August 20 2017
Jesus left that place 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.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me?
This morning’s gospel lesson picks up not far from where last week’s story ended. We concluded with Peter’s plea for Jesus to save him when he stepped out of the boat to draw close to Jesus. Peter is chastised a bit for letting fear paralyze his forward progress. Why do you doubt oh one of little faith? The rest of the disciples who had witnessed the miracle of Jesus walking on the water and calming the sea remark that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Once the boat reaches shore on the other side of the sea, crowds bring their sick to Jesus so that he might heal them.
After some time, the Pharisees and scribes make the trip from Jerusalem to make inquiry with Jesus about his teachings. After offering a sharp critique of the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus begins to teach about what is pure and what is defiled. At the heart of the matter is a question on whether or not Jesus’ disciples wash their hands before they eat in accord with the tradition of the elders. It is not what enters the mouth of a person that defiles a person, it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.
In hearing this teaching, it reminded me of a conversation I overheard this past week between folks in the lobby of the vet clinic near my house. The Mason Lodge had an annual BBQ sale yesterday and the two individuals were giving thanks that they were no longer bound by the Old Testament restrictions on pork (and shellfish for that matter). They were thankful their love for Jesus made it possible to enjoy ribs and pork shoulder without risking ritual impurity and being cut off from the community of faith.
There was once ancient concern about what food was ritually clean and unclean-eating ritually unclean food would prevent an individual to refrain from activities in the temple or synagogue for a period of time. Jesus points past concerns of properly preparing a dinner menu that maintains ritual purity by framing purity as a heart issue. Are you eating pork or lobster? Are you washing your hands before the meal? These aren’t the right kind of questions. Is your heart full of malice? Are you a liar? Do you steal in order to get ahead? Does your speech spread hatred and venom wherever your words land? Do you have lust for the spouse of another?
These are the heart issues that Jesus raises up before the attention of the crowd and the Pharisees. What emanates out of you through your words, your actions, your social media postings, and the ways you relate to your family are the best indication of your inner life with God. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.
It is this section of teaching that sits between Jesus walking on the water and the episode this morning where Jesus travels to a distinctly non-Jewish community. He intentionally goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is close to the Mediterranean Coast, a significant contrast in landscape to the Judean Highlands around Jerusalem. This move could evoke a memory from 1 Kings 17 of the prophet Elijah being told by God to go to Zeraphath at the onset of a drought.
Then the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah instructs her to go home and prepare a bit of food for him. She plainly tells him she barely has enough ingredients to make anything of substance. He promises her that if she makes food for him and then a little something for herself and family that the Lord God will make sure the oil and flour are not used up until the drought ends. She follows his instructions. But after some time the widow’s son falls ill and dies. She lashes out at Elijah accusing him of bringing this misfortune upon her household. Elijah cries out to God and pleads with God for the boy’s life to return to him. When the boy is restored to life, Elijah returns him to his mother, and she declares that Elijah is sent from God and that his words are true.
This community memory of Elijah going to the widow in Zeraphath sets up Jesus going to Tyre and Sidon. Perhaps it even raises some expectation in Matthew’s community that Jesus will encounter hospitality among an individual outside the fold of Israel and God’s covenant people. As Jesus and entourage are on the move, a woman from the region, oddly called a Canaanite, comes pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter. She could have been called a Gentile but instead we are to see her as the ancient inhabitant of the region that the Israelites destroyed when they came out of Egypt. Jesus and entourage are descendants of the folks who once decimated the region in which they are traveling. You can read the book of Joshua for the extended version.
Lord, Son of David have mercy on me. That’s a heart cry placing trust solely beyond one’s self. Sweet Jesus, do this for me. I can’t do it myself. It’s not unlike Peter’s cry when he’s sinking in the water. Jesus doesn’t even have the common decency to acknowledge or address the women’s request. Are there cultural, social, and gender norms at play in this scenario? Of course. It’s almost difficult for us to comprehend the scandal of cross cultural interaction between a man and a woman in a public space. Jesus is standing squarely within his tradition and upholding every boundary intended to keep others down and out-at least for a moment.
