Year A, Proper 15 (Matt. 15:21-28)
In the Name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-Giving God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit
Like most of you, I was mesmerized by the events in Charlottesville last weekend. Personal to me is that Samuel is interning there this summer. He lives in an apartment owned by and located behind St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church. St. Paul’s is across the street from the Rotunda at UVa. Samuel lives a 15-minute walk from downtown. He spent Friday afternoon handing out water bottles to police officers. And he told me that when he saw a bunch of young white guys walking around with tiki torches on Friday, he thought it was a fraternity prank or initiation and not a mob.
One of the striking images from Charlottesville was the juxtaposition between the hate-filled mob preaching ethnic purity and the group of clergy from all backgrounds, marching together and proclaiming the love of God for all people. In comparing those two images, there is no doubt about where Jesus is.
But then, we get to today’s lesson, and here is Jesus telling another person that she didn’t belong because she was from the wrong ethnic group. What are we to make of this story? There are different ways to see what is going on, but, I think, if we look at the overall context, Jesus is echoing the sentiments of his disciples in order to show them and us the fullness of the scope of his ministry and his Gospel and to remind us that he doesn’t belong to us, but we to him.
Whenever you read the New Testament, you should always put yourself in the audience and try to understand what they are thinking. Here, Jesus is near the towns of Tyre and Sidon. This is the area traditionally controlled by the Phoenicians and Canaanites – enemies of ancient Israel. Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with the teachings and the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. They would know that the Messiah and God’s Kingdom belonged to them alone and certainly not the Canaanites.
God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God brought these descendants of the twelve tribes out of slavery in Egypt, and in the desert dictated the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to Moses with its 616 laws. And if we keep reading further in the Jewish scriptures, from Joshua to Kings to the prophets we’ll see that the archenemies of the Israelites were Canaanites and the people of Sidon and Tyre. God instructed Saul to eradicate them and the prophets pronounced curses upon them. And it is these same prophets who spoke of the coming Messiah to deliver Israel.
If you are Jewish at the time of Jesus, there is no doubt that the Messiah is only for you, and you also will have no doubt that the Messiah is not for those people of Canaanite descent. This is what your tradition unequivocally teaches you. His disciples’ disdain for others is not irrational but traditional, scriptural, and reasonable.
But the message of the Gospel, of course, is that God became Human for the whole world, and that his death for our sins and his resurrection for our glory were for all us, not just some of us. We cannot limit who is within the household of faith. To be a Christian is to see the image of God in all people. It’s why Jesus uses a Samaritan (another ethnicity despised by the good religious people of Jesus’ day) to explain who is the neighbor whom we must love.
And this is the message of the story.
Let’s go to the story:
First, the story says that Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus leaves his cultural area and went out beyond its borders. This is the first lesson. The woman also “came out.” She left the comfort of her home to meet the other. Both parties to this interaction only met because each was willing to come out of the familiar.
The Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begs for his help for her daughter. Jesus’ disciples had tried to keep her away because she wasn’t one of them. But Jesus knows her faith.
Jesus’ reply to her, isn’t to test her faith, but to test the faith of his disciples. To test the faith of those who seek to limit the boundlessness of the Spirit of God to their preconceived notions of who God is. As so Jesus questions the woman. And this is the second lesson – unlike the disciples, Jesus chooses to engage the outsider.
She says – “Son of David have mercy on me”
Jesus replies with the thoughts of his disciples – “You’re not one of us. You’re not a descendant of Abraham. You are not a follower of the Scriptures. You are outside of the promises of the Kingdom of God. You don’t belong here. ” I’m certain his disciples agreed with his reply.
She asks a second time by kneeling before him in recognition of who Jesus is and simply says – “Lord, help me.” You see she calls him the “Son of David” and she calls him “Lord” in recognition that he is the Messiah. Paul tells us that it is only by the Holy Spirit that someone can say “Jesus is Lord.” And so we know that this outsider has the Spirit of God within her. The third lesson is we cannot control who cries out to Christ and calls him Lord. We cannot control whose heart God touches.
