This is one of those Gospel stories that tends to make us feel a little uncomfortable about Jesus. It doesn’t quite fit with the image a lot of people have of him – dispensing goodness and kindness and healing to all people wherever he goes, never being abrupt or losing his temper, almost like a flat, one-dimensional painting. So, let’s look at this story a little more closely, and maybe we’ll get a better understanding of what is going on.
To begin with, Jesus goes to the region of the cities Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast, north-west of Galilee, in what is now modern-day Lebanon. This is not a Jewish area; it’s outside of the lands ruler by King Herod; the people who live there are called Canaanites, or Syro- Phonecians.
But there’s nothing to stop Jesus from traveling there, no border patrol. We don’t know why Jesus went to this area. Maybe he wanted to be anonymous for a bit. Maybe he wanted a break from all the people who had heard of the wonder-working rabbi and came to him seeking healing, and hope, and even confrontation.
The story tells us that a local, a Canaanite woman, sees Jesus and starts shouting at him from a distance, asking for Jesus to have pity on her and to help her daughter who was possessed by a demon. This woman is not Jewish; how does she know who Jesus is, and what he can do? Even the title she uses for him, “Son of David”, is a term used for the Jewish Messiah. How does she know that? In using the term, the Canaanite woman is proclaiming a truth about Jesus that the disciples have yet to really grasp (we’ll hear more about this next week); how did that happen? The text doesn’t give us any answers about these questions, but they are worth pondering, nevertheless.
The Canaanite woman doesn’t presume to approach Jesus directly, but she calls out, shouts at him, begging him for help for her daughter. And Jesus pays no attention to her whatsoever. But she must have been persistent, calling after him and the disciples, trying to get their attention. And who could blame her. She sees in Jesus the power to deliver her daughter and restore her to freedom and a sound mind. I think any of us would do the same.
But the disciples are bothered by the woman’s shouting, and they go to Jesus and ask him to send her away, to get rid of her so that they won’t be bothered. And how does Jesus respond? He refuses; he says he’s sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel – meaning that he is Messiah for the Jewish people, not anyone else. On hearing this, the woman comes close and throws herself at Jesus’ feet. She calls him “Lord” and once again asks for his help.
Now things really get interesting. Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Calling someone a dog in the ancient Middle East was just as much of an insult then as it is now. But the woman is not put off by Jesus’ characterization of her Gentile status, and his not wanting to waste God’s blessings on someone outside the Jewish community.
Instead, she accepts the metaphor and presses on with it to make her point: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Surely God’s abundance is so great, that there will be enough for me and my daughter, even just a scrap of mercy and grace. Jesus then immediately applauds her for her faith, for her persistence, and trust that he could and would heal her daughter.
So what is going on here? How are we to make sense of this story? This is one of those times when God’s purpose and future rushes forward – even before Jesus is quite ready for it.
If we look at the broad sweep of the Hebrew Scriptures we see that one of its major themes is that God will one day draw all nations and peoples together as one human family, blessed by God regardless of ethnicity or race or geography. We heard an echo of that in the reading from Isaiah when God says that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This has been God’s plan all along, and the Israelites were chosen to be the stewards and custodians of God’s vision until the day came when this purpose could be fulfilled.
And this Canaanite woman – outside the official Jewish community – was an agent of bringing God’s future forward, all in a rush, and helping Jesus to be more aware of his vocation and God’s timing. Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Anointed, for all people, not just for the Jews.
And that’s often the way with really important changes and learning, isn’t it? We turn a corner and see a different perspective, realize that we have been missing important truth or parts of the picture, and at a very deep level things can never be the same again once we know – even if we don’t fully understand how this truth will unfold.
This summer we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on a time when God’s future came forward faster and sooner than many Americans thought we were ready for. The death of US Representative John Lewis has been the occasion to look back and reflect on the course and cause of civil rights in our country. From a distance of fifty-plus years it’s easy for the events of Topeka, Little Rock, Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Washington D.C. to be words on a page, a fait accompli.
But delving back into the stories and the television footage from the time has reminded me of the heartache, unjustified bloodshed, and persistence that helped to set in motion civil rights for African-Americans. John Lewis, Martin Luther King, C. T. Vivian (who also died this summer), Andrew Young, and so many others helped us to see the deepest and truest meaning of the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And, of course, it was not only American values that the civil rights leaders were upholding, but Biblical values as well – the same vision of all people as part of God’s one human family that is referenced in Isaiah; a Beloved Community of all God’s people, where God’s desire is (as the prophet Amos declares) “[to] let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
And this is the reason that so many clergy, lay people, and religious community members heeded Dr. King’s call to join the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Our own David St. George, then Rector of All Saints’. answered that call and went to Selma to support the march. This vision of God’s purpose and God’s future was rushing towards them and towards our country and our churches and faith communities.
But as so often happens, we make a change, we pass a law, we declare something to be true and then we think it’s over and done – only to realize later that there is a great deal more effort, work, and prayer that needs to happen. That is certainly the case with the progress of civil rights in our country and the backlash from some quarters against them.
We know that laws alone don’t change attitudes and open hearts, as vital as legal changes are. Changing hearts and minds is the work of prayer, and attention, and countless conversations with others who are both like us and unlike us, the work of listening to God and sharing what we know to be God’s truth.
We can be like the Canaanite woman in this morning’s Gospel. We can be persistent, we can publicly recognize and announce God’s vision of all people being made in God’s image, with dignity and worth, brothers and sisters sharing in the abundant blessings of God’s creation, a Beloved Community.
We can be conduits of God’s future and the fullness of God’s kingdom in our midst. May we be blessed in our prayer, our action, and our proclamation.
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 815
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2020