Sometimes the lectionary editors get it right. While I often scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking when they paired particular readings, this was a week where I was able to laugh all week. Matthew’s telling of the faith of the Canaanite woman is paired with the periscope on the teaching about the “garbage” that comes out of the mouth is that which corrupts and that with Jesus’ reminder that the blind lead the blind into big pits. You may wonder why I find these pairings amusing. Put shortly, I have been able to read on our listserv the nonsense that is being preached in many of our churches around the country this weekend. For many, this is a weekend when Jesus is “cured of His racism.” From this weird perspective, Jesus has a particular failing. He is a racist. And the woman shows Him just how blind He is to the plight of other races. So, through her perseverance, He learns to love others than Himself. Those of us who are accustomed to believe that Jesus was without sin may well wonder how one can avoid sin and still be a racist. Of course, even more basic than that, those of us who believed that He died on the cross while we were yet His enemies have to scratch our heads at the idea that He needed to learn to love others. And, what kind of God needs to be taught something? Do we really want to worship a God who makes mistakes or has errors in judgment or was once racist? Yet that is what a number of others in our faith tradition are hearing this week. Truthfully, I understand the need to paint Jesus as a racist. This week’s Gospel account asks some hard questions. Jesus initially acts in a way which seems to be inconsistent with what He preaches. Why?
On a week when we celebrated the life and death of a wonderful Anglican theologian John Stott, a theologian who often lovingly demanded of his students that they not be sloppy in their understanding nor sloppy in their doctrine nor sloppy in their service of God, it seems appropriate that we tackle this reading head-on. Jesus has travelled intentionally to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is a journey of some fifty miles. By foot! Yes, Jesus and His disciples have walked quite a distance. There is a great teaching about to occur, but Jesus is the one who is teaching. He has led His disciples and us on a long journey with a purpose in mind. We are told that the first person He encounters is this Canaanite woman. She cries out in supplication “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” At first, Jesus is silent. He ignores her plea. We can well imagine her increasing desperation. Certainly, the disciples got sick of her voice. They ask Jesus to send her away. She will not stop crying after them. Finally, Jesus stops to acknowledge her need.
Those of us expecting Jesus immediately to heal her have to be very disappointed. He tells her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Certainly, His ministry has born out the truth of Isaiah’s witness in chapter 53 among other places. The people in Galilee have earned judgment which would make Sodom and Gomorrah cringe. They have rejected Jesus, and their lack of faith caused Him to do no miracles and to move on. The religious leaders of the day have stood opposed to Him from the very beginning, earning His condemnation right before our reading this week that their worship is in vain because their hearts are far from Him. The very people who should have recognized whom Jesus was have rejected Him. Yet this lady of Canaan has correctly identified Him. She may not understand the theological-speak as would we, but she knows Him to be the Son of David. She knows Jesus is heir to the rightful King of Israel. She is a trespasser in His land. She is not of His people, so all she can ask for is His mercy, His undeserved mercy.
So great is her faith in Jesus, by the way, that she as turned from the societally accepted place of healing to Jesus of Nazareth. Outside the city of Sidon existed a temple to Eshmun, a Canaanite god of healing. For this lady to approach Jesus means that she has rejected her own peoples’ teaching. Perhaps she has taken her daughter there and learned that the idols have ears but cannot hear and lips but cannot speak. Perhaps she has simply heard of the healings done by Jesus. Certainly, her kneeling and persistence indicate that she was certain that Jesus could heal. The question is whether He would heal her daughter. All we know is that she turns from her gods to Jesus.
Rather than take injury at Jesus’ words that He was sent to Israel, the woman is emboldened in her faith. She kneels before Jesus and asks Him, begs Him to help her and her daughter. There is no recrimination. There is no charge that He is being racist. If anything, her position as supplicant reinforces the idea that she knew of the covenant made with Abraham. You remember that, right? We read about it a few weeks ago. God promised to make Abraham and Sarah’s offspring number greater than the stars, and they, in turn, would become a nation of priests, a light unto the world. Jesus is not being racist. He is simply fulfilling His role. He was sent to Israel, that Israel might claim its inheritance and live into its covenant with God.
Now that she is kneeling and persistent, Jesus has to honor her supplication, right? Nope. Once again, Jesus confounds us. He tells her that it is not right to take food from children and give it to the dogs. In a day and age of Westminster Dog shows, we might not get the insult here. I know I wouldn’t mind living some of the pampered lives of dogs I have seen on television. I know I wouldn’t mind winning some of the prize money! Yet Jesus’ words should have been taken by the woman as an insult. Jesus is clearly labeling the nation of Israel as God’s children and her among the dogs. Dogs, remember, were usually thought of as animals which ate dead things. To interact with a dog was to become impure. Naturally, Israel did not think kindly of Spot or Old Yeller. Dogs were animals which forced them to be unable to worship. Worse, the image of such dogs were used to describe the enemies of God and His people. 1 Samuel, Proverbs 26 and even Psalm 22 all use the image of a dog to describe those outside His covenant people. Jesus has even used the image before in the Sermon on the Mount to describe those who reject or fail to recognize His offer of salvation and the nearness of the kingdom of God.
Rather than being offended, she recognizes the truths of His claims. He was sent to Israel. But another truth is clearly imbedded in her thinking: salvation of everyone else is of the people of Israel. She takes Jesus’ imagery and twists it to suit her needs. A few dogs were domesticated and fed in the house. They were certainly the exception rather than the rule. But it happened. And taking that image she offers her understanding of God’s covenant. Yes, they were the initial recipients of God’s offer of grace. They were, however, not to be the last. Israel was called by God to bear witness to His love, His mercy, His hesed (covenantal faithfulness) that others will receive His blessings through them! Thus, she sees the rightness of Jesus’ answers. He was sent to Israel. He is their king. But God has promised that others will be blessed through them. As their rightful king, as their rightful messiah, she can ask Him for His crumbs. And He has it within His power and His authority to grant what she asks! Yes, Israel comes first. But all will have a chance to become His children. A Canaanite woman understands God’s promises and presence far better that Nazareth, than Jerusalem, and much of Israel.
