This Sermon was preached the Rev. Nancy Vogele on August 20, 2017, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading was Matthew 15:21-28
Can I just say that Jesus wasn’t very nice to that woman. He was downright rude – ignoring her, then telling her his mission didn’t include her and her kind of people – even indirectly calling her a dog!
What’s going on? It’s hard to tell with just a written account some 50 or 60 years after the fact.
So a little background or preliminary remarks:
- First off, we read that Jesus left the place where he was in Galilee and headed north to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was a foreign territory just north of Israel – gentile or pagan territory. Beyond the pale, as some would say.
- Moreover, in Matthew’s Gospel, the people of this region were referred to as Canaanites – bitter enemies of Israel since the time of Noah. They were considered cursed. When the Israelite were about the enter the Promised Land, Hebrew scripture says that God commended them to annihilate the occupants of the land – the Canaanites.
- And then there’s the fact that she was a woman. Women were not to be seen, let alone heard. And they were never to address a man in public.
This Canaanite, this woman doesn’t know her place.
Oh, she knows her place vis-à-vis the Jewish people all too well. What’s amazing is that those “facts” don’t deter her at all. She’s a mamma bear and her daughter is sick. Get out of her way!
She reminds me of the persistent widow in one of Jesus’ parables. The widow goes to the unjust judge day in and day out demanding justice. The judge finally relents – not because he is just but to get her to leave him alone.
Is Jesus any better?
When I took and anti-racism awareness course in graduate school, the instructor said that our culture is so full of prejudice that we can’t help but get it. It’s like water to a fish. We’re swimming in it all the time. Jesus grew up in a culture that was prejudiced against this woman and her people. He grew up hearing racial slurs, probably a few jokes at their expense. These views couldn’t help be get in his psyche. So was he displaying his culture’s prejudice?
Let me push the envelope even further and ask, in light of the events of the past 10 days, were Jesus’ actions event racist? If racism is prejudice plus power (and Jesus, as a Jewish man, had plenty of power), was he – as one commentator dared ask – racist?
Some commentators or preachers resolve this seemingly troublesome encounter by saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said – that he knew what he was doing. Some have said that Jesus was confronting his disciples’ prejudice towards the Canaanite people. Saying what he has heard them say and thus shocking them. Others say that Jesus was testing the sincerity of this women’s faith before granting her request.
I don’t buy it. I do not believe Jesus would have ever played mind games with this mother as she desperately sought a cure for her sick daughter.
He might have come across as a jerk but he wasn’t cruel.
You know the first time I ever preached on this text, I preached that Jesus knew what he was doing – that as the Son of God, he was just giving a teaching moment – or something like that. You see I don’t really remember exactly what I preached but I will always remember what happened after the service. A retired Episcopal priest named George Blackman approached me and ever so gently said, “Did you ever consider that perhaps Jesus actually learned something from this woman? That because of her he actually changed his mind?”
Wow. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Jesus could grow in his faith, his understanding of who he was and what he was called to do. We are so conditioned to focus on his divinity that we deny his humanity. Yes, the creeds say Jesus was fully divine. They also say he was fully human, too.
Jesus was changed by this encounter. Her in-your-face approach brought him up short and made him realize that he had drawn the circle too small. He had gone to the district of Tyre and Sidon to get away from his mission field only to realize that there were no boundaries to God’s realm or God’s people.
As a result of this encounter Jesus exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith!” Now the way it’s written, it seems like he replied right away to the women’s retort about the dogs getting to eat the crumbs under the master’s table, but I think Jesus had to ponder her comment for a bit…let it sink in and have it’s way with him.
Kind of the way it works when someone confronts you with a hard truth. Your adrenaline shoots up and you go into fight or flight mode. Your learned instincts (or your ego) tell you to write the person off. They don’t know what they’re talking about! They’re wrong. You can’t take it in. So you protect your fragile psyche by shutting down and discrediting.
But Jesus took it in and realized how great her faith was.
This is the only occurrence in Matthew of faith being described as “great.”
This word, faith, can also be translated as confidence or trust
So what was so great about her faith, her confidence, her trust?
I think that first and foremost, she had faith – she had confidence – in the worth of her daughter -– despite what others said of her and her people – even despite how Jesus and his disciples treated her. Her daughter deserved help and by golly her daughter was going to get it if this mamma bear had anything to do about it.
This woman also had faith in her own dignity and worth and that God did, too. That God’s love and mercy and deliverance weren’t reserved for a select few of the in crowd. As a result she boldly cried out to God’s representative – Jesus.
And when he, at first, didn’t respond, she had faith that he would. Why else do you keep at something if you don’t have faith that it will work? So she kept at it – kept pushing and pleading and arguing until God’s representative got it, too.
Jesus, for his part, allowed her to draw near. He didn’t have to, but he did. He let her in his space – physically, mentally, psychically, spiritually. His culture justified keeping her kind out, but he let her in. He stayed engaged and was changed by the encounter.
Now, we are God’s representatives – will we allow ourselves to be changed by those demanding justice for their people? Will be let their cries and demands confront us and expose our prejudices and lack of concern? Will we grow in our faith and understanding? Will we change our ways as a result and live differently?
And I hate to end on a difficult note, but…well I won’t but here’s another question before I do end: Or will be stay in our comfort zone among our own kind of people and go about our day?
Frank, in his guitar prelude played “’Tis a Gift to Be Simple” and the words are perfect for an ending to this sermon:
‘Tis the gift to be simple
‘Tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.
Jesus got “turned” that day by his encounter with the Canaanite woman and, as a result, he came round right. May we, too.