner as she battles the demons of mental illness. Or maybe it’s person who has withdrawn from family and friends into the depths of depression. Every one of these is a child of God: our brothers and sisters.
The circle becomes bigger, doesn’t it. And the joy becomes deeper and more profound too. May we all open our hearts and open our Spirits to bring this message of hope and love to a broken world. Let’s make our circles bigger and bigger – together. Let us pray:
This story is not the one I have in mind when I pray to be more like Jesus. I am already good at ignoring things that threaten to throw off my carefully laid plans. I need no encouragement to try to control the focus of my work according to my vision—which I conveniently claim is yours. In my weariness and frustration, I can easily become dismissive—if not plain mean—to people in need.
I do want to be like Jesus, God. But not the Jesus who ignores this woman. Not the Jesus who calls her a dog.
I want to be like the Jesus who is caught off guard. The Jesus who listens after all. The Jesus who lets himself be interrupted. The Jesus whose compassion overcomes irritation.
The Jesus who says, “Not my will But yours.”
Amen! (prayer by Maren Tirabassi)