Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Stretched

Rev. Kathy Donley

08/27/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Isaiah 56:1-8; Matthew 15:21-28

 

Jesus has left Israel and crossed in to Phonecia.  Matthew mentions Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities, which the ancient prophets had denounced for their unjust wealth.  In Jesus’ time they are prosperous Roman port cities.  They also import crops grown in Galilee.  Folks in Tyre could afford to buy food that the poorer population of Galilee often could not.  In one sense, the woman represents the upper class, the elite person who exploits the peasants like Jesus. (For a contemporary parallel, imagine her as a citizen of the USA who benefits from the labor of undocumented migrant workers with Jesus in the role of the migrant worker.)

 

But it is more complicated than that.  Matthew identifies the woman as a Canaanite.  Now, there are no people called Canaanites alive at the time of Jesus.  She is a descendant of the people who lived in the land a thousand years earlier, the indigenous people whom Jesus’ ancestors had attempted to wipe out.  (We might picture her as a Native American and Jesus as a Euro-American.)  By calling her a Canaanite, Matthew is reminding us of that history.  Matthew’s audience would have been aware of Deuteronomy 7 where it says, When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”

 

There is a lot of baggage between Jesus and this woman before they ever begin to speak.  They are historic enemies.  They each have reasons for deep suspicion and mistrust of the other.   

 

Those issues are very real,  but her daughter is ill and the woman is desperate for Jesus’ help.  She shouts to get his attention.  He ignores her. The disciples want him to send her away.  Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 

 

Here Jesus defines his mission.  He understands that among his own people there are enough broken-hearted, sinful, oppressed, lost, and hurting souls for a lifetime of ministry.  His God-given vocation is to care for them.  He has only come to this foreign place to rest and recover, because truthfully the leaders of his own people are not receiving his mission so well.  But he is clear “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.”

 

The woman kneels in front of him.  She appears to have heard what he said, but still she begs, “Lord, help me.”  It’s the second time she has called him Lord.

 

Jesus could say No in a polite way.  He could say, “I’m sorry. I just can’t help you.”  But he doesn’t.  Instead he insults her, calling her a dog, which is a common racial slur.  No one likes to think that Jesus is a racist, so there are all kinds of interpretations put forth to excuse or soften Jesus’ words.

 

Some people say that Jesus is joking with her, that  we just can’t tell because the Bible doesn’t give us tone of voice. It’s true that the Bible does not give us tone of voice.  But sometimes, the gospel writers will insert an explanation.  If they quote Jesus speaking Aramaic for example, they translate the Aramaic into Greek.  Sometimes when Jesus is in conflict with other religious leaders, the gospel writers indicate that Jesus knew their thoughts when he responded to them.  But here, there is no kind of clue from Matthew that this is anything than straightforward conversation.  And whenever a person uses a racial slur in conversation with a person of a different race, it is not usually a friendly joke.

 

Others say that Jesus is testing her, which I guess could be true, because she passes with flying colors.  But I cannot think of any other time when Jesus tests anyone else before healing them.  In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, there is even another foreigner whom Jesus helps without testing him first.  In Matthew 8, a Roman centurion asks for healing for his servant and Jesus does it immediately upon request.  But when this foreign woman makes a similar request in an area which is hostile to Jesus’ and his people, Jesus’ initial response is cold and insulting.

 

I don’t think Jesus is joking with her or testing her.  The bottom line for me is that Jesus’ full humanity is on display here.  He is as much a product of his culture, as prone to being shaped by his people’s history and self-understanding, as any other human being.  If that sounds like bad news to you, then know that there is also very good news here. 

 

Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  He is saying that his people are the children who deserve to be fed, but her people are sub-human animals, who eat garbage, leftovers.

 

Her answer is remarkable.  She does not lash out with an insult in return. Instead she says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs.”  She goes along with his metaphor and pushes it to a logical conclusion.

 

The transformation happens between her response and Jesus’ next words, which are “ O woman, great is your faith!”   The expression “O woman” indicates strong emotion as well as newfound respect.[1]  And then he heals her daughter.

 

One scholar says, “Her persistence in the face of Jesus’ obstructions, her challenge to the ethnic, gender, religious, political and economic barriers, her reliance on his power, and her recognition of his authority over demons, comprise her faith.”[2]  Sometimes faith provides the courage to stand up and speak out.

