+ Lectionary 20/Proper 15 A
TEXT: Matthew 15:21-28
August 20, 2017
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Dallas PA
It’s too bad this reading doesn’t come in May.
This would be a great story to tell
on Mothers’ Day.
This mother goes to great extremes
and bears much for the sake of her daughter.
This Canaanite woman is bold and relentless
in coming to Jesus for her daughter’s illness.
Confident in her faith in him,
undaunted in the face of his cutting remark,
even aware of her outsider status,
she keeps persisting for the sake of her daughter’s healing.
Jesus, on the other hand,
doesn’t come off quite as well.
This isn’t the way we’re used to seeing him,
and I think if I were Matthew,
I might have quietly skipped over this story
and moved on to something a little more predictable.
But Matthew intentionally included this story,
and so did Mark, (7:24-30)
so it must have something important to tell us.
Part of the problem is the philosopher, Aristotle.
He’s the one who provided us
with this image of God
as immovable, immutable,
who set the universe on its course,
established the rules,
then sat back to watch it unfold.
So that we’d all know that on August 21, 2017,
North America, on the planet earth,
would be treated to a total eclipse of the sun.
But that’s not necessarily the picture of God
the Bible shows us.
God is much more intimately involved
with his beloved creatures in the scriptures.
He plays in the dirt to make Adam, (Gen 2:7)
and walks in the garden with Adam and Eve. (Gen. 3:8)
He reaches out to shut the door of the ark for Noah. (Gen 7:16)
He bargains with Abraham
about the number of righteous souls it would take
to keep God from destroying Sodom.
Fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten?
And each time, God says, OK. (Gen 18:16-33)
God changes his mind
about destroying his people in the exodus at Mt Sinai
when Moses convinced him not to, (Ex. 32:7-14)
about destroying Israel for their faithlessness – twice –
when Amos the prophet pleaded for them, (Amos 7:1-6)
and about destroying Nineveh,
even after he instructed Jonah to warn them that he would. (Jonah 3:10)
Jonah wasn’t happy with that, either.
He sent his own son to death on a cross
for the love of you and me.
And no matter how much he loves us,
losing your child is never easy,
even if you’re God.
And he hears and answers prayer.
Your prayer, and the prayers of people
across the ages and around the world.
Including this Canaanite woman.
Kyrie eleison, she prays. Lord, have mercy.
So if Jesus really is Emmanuel – God with us,
and he is,
then we might not be so shocked
that he might be open to the pleas
of someone in need,
learn a lesson,
and have his mind changed, too.
What he learns is
just how radical and unworldly are the ways
of the Kingdom of heaven.
He himself preached it, of course,
in his sermon on the mount.
But there’s a wideness in God’s mercy
even greater than Jesus imagined,
and this Canaanite woman in this land far away
shows him a living example
of just how radical it is.
The way Matthew tells it,
this woman is an outsider
as far outside as you can get.
Jesus has traveled far to the north,
way outside the boundaries of the land of the Jews.
And there he encounters a woman –
an outsider in that culture –
a gentile woman,
a Canaanite gentile woman.
And here’s a little hint for you:
there are no Canaanites in Jesus’ day.
The Canaanites were the enemies –
the ones Joshua pushed out and eliminated
when the people of Israel entered the promised land
over a thousand years before Jesus.
Matthew calls her a Canaanite
as a way to say just how far an outsider
to Jesus and the Jewish people she was.
Jesus and the disciples behave that way, too.
Dan Ariely is a researcher and expert in emotions
and behavioral economics at Duke University
and was a featured lecturer last week
at Chautauqua Institution while I was there.
He said there are four rules for how emotions drive us.
Emotions start by something outside,
once emotions start, you can’t stop them,
they take over and substitute for rational thinking,
and they don’t last particularly long.
I think Jesus and the disciples
might have been operating out of their emotions
when they first encountered this Canaanite woman.
These are very typical emotions, actually,
given who this woman is
and how Matthew describes her.
We see evidence of these kinds of emotions
and the reactions they produce every day,
especially in these days in our culture.
That was part of Dr. Ariely’s point.
But Jesus appears to have gotten over his emotions quickly,
as if when she argued that
even the dogs got the crumbs from the table –
she didn’t even ask for a place at the table –
he took a breath, cleared his head,
and thought, “you know, you’re right.”
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
that looks radical in this world.
And what caught his attention most was her faith,
her tenacious, bold, complete and trusting faith.
She, the outsider, acknowledged him as the Jewish messiah
when she called him, “Son of David,”
and knelt before him in worship.
She, the outsider, acknowledged her outside status,
not asking for the children’s bread,
but a stray crumb that might fall,
she never denied his cutting name for her, “dog,”
but simply pleaded in a way that sounded like,
nevertheless, “Lord, help me”
She, the outsider, was so confident in Jesus’ power to heal
that she did not even bring her daughter with her.
She was bold, trusting, and tenacious
in asking for mercy.
And Jesus realized that by her sheer, undaunted faith,
she was indeed within the wideness of God’s mercy.
And her daughter was healed. Instantly.
This is great good news for us,
because in the world of Jews and Gentiles,
the lost sheep of the house of Israel
verses the gentile outsider who comes from afar,
we are the woman. The outsiders.
But by God’s divine and wide mercy,
by the love of Jesus for us to death on a cross,
by our baptism into his death,
by his gift of the Holy Spirit of God,
we have been made children of God,
members of his own body, the church,
chosen, called, loved, and sent people of God.
And so now we are the insiders,
the ones who claim the life and forgiveness of Jesus,
the ones empowered by the Holy Spirit
with the mercy and love of God.
And that means we are NOT the woman,
but the ones who encounter the woman and her kind
on our own walk of faith.
And so here we are,
in a world that operates radically differently,
in a world that defines insiders and outsiders
all the time
using all kinds of boundaries,
all types of limits,
all sorts of characteristics.
We stand before all those outsiders
with this lesson Jesus learned
and the wideness of God’s mercy
pointing us – calling us –
to live and behave and relate to them
the way God does in the kingdom of heaven,
and the way Jesus learned to do
for this Canaanite woman.
Part of Matthew’s point for telling this story
is that if Jesus can learn and grow like this,
we – his community, his church – we can too.
And it’s a lot easier if we just remember
that once we were the outsiders
who have received God’s wide mercy.
One of the prayers for the church and its mission
that make up my daily prayer devotions
includes this petition:
grant us joy and a spirit of bold trust
that we all may be stirred up
to a life of fruitful service.
This Canaanite woman is one example for us
of what a spirit of bold trust looks like.
Engaging with others,
it is possible to learn their human need,
their desire for mercy and healing,
and that they are not dogs,
but fellow children of God,
with us in the wideness of God’s mercy.
May you know that spirit of bold trust.