Jesus then doubles down on the exclusivity of the Messiah for the Jewish people and says – “You don’t give the bread of God’s children to dogs.” In the Jewish lexicon, there is no greater insult than to call a person a “dog.” It’s similar to calling someone a cockroach today. And you can almost see the approval of the disciples. This person who is outside of God’s Kingdom and God’s mercy is being put in her place.
But again the Canaanite woman of great faithfulness responds and makes the request a third time.
But this time, Jesus meets the request and says “Great is your faith.” He tells her your faith in me has brought you into the Kingdom of God. The little box into which his Jewish disciples have placed God’s Messiah has been exploded. The boundaries placed upon God by Scripture and tradition have been breached. And here even a Canaanite woman can partake of God’s glory. This is the fourth and most important lesson.
What does this mean for us? How are we like Jesus’ disciples, and how can we be more Christ-like?
In what ways and in what context do we believe that someone is less than a full member of the household of God? It is easy to look at the mob in Charlottesville to answer this question. Here are the Christian Knights of the KKK, who believe that only white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans are full members of God’s kingdom. But if we are honest with ourselves, in many ways we can be very much like them. Go on Facebook or watch CNN, and there is no shortage of people saying who is in and who is out.
I’m certain that each of us has been told that we too are like the Canaanite woman because of our politics, our sexuality, our denomination, or simply our approach to God. Unfortunately, I am certain that we have behaved the same way toward others. Like the disciples, we all have our bright lines past which we are certain no Christian can be found.
The question for us, therefore, is how we overcome these present divisions in the way that Jesus bridged the hard divide between his Jewish disciples and the Canaanite woman. The story gives us the answer.
1. We must go out. Jesus left the comfort of Galilee and went into the area of Tyre and Sidon. He left that place where he had drawn large crowds. He left the place where he had an enthusiastic following among his own kind. He left that place to go and seek out the other. He left his bubble. Whatever our bubble is, we need to go outside of it. Fox News, read NYT. MSNBC, read National Review. And we should all watch the BBC to escape our American bubble.
2. We must engage the other. Jesus’ disciples were unwilling to engage the Canaanite woman and urged Jesus to send her away. And yet, Jesus engaged her. Jesus saw the image of God in her. He saw the spark of the Holy Spirit working through her, and he engaged her. Hopefully, you will be more diplomatic than Jesus in engaging the other, but he did not send her away.
3. We cannot judge who is in the Kingdom. The disciples wanted to keep Jesus as their own Messiah. It’s why they felt empowered to ignore the Canaanite woman. Too often we want Jesus to be ours as well. We want him to support our politics and our own brand of religion. I would like to think that Jesus is an Episcopalian. But we have to get the order right. Jesus doesn’t follow our views and our prejudices rather we are to follow him. And whenever we are certain he agrees with us, it is then that we must tread even more carefully.
4. We must be ready when the very living spirit of God opens our eyes and our hearts to those whom we may think are excluded from the kingdom. Up until the very end, the disciples knew Jesus was on their side and that the Canaanite woman wasn’t going to receive the mercy she requested. And yet, at the very end, Jesus gave her what she wished.
Therefore, as you go out into the world this week, seek out the Canaanite in your life. Seek out that person or group for whom you are certain stands outside of God’s Kingdom. Engage them without judging them and be ready for God to work within them and within you.
Now, what about those tiki-torch carriers in Charlottesville? In Jesus’ day, the closest equivalent was the Roman centurions who used violence to enforce Roman rule. But at the foot of the cross, the centurion recognizes Jesus as the Son of God. And in Acts, we read of Cornelius the centurion who requests Peter to baptize him and his household.
I recently read an article about a black gentleman who goes around the country engaging with the Klan. He comes to them as a brother in Christ. He engages them. And he is often successful in bringing them out.
And so you see, no one is outside of the power of God’s Kingdom. There is no one whom we are entitled to write-off as not belonging to Jesus.