 

Here’s the good news:  when confronted with his own prejudice, Jesus listens long enough to change. Sometimes faith means having the courage to be quiet and really listen.   

 

She doesn’t say much, but what she says matters.  Jesus ignores her at first, but when he does engage, he listens.  He hears her words and reads her body language.  Something in their interaction changes his mind.  He comes to the encounter with one understanding of who she is and what his role is, and he goes away with another one, mostly because he listens.

 

Listening is so hard.  Isn’t it? Especially when we don’t like or don’t trust or strongly disagree with the people we have to listen to.  Listening to people who are wrong and who don’t understand logic is just exhausting.  Listening to people who try to tell us stuff we think we already know – maddening.  Listening deeply to those who challenge us is something we often try to avoid. 

 

Jesus listened and was changed. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he listened and many things changed.  David Augsburger is professor of pastoral care at Fuller Seminary.  He says that “being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” And, Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the last century said,  “The first duty of love is to listen.”

 

I wonder how much we could heal our relationships with other people, particularly with people of other races, if we could exercise that kind of loving listening.  What if we tried that, really tried it? Listening, not explaining.  Listening, not justifying.  Just listening, instead of saying, “I’m not a racist, but . . .”   It means listening to why a certain statue is hurtful to someone else.  It means listening to why a certain statue is valued by someone else. 

 

We don’t have to change, necessarily.  We certainly don’t have to agree in advance that we will change our minds.  What if we just commit to listen, to really listen.  Listen to understand, not to defend or justify our own positions.  Listen as an act of love and courage.  

 

You might remember at the beginning of this month, we heard the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  That was shortly before this encounter.  After this story, Matthew tells about feeding 4,000 people. It seems as though he tells the same story twice, but in different locations.  After the first feeding, there are twelve baskets of leftovers.  There are twelve tribes of Israel.  Twelve symbolizes Israel.  In the second feeding, which takes place in Gentile territory, there are seven baskets left over.  What was the significance of the number seven?  Seven was the number for completeness.  In seven days, God created the world.  So if 12 baskets represents Israel, then 7 might represent the whole world.  One thing that happens between these two feedings is Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.  Jesus listens so well that his sense of mission changes and he no longer limits his ministry to Jewish people. 

 

One source of the original mission, at least for Matthew, seems to have been that text from Deuteronomy 7.  Let’s look at it again:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.

 

The encounter with the Canaanite woman turns this understanding on its head.  Jesus flips the narrative.  First notice, the number seven again. Seven is the number of nations to be destroyed, but in Jesus’ new understanding,  7 baskets of food remain after the Gentiles are fed.  It instructs  “show them no mercy”, but when a  Canaanite woman pleads for mercy, Jesus gives it.  “Jesus, an  Israelite son, sees a Canaanite daughter, not as a danger, but as a person in need, and he heals her.” [3]

 

The genocide in Deuteronomy is still troubling, but that has to wait for another sermon.   Although I will point out that the reading we heard from Isaiah 56 offered an earlier corrective to it, proclaiming welcome to some who had previously been kept out.

 

Here’s what I find helpful today – Jesus starts with one understanding, one overarching identity and worldview, but then he listens.  He listens hard enough to hear the challenge and to allow himself to be transformed. And that makes all the difference.    

 

Writing about this encounter in his book, Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren says, “Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past.”[4]

 

I choose to trust that new story.  I choose to believe in that radical future.  The new story of love that listens to understand, that extends mercy to enemies, that welcomes all in God’s reign of peace.  

 

Sisters and brothers, Sometimes faith requires the courage to stand up and speak out. Sometimes it requires the courage to sit down and listen.  May God grant to us the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen.

 

 

 


[1] Warren Carter,  Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY:  Obis Books, 2000) p. 324. 

[2] Carter, p. 324-325.

[3] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope  (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2007), p. 158.  McLaren is summarizing strong exegetical work by Grant LeMarquand which may be found here http://www.tsm.edu/wp-content/uploads/LeMarquand%20-%20The%20Canaanite%20Conquest%20of%20Jesus.pdf

[4] McLaren, p. 158. 

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