First United Methodist Church
August 20th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Stepping Toward Our Neighbors in Faith
Awhile back, I read a news story about a five year old girl who got off the school bus at the wrong stop. She got on the bus with one of her friends, sat with her, and then when her friend got off the bus, she went with her. The mother of the other child realized the mistake and called the girl’s mother, and everything was straightened out. Except whose fault it was. That’s the part that made the news. The girl’s mother blamed the bus driver. The bus driver blamed the child. Whose fault do you think it is? Let’s pray…
Passing the buck...Pointing fingers…Refusing to accept responsibility…that seems to be the trend in our society. People don’t want to be held accountable, and when an attempt at it is made, there seems to be a lot of negative energy. I don’t really have enough information about the school bus issue to even have an opinion, but I do know that when I was five, I rode a bus to school and managed to get off the bus at the right stop. It wasn’t in front of my house, so I don’t remember how I knew, but I do know that it happened. Since the child was unharmed and the situation was resolved, perhaps we should praise God for that, and just do what we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Fault, or blame, doesn’t have to be placed on anyone’s shoulders in order to retrain every party involved.
Today’s scripture seems to be about accountability and “retraining.” Jesus retrains the Pharisees and the Jewish disciples who have followed food laws their entire life. The Canaanite woman holds Jesus accountable to his teaching, and in the encounter that follows, he retrains not only her understanding, but also the disciples’ and our own understanding of her inclusivity in the Kingdom of God.
In the first part of our passage, Jesus teaches that a person is not defiled by what he or she puts into his or her stomach, but by that which originates in his or her heart and is manifested in his or her life (for example, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, deception, etc). This teaching implies that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or class does not defile a person; hence the reader might be a little surprised by Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman.
From our perspective, Jesus’s reaction in the story of the Canaanite woman seems to be harsh and out-of-character. When she begs him for mercy for the sake of her tormented daughter, he ignores her, remaining silent in the face of her pleas. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because, it appears, they are annoyed by her continued shouting, her refusal to take silence for an answer. When she refuses to be ignored and pleas her case once more, he insults her and calls her a dog, which is essentially a racial slur. It’s very easy to become frustrated with this scripture because Jesus isn’t acting at all like Jesus and his behavior is hard to accept even if placed in a 1st Century Palestinian context, in which Jews and Canaanites are historically enemies.
But something interesting happens during this encounter. Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Jews did not really care about dogs. To them all dogs were dirty. And they would often call Gentiles “dogs” to show their disdain for them.
Greeks, on the other hand, loved dogs and commonly had them as pets.
When I lived in South Bend, one of my neighbors decided he wanted to get to know his neighbors better and had invited Rowynn and me along with another family to dinner. He was an orthodox Jewish man, and he invited us to join him on Friday evening, or on the Sabbath. This man had two dogs. We would see him walking with them from time to time. And when it was time for dinner, there were two extra seats set at the table. When the food was placed on the table, the two dogs took their seats along with the rest of us and both were served a plate of food similar to what we were eating.
Remember that his religious traditions evolved from the Jewish tradition shared in our gospel. Ideologies can change over time. But I bring this up because I want us to recognize that this is the kind of love that the Greeks had for their dogs.
When Jesus calls this woman a dog (kynaria), this woman responds by interpreting his reference to how Greeks view dogs and not the Jews.
She responds with humility and wit, “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27)
She doesn’t challenge Jesus. Rather she acknowledges the truth of what he said, but at the same time, she asks to be seen and heard, recognized as another child of God. Her words reveal a great faith and wisdom. She places herself at the mercy of Jesus, recognizing that even though his mission may be to the children, or Jews, first, she also has a place in his kingdom.
Mark Moore says it this way in The Chronological Life Of Christ: “What this woman is asking for, as an outsider, is to be blessed by the Jewish Messiah. Jesus is wanting her to realize is that she can be an insider in God’s plan. Jesus is now the Jewish Messiah but soon will become the universal Lord. So Jesus rejects her request, not because he disdains Gentiles, but because she is not ready to receive the blessing until she understands who she is in God’s eyes.”
In this moment Jesus is not only teaching the Syrophoenician woman, he’s also teaching the disciples. Often the disciples struggle with outsiders becoming insiders. And what Jesus is teaching both her and them is that the Kingdom of God is for ALL people. She is not yet part of the kingdom, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a seat at the table.
Finally, Jesus affirms her faith and persistence and heals her daughter. (Matthew 15:28)
The reason I think this scripture speaks to us today is because it’s way, way too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human, but let’s be honest: it’s really, really easy for us to imagine God is just like us. On one level, that ability to imagine God is like us is absolutely crucial. It is, in a sense, the whole point of the Incarnation – that God became one of us – and therefore allows us to imagine being in relationship with God. The problems occur when we imagine God is only like us – as in, not like others.
And just as this encounter with the Canaanite woman teaches that God’s mission and vision and compassion and mercy are bigger than what we may have initially imagined, so also might the Canaanite woman teach us the same thing at a time when racial tensions are on the rise, children are being beaten to death, the poor continue to be victims of economic disparity, gun violence is out of control and the idea of setting a bomb or driving a vehicle or shooting an automatic rifle into a crowd of innocent people isn’t extreme enough to stop a person from doing it.
Every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God made manifest in Jesus on the other side.
But here’s the thing: I think we probably know this. That is, I don’t think that you think Jesus is only like us. And I think it’s also unlikely that you believe that Jesus looks just like us and isn’t at all concerned about those who look different.
As a country, we have allowed hatred to rule our hearts for too long. Even when we ourselves do not hate, we allow others to express their hatred far too freely. And although I don’t agree with these tactics at all, there are times when I think I understand while the medieval kings eliminated anyone who spoke against them. I don’t think it’s right – our country was founded on the idea of freedom of speech – I just think that sometimes those of us who love tend to be silent when those who hate speak their mind. Those who love have freedom of speech too.
Our world is a mess and we have tolerated injustice and violence for too long. We have forgotten that we have a God who loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son so that we won’t perish, but have everlasting life. Jesus went to the cross and died and was resurrected so that we could discover that God’s love is, in fact, for all; that God is working in us and through us to make this world a more just and equitable place; that God will grant us courage and grace sufficient to meet the challenges of the day; and that when we stand with and for those who suffer or are persecuted, we encounter God in a powerful and palpable way. The amazing thing about the Gospel is that, unlike instruction or good advice, it creates in us the ability to do what God would have us do and be the persons God calls us to be.
It's important for us to lead with love. Knowing what is right and without speaking in some way is not enough.
The Canaanite woman’s first plea was met with silence. Imagine what would have happened if she had turned away, discouraged, fearful, or defeated. Would the disciples have sensed God’s larger mission? Would they have realized that the forgiveness Jesus offers through the gift of his body and blood is “for all” or just “for some”? Would they have imagined that God loved and sent Jesus to save the whole world, or just part of it? We don’t know.
We do know, however, that this woman did not retreat to silence but spoke out, offering a testimony that rings down through the ages: “See me! See me as a person, not as a woman or a Canaanite or a minority or a foreigner or someone from a different religion or as a burden. See me as a person and child of God.”
And Jesus did. The question before us is whether we have the courage to do the same. Let us pray…
Jesus sends the disciples out on their own to proclaim and live the life Jesus lives in their presence. He gives them the command to proclaim, heal, and overcome evil but he also gives them authority. They are to go in his name, spirit, and power. Our mission may seem overwhelming until we remember that with this mission comes authority and it is cloaked in compassion. Go in peace, and go in the name, spirit and power of God. Amen.