Jesus now proclaims her faith. In fact, such is her faith that He honors her for having great faith! And her need is answered. Immediately, we are told, her daughter is healed. There is no formulaic administration; there is no laying on of hands. Jesus commands that her request be granted, and it is! It is that simple. The crumbs of God’s table are enough to satisfy all who seek Him. And she is exalted among those who recognize Jesus for who He was. Those who use Rite 1 to worship are reminded of her perception of God’s truth and her great faith every time they gather and recite the Prayer of Humble Access. We are not worthy to eat His crumbs. Still, He is merciful to all who seek Him.
How does this play out in our lives? Why is this teaching important? This past week, I was reminded of its centrality in our lives and to Matthew’s Great Commission in our service at the Community Meal. There was, I confess, some ungratefulness at our gathering on Wednesday. Some of the newcomers were complaining about the food. Who wants barbeque? Who wants meatballs? You guys are the best and this is all that you do? It was then that a big black hand appeared on my shoulder. I looked back, and one of the regulars said “I got this, Father.”
“Why are you here?” he asked her. “Because I am hungry” she replied. He snorted, “Not hungry enough.” She went to argue but he raised his hand and told her to shush. “You are not really hungry. You do not even have to be here,” he asserted. “What makes you say that? She asked. I wondered the same thing myself. “If you were truly hungry, if you had truly gone some time without food, you’d be grateful simply for the fact that some was in front of you. And if it had been a while since daddy kicked you out or you left in a spat, you’d know that we don’t get barbeques or to even choose what we want to eat in this world. These people asked us, asked us, (pointing a big finger at himself and then gesturing to encompass the room) what we most desired. They could have brought us anything, and we would have been thankful. You see, we need the food or we starve. Until you understand need, you will never be thankful for anything in this life. Why don’t you run home and tell daddy you’re sorry. That way, you are not taking what so many others need.”
I don’t know his name. It has taken me months to get him to say hello, let alone have a conversation. I used to think he was a mechanic—that’s what his clothes said, until Charlie pointed out that he seemed always to have a different name on those clothes. Sometimes I would ask him if any of his clothes were correctly named. He just smiles and shrugs. I do know he is a huge fan of the Big O and Bill Russell. When the “kids” start talking about the newest star, with the possible exception of Kobe, he’s very dismissive. When I agreed with his comparison of Lebron to Wilt, he decided I might know a little about basketball. Our relationship is, as they say, a work in progress.
He looked at me and asked, “Was I too harsh, Father?” as she huffily left the meal site. I laughed, “You’re asking me?” “Why you laughing?” he asked. “Because you probably saved me from saying something unpriestly like ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” I replied. “Truthfully though, we do not know why she left home. She could be abused just as easily as she could be a spoiled brat.” “Nah” he said. ‘Why’s that?” I asked. “If she were abused, she would have never complained to you like that. She would have been too afraid to speak to you like that now. Abused girls are far too timid. Maybe later, were she. But not now.” I wished I could be as certain as he was in the assessment. “If it makes you feel better,” he offered, “I’ll keep an eye out for her. If I see her on the streets, you might be correct that she’s not a brat, just scared. She’ll need a friend or two . . . “
Unless you have experienced need, you cannot be thankful. His words expressed the sentiments of the Canaanite woman. You and I, we will learn as we progress through Matthew, are a sent people. We are sent out to the ends of the earth to proclaim God’s love and salvation to all whom we encounter. So often, we pray “Please, God, don’t make me speak or give money to that bum. Please, Lord, do not drag me overseas for mission. Please, God, don’t open my eyes to the need in my midst.” And yet, as His redeemed people, you and I ought to know the joy and relief that comes from met need. While we were His enemies, He went lovingly to that cross. Our response to His offer ought to be to shout it from the roof tops, to be overwhelmingly joyful in our lives, to be a thankful people in the midst of so many cares and concerns. Best of all, brothers and sisters, we should feel honored. Honored. For reasons known only to Himself, God has chosen you and me as His ambassadors and sent us into the world to proclaim His love. Could there be a greater job? Could there be a more important work? No. Ours is to remind people that they are loved by their God and saved by their God, if only they will admit their need and seek Him. Ours is to identify the persistent seeking in others and to steer them to the One who saves, the One whose crumbs are more satisfying than any of the feasts of our own creation!
One last note on the Canaanite woman and what we learn: Scripture does not occur in a vaccuum. There is a Paul Harvey moment to this narrative which we will, unfortunately, skip as we progress next week to Peter's confession of Jesus as the mesiah. Jesus leaves this region and returns to the Galilee region. Mark recounts that He specifically returns to the Deapolis, the mostly Gentile region on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It is there among the Gentiles where Jesus performs healing miracles and another feeding miracle. True, He only feeds 4000 men, besides the women and children, but think of the imagery! His mission is not complete until the Gentiles are drawn into that feast He initiates! Brothers and sisters, His crumbs do satisfy needs, just as our heroine reminded us today. But our Lord calls everyone, every single person in this world, to His feast. Right now, in this world, the crumbs from that feast give us the slightest touch of His blessings. And those crumbs, and His invitation, ought to remind us that His kingdom has come near. And one day, one glorious day, we and all those who have responded to His call will share in that marriage feast when heaven is joined to earth and His purposes truly become our own!