The disciples are getting irritated. This woman will not leave us alone. She’s insistent. She’s making a scene. Please tell her to leave. Rather than dismiss her or heal her daughter Jesus offers up an answer to a question that nobody was asking, at least not publicly. The unasked but answered question is who is included in the reign of God and Jesus’ ministry? I’m here for the house of Israel, for those God made a covenant with on the way out of Egypt. Nobody else. You’re on the wrong side of the fence to get help from me today. Too bad. Sorry.
Instead of departing the unnamed woman kneels in front of Jesus as if he is an enthroned king. She calls him ‘Lord,’ a title that carries some authority and religious overtones, and pleads again for help on behalf of her daughter. She’s starting to understand and trust who Jesus is and this is some time before Peter makes his confession that Jesus is the Christ. Imagine that, someone outside of Israel’s fold makes this statement of faith and trust before one of the twelve in the inner most circle of supposed understanding of Jesus’ ministry. In other miracle healings conducted by Jesus, sometimes it is enough for an individual to offer up the smallest bit of trust or belief and Jesus renders up the requested healing. Then the healed individual is commended, ‘your faith has healed you’, and he or she departs.
Not so today. Jesus isn’t having it. Woman, you’re not the right kind of person to take the promises of God from the covenant people for yourself. It’s a mentality of scarcity. There’s not enough of God’s grace and Jesus’ ministry to go around. It’s a zero sum equation. If you get more, somebody else has to get less.
The woman argues back. All I’m looking for is crumbs and there’s enough of those around to satiate my soul. She’s not making a claim on the main course. She’s not arguing that Jesus’ ministry is misdirected toward the folks of Israel and it should be entirely Gentile focused. She just sees the possibility that the reign of God has enough abundance for Jew and Gentile alike. Let me have the crumbs of your ministry Jesus-even that’s enough to heal my daughter. Then there is the commendation: Woman, you have great faith. Her daughter is instantly healed.
Honestly, this is a troubling text because Jesus sounds like a jerk and because there is a troubling theological question under the surface. The unnamed mother is spoken to condescendingly by both Jesus and the disciples and treated as little more than an annoyance in a ministry plan. Thank goodness the mother didn’t yield to the nonsense of the disciples who were playing gatekeepers to Jesus. She inches ever closer until she carves out enough space in God’s reign for her non-Jewish daughter to be healed. Like the persistent widow and the judge, strong unyielding women advocate until justice and healing prevail in their home and among their neighbors. It’s a surprise to see Jesus give enough room for the daughter’s healing given his own statements about the exclusivity of his ministry. I don’t think he felt any compulsion to address the mother’s suffering-she was outside his area of concern. So what changed? And that’s the troubling question.
Did Jesus change his mind about what his ministry goals were? Did a desperate mother mold the reign of God into something it wasn’t a few minutes prior? If God sent Jesus into creation for redemption’s sake, wouldn’t there have been clarity about his mission from the get go? Is God movable or in other words, does our suffering have any impact on the life of God? As far as this story goes, persistent pleas for help can change God’s intentions. The Passover story reinforces this claim as God heard the cries of his people suffering in Egypt.
If we take seriously the possibility that God’s heart is moved by the suffering among us and around us, let’s put our ears to the ground to listen carefully. There are untold numbers of mothers and fathers, spouses, friends, neighbors, and coworkers who are pleading with God to show up and do something redemptive in their life. The pain and suffering is almost too great to bear. So when you hear stories from the underside of discrimination and all the other -isms and -phobias that make our world a hostile place, consider that your neighbors pleas of ‘help me Lord’ are changing the heart of God and the texture of God’s reign.
Bless you in the name of the Almighty. Amen.