(a sermon for August 30, 2015, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost; seventh in a series, based on Matthew 15:21-28)
I have to say that one of the things I’ve really loved about doing this particular sermon series all summer is that it’s provided an opportunity for a fresh encounter with the Jesus we know and love!
You know; the Jesus we remember from Sunday School: the Jesus who is ever and always kind and gentle; compassionate and caring to all God’s children, no matter what; the one who’s truly as open and affirming to the woman at the well with the five husbands as he is with the all the village children who clamor to sit in his lap! I don’t know about you, friends, but from a preaching standpoint this is great stuff! I mean, isn’t this the Jesus we want to know? And isn’t this the Jesus who is for us “good news” and the very embodiment of the Kingdom of God?
Absolutely… so what do we do, then, with our gospel reading for this morning, in which Jesus – Jesus our friend, kind and gentle – actually responds to a woman in desperate need of help with words that not only come off as cold and dismissive, but also seem kind of insulting!
Suffice to say that this is one encounter with Jesus “along the way” that’s unfamiliar, to say the least, and more than a little bit unsettling! But there it is in Matthew’s gospel, and as we pick up the story this morning, Jesus has traveled northwest from Galilee “to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” both villages along the Mediterranean Sea. And though Matthew doesn’t say so, there is some sense that Jesus was seeking some respite from the all the crowds who’d been flocking to him at this point in his ministry: Mark’s version of this story even goes so far as to say that Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there.” (7:24) But of course, this wasn’t to be, since almost immediately “a Canaanite woman from that region,” whose daughter had been “cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit,” (from The Message) comes down from the hills and starts shouting to Jesus for all she’s worth; desperate for his help and hoping for an act of healing.
And what’s the first thing that Jesus does here? He ignores her!
That’s right; the woman’s yelling and screaming and doing everything she can to get Jesus’ attention (actually doing what any mother would do under the circumstances), but Jesus won’t even acknowledge her! As I say, this doesn’t seem like the Jesus we know and love, and it gets even worse; when the disciples, who’ve finally had enough of all her shouting, come to Jesus to complain, Jesus has a very blunt response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And then, when the woman finally drops to her knees before Jesus and literally begs, “Lord, help me,” this is what Jesus says (and honestly, if it weren’t printed right there in Matthew’s gospel, you wouldn’t believe it!): “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I mean, what’s the deal? Was it that, as one commentator has suggested, Jesus was having “a bad day?” Was he really all that tired from all the crowds who’d been clamoring after him? Or was it something worse? We need to understand here that this wasn’t some random comment on Jesus’ part; the truth is that Jesus was reflecting an attitude that was quite common of Jews of that time: that this woman who had come to Jesus was in fact a Canaanite woman, and thus part of a religion that was outside the circle of ancient Judaism; she was a Gentile, and therefore considered by Jews to be evil and an abomination. So what Jesus is actually saying here is that because of their “wrong” religion, this woman and her daughter are no better than some stray, begging dog; which, by the way, in those days was one of the worst insults you could ever hurl at another person, as it was the equivalent of a racial slur!
I’ll say it again: Wow.
But lest we get too judgmental and “holier than thou” about this, the truth is that as shocking as it sounds to hear Jesus say the words, if we’re being honest deep down we know what he’s talking about.
You see, the thing is you and I also a way at times of making those kind of distinctions; of drawing dividing lines between those who are “in” and those who are “out;” separating those who we perceive to be right from those who we know are wrong; bringing those who matter to us close and ostracizing others who we’d just rather not see. I know that sounds harsh; but honestly, friends, it’s one of the darker shades of our human condition.
We see this get played out on a daily basis, whether it’s in the constant finger-pointing and name-calling that has already begun during this election cycle, or if it’s the class distinctions that get made as a result of economics, education, race, gender, sexual orientation or even geography; the fact is, we do divide people into categories of just about every size and shape imaginable, and then make our value judgments accordingly!
Even in the church (!), where you’d think we know better. I remember once years ago in a prior church there was this family who had found their way into the life of our congregation and who were, shall we say, kind of rough around the edges; in the way they dressed, the way they talked, how they carried themselves, and in particular, how they handled their children. And it wasn’t long before some of the church leaders came to me and strongly suggested I, as the pastor, sit down with this family and have a conversation – in Christian love, of course (!) – about the need for proper attire and proper behavior, and perhaps work it into the conversation that if this wasn’t possible, that maybe they might be happier in some other church!
Seriously! Now, I was pretty young at the time and I don’t remember exactly what I said to that, but I do know what I wanted to say!
