|All Saints Church in Worcester|
Today's text comes from the 15th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, and goes like this:
Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15: 21-28)
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Here in Massachusetts we have inherited a whole lot of place names that subtly remind us of the native people who lived here before waves of immigrants arrived from Europe. I live on Monadnock Road, and last week I crossed over the Sagamore Bridge heading toward Hyannis and beyond. I’m told you have a priest here is rather fond of Cuttyhunk. Every time we cross over Lake Quinsigamond or hike up Mount Wachusett or out by the Quabbin Reservoir, these place names remind us of the people who were here before us.
I am old enough to have been taught a rather sanitized story about the first Thanksgiving that I took for granted for a long time. My kids, now in their twenties, are young enough that they learned early on that the first Thanksgiving was a lot more complex…
So there is a certain football team that plays in Washington, DC – perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy around the name of that team in the news. The name feels like a painful slur to many. Think for a moment about the kind of visceral reaction you have—the emotional (more than the intellectual) feelings about that name and all that it conjures up. It is that more visceral stuff that I want you to be in touch with as we come to this morning’s gospel reading, to this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Are you with me?
In Jesus’ day, that name Canaanite itself was loaded, because it referred to the native people, the indigenous people who were on the land before God promised it to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring. When people talk about the violence in the Old Testament, very often they are referring to some of the stuff in Joshua and Judges which is anything but a sanitized account of forcibly trying to take the land from the Canaanites—who had no desire to just walk away. While Joshua did win the battle of Jericho and the Israelites did eventually win the war and the land, that didn’t mean they eradicated the Canaanites or a memory of their presence completely.
If you do a little word search of the Old Testament, that word “Canaanite” pops up 78 times. Only once, though, in the New Testament – in the gospel that has our attention today. In Genesis it is used to refer to the people who were living in the land before Abraham was promised it. You may recall that both Isaac and Jacob go back home looking for spouses, because they are commanded not to marry the local Canaanite women. These old stories hint at a “problem” that emerged; at least these inter-faith marriages between Jews and Canaanites were perceived as a problem by the folks writing the Bible.
By the time we get to Exodus, the Lord is promising to “drive out” the Canaanites (along with the Hittites and the Jebusites and Amorites and others.) Check out Deuteronomy 7:1 where the Lord promises to just “clear them away.” Yet as I mentioned, by the time you get to Joshua and Judges, there is the realization that you can’t just clear Canaanites away – any more than you can clear away Native Americans, or Palestinians, or any proud people.
The more the world changes, the more it stays the same, eh?
So at first glance, today’s Gospel reading may seem to be from a world very different from ours, a world before Google and Facebook and all the rest. But it is in fact really about an encounter that is an age-old problem, a challenge that remains with us today. In fact this gospel reading could have been ripped from today’s headlines in Iraq, or Gaza, or Ferguson, Missouri. What we see is an encounter between people who inhabit very different worlds: a Jewish male rabbi and this Canaanite woman who starts shouting at him. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.
It’s important to slow down in our reading to see what happens next. First, Jesus tries to just give her the silent treatment. He ignores her- maybe hoping she’ll just go away. Then the disciples tell him he needs to make it clearer and tell the woman to get lost. Instead he offers her an explanation, of sorts: lady, I just don’t have time or energy for this. My mission is clear and it’s to the lost sheep of Israel.
If he’d stopped there it might not have been so bad, but it’s the words that come out of Jesus’ mouth next that are so jarring: it’s just not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, he tells the woman.
Wow. Did he really just say that? The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God?
But here is the really extraordinary thing: this Canaanite woman is undeterred. Call her whatever name you want; Matthew doesn’t give her a name except this one - she is a mother. No, it’s more than that – she is a mother with a sick child. And as such, she is on a mission from God.
So she takes Jesus’ slur and turns it back on him:
Even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. Sir. I am begging you – please help my daughter.
As one scholar puts it, she is fully aware of her social location and the limitations that places on her. She doesn’t deny that social reality; instead she claims it and embraces it even. And in so doing she insists on being seen and heard. She refuses to be silent and invisible. Hands up; don’t shoot!
She protests in a way that gets Jesus’ full and undivided attention. And then he heals her daughter. He seems to have changed his mind—maybe he is not sent just for the children of Israel but rather that in him there might no longer be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Her witness allows him, and us, to glimpse something of the wideness in God’s mercy.
Now some pious religious folks sometimes don’t like it that Matthew included this story because let’s be honest – it does not put Jesus in his best light. I guess I’m not that pious –because I have always loved this story. It feels so real to me. If we believe in the Incarnation – I mean if really believe that the Word of God pitched tent among us and dwelt among us and took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the scandal of that claim is that Jesus lived in a particular time and place as a first-century Jewish male. Living in a particular time and place, like all of us he picked up the biases of place – at home or at school or in his grandfather’s wood shop. As the old Rogers and Hammerstein piece puts it, “you’ve got to be taught to hate…” But until you are really confronted with prejudice you don’t even recognize it as such – you just think it’s how the world is. Those dogs. They can’t be trusted, you know.
The question - for us as for Jesus - is not whether prejudice can be avoided; that is in the air we breathe. The question is how we can learn to overcome it. How do we move beyond the names our parents or grandparents used to refer to people from outside their own “tribe?” How do we break down the walls that separate people from one another? It seems to me that takes work, but today’s gospel reading gives us a glimpse into what is possible, with God’s help.
Back to that football team in Washington – did you know that they started out as the Boston Braves? The reason given for the name change in 1933 was so they would not be confused with the baseball team that was also in Boston at the time that went by the same name. So they took on the name Redskins, and then four year later moved south to Washington. Now it’s unclear whether or not anyone perceived this name as racist at the time – perhaps it was innocent enough. But the point is that we live in different times and we know now how it makes people feel. So how do we change our minds, change our words, change our behaviors once the hurt that such words convey comes into our consciousness?
This is ultimately what repentance is all about – a turning and a changing of our minds and an opening up of space in our lives for the other. In Gaza and in Iraq and in Ferguson, Missouri and in Washington, DC and on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond – this is still how change happens, and how the world is made new. One day at a time, to be sure. But that’s where it begins.
So some old sexist man whose values have stayed locked in the 1950s has two daughters and then five granddaughters, and one day he starts to think about violence against women or about equal pay for equal work or school sports and - some of you know this guy, right? He starts to change. Yes? Maybe?
Or a kid sits his evangelical parents down and tells them what he has always known, and at some level what they have known too: that he is gay and now he needs them to know, and to love him for who he is, for who God made him to be. And sometimes, by God’s grace, they muster the strength and courage to embrace him and let him know that he is always and forever loved.
What I love about Jesus in this story is precisely his humanity: right before our very eyes he grows in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.
And what I love about this Canaanite woman is that she refuses to back off or remain invisible. She shouts until she is heard. Until justice is done – because her sick child is just as precious in God’s sight as any of the lost sheep of Israel.