But you see, that’s where it starts: this sin of exclusivity and divisiveness that leads to hurtfulness and rejection and injustice; not only that which is an affliction from one to the other, but also what happens in a larger, even global scale. And it seems to be what’s happening here with Jesus.
Or maybe not. Now, there are some Biblical scholars who suggest that this story serves to show us how Jesus’ concept of his mission grew over time; essentially how, because of this woman, Jesus “changed his mind” about the place of the Gentiles in the kingdom. But I would actually tend to agree with other scholars who believe that Jesus, as he so often did, was “fishing,” after a fashion, for the kind of response that would teach an important lesson.
And if that’s the case, then it worked; because it’s with no tone of regret in her voice; no sense of her having been offended by Jesus’ words, but rather with the kind of confidence that reflects fierce hope and great determination (not to mention a bit of sly wit as well) she says, “Yes, Lord, [but] even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Some translations of scripture even add these words, “Yes, of course, Lord!” Of course she knows who she is; of course, she’s aware that she’s on the outside looking in, that she’s “persona non gratis” where the well-respected Jews of the time were concerned; but that doesn’t mean that Jesus couldn’t – or shouldn’t – help her!
And at this point, you have to imagine that Jesus starts shaking his head and breaks out into a grin, and simply replies, “Woman, great is your faith.” (I love how The Message translates this: “Oh, woman, your faith is something else!”) “‘Let it be done as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Now that’s the Jesus we know and love! Here’s a woman who was most certainly outside the boundaries of polite religion, to the point of being perceived as irrelevant to anyone and everyone around her; but she understood that Jesus, who by all practical reasoning seemed well beyond her reach, could supply her need. She inherently understood something about God and about faith that Jesus knew but that we so often fail to grasp: that there is nobody irrelevant to God; nobody so unworthy as to be treated like dogs; none who ought to be excluded from the love and grace of the Lord.
One of my all-time favorite preachers was the late Bruce Theilemann; and he used to tell the story of being seated in a restaurant at a table next to a mother, father and child who were out to dinner. When the waitress came, Theilemann wrote, she was one of those waitresses who were all about business, “starch and stiff and obviously knew what she was about.” She asked the father what he wanted, and then the mother, and then when she turned to the little boy, the mother immediately cut in and said, “He would like a child-sized order of chicken a la king.”
The waitress turned again to the little boy and asked, “Would you like a hamburger?”
“Yeah,” the boy said. “I’d like a hamburger very much.” To which the mother said again, “He would like a child-sized order of chicken a la king.”
The waitress went on: “What would like to have on your hamburger? Would you like to have a lot of ketchup on it, maybe some mustard and onions?”
“No, no onions,” said the boy, “but lots of ketchup, and…”
“Miss,” the mother cut in again, “apparently you didn’t understand; he’d like a child-sized order of chicken a la king!”
And the waitress said, “Do you want a Coke to go along with your hamburger? And French fries?”
“Yeah! That would be great!” the boy said. And with that, the waitress turned and walked away. And it was then that the little boy looked up at his mother and said, “Wow, Mom, she thinks I’m real!”
Now… you might well argue the inappropriateness of the waitress undermining the parent’s wishes for their child, but…. (!) I’ve got to say, friends; that’s the kind of God I believe in!
Our God is not the kind of God who regards you and me as someone invisible and irrelevant; we are not seen as mere cosmic playthings or worse, some sort of low-level functionaries within the business of creation, but rather God views each and every one of us as real as it gets, as real as we can be. In God’s sight, each one of us is totally unique, a one of a kind edition; someone who is truly precious in his sight and held close in his loving embrace. Ours is the God who would do anything and everything to show us the grand and extravagant extent of his love; and does so in the person of Jesus himself. I have always loved what Max Lucado has written about this; he says that if “God has a refrigerator, then guess what? Your picture is on it.” Because God is crazy about you!
It is a gospel of inclusiveness, and it is our good news in Jesus Christ; it is what makes each one of us here real and true children of God. And it is a truth that should gird and guide us as men and women of faith; and moreover, it is what needs to be at the center of our life together as the church of Jesus Christ. Because in these days, it is crucial for us to truly live out the reality of that which we like to say in the United Church of Christ: that no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcomed – and you are loved – here.
And we do it because Jesus has done it first. To follow Jesus means to love as Jesus loves, and to love all those who Jesus loves; going beyond the dividing lines we create for ourselves so that we might reach out to all those in this world who have been made to feel totally and painfully irrelevant. Beloved, as we have been made real by the all-enveloping, unflinching love of the Lord, we are called to extend the same to others in Jesus’ bold name.
I pray that we will have a faith that great.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry