There are weeks when you look at the texts and know there is a deep connection to what is going on in our world, in our time, and in our place. Sometimes it would be easy to walk away from the connection, to ignore it, and to find something more warm and fuzzy to preach on OR you can decide to preach the hard sermon hitting it head on.
This is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels, perhaps my favorite in the Gospel of Matthew particularly. We have this woman, who her and her story, serve as a turning point in Matthew’s gospel.
Recently, our texts have been in order.
John the Baptist has been killed.
Jesus needs time to grieve and mourn the loss of John the Baptist, and yet he is moved by compassion to heal people and to perform the miraculous feeding of 5,000 men plus women and children.
Then, Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him to the other side of the lake, because not only does he want that time, he now needs that time to recharge. The disciples encounter the storm on the water and Jesus walking towards them. Jesus is rested. Peter wants to be right by Jesus’ side and takes that moment to walk out on the water. I preached last week that the moment he realized what he was doing and tries to take control is when he starts to sink. And yet, Christ is there to reach out and rescue him.
How often are we willing to step out of our comfort zone, out of our safety in order to live out our baptismal promises?
Jesus and Peter get into the boat together (with the other disciples), the storm calms, and they get to the other side.
Now, we are in Gentile territory. We are in the land of the non-Jews. This will become important.
This story appears in 2 of the 4 Gospels. Let us look at Jesus’ teaching first.
Jesus is teaching that the adherence to the law, to the letter of the law, is not what makes you a “Chosen” person of God. It is what is in your heart.
The Pharisees are taken off guard and do not agree with Christ’s teaching.
The issue has come up because some of the disciples have been caught eating food without washing their hands (a violation of the law).
The disciples are trying to understand Jesus’ teaching, “what do you mean that it is not what you take in that makes you unclean?”.
Remember, the distinguishing between the clean and unclean, the pure and impure, is a significant part of the culture, the society, and the times.
Jesus teaches that it has to do with your heart and what comes from it. Jesus, in this text, notes not-so-good things about what defiles people: evil intentions, murder (including insulting/degrading according to Martin Luther), and pride. I will return to “pride” in a moment. However, there are also good things that come from our hearts as well including compassion, mercy, and love.
This is a great, profound teaching. It is one that we can get behind, we can support, and immediately afterwards it is tested.
Different people interpret this text differently. We try to figure out the events to get a clearer sense of who is talking to who and the wider situation.
- Some say Jesus is testing the woman, but he never ‘tests’ anyone else who he performs a healing.
- Some say Jesus is testing his disciples.
- Some say Jesus is coming into the (full) reality of his teaching: “I taught this, now I need to practice what I preach, I need to walk the walk”.
This is why I say it is a ‘turning point’ in Matthew’s Gospel.
It is important for us to understand the deeper culture from which this text emerges. In Mark’s account, she is called ‘a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician’. In Matthew’s account, she is called a ‘Canaanite’. Why is this important?
Mark focused on the region where she was from and/or living; it is not Jewish land.
Matthew is focused on her ethnicity; she is a Canaanite.
Mark would have described me as an “American, a Zonie (or Arizonian)”.
Matthew would have described me as “Scot-Irish (and English)”.
But, how does this ‘play out’ in our text?
We are not good at remembering our Old Testament history.
The Canaanites and the Jews are of the same racial group, the Semitics. Yet, God commanded the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites (Joshua 3). However, the Israelites did not listen to God and did not kill all the Canaanites. The Israelites, instead, enslaved those they did not kill (Joshua 16).
This woman, in our text, would have been a descendant from this time. She is shouting out to, or better yet ‘shirking’ after, Jesus to heal her daughter tormented by a demon.
Jesus is ignoring her, which is appropriate for his culture because he is an Israelite (and Jewish Rabbi) and her being a Canaanite woman.
The disciples get annoyed and say “Jesus, she is annoying us. She is driving us CRAZY. Make her going away!”. (One commentator suggested the disciples were asking Jesus to heal her daughter. I think that is a leap. I think they just wanted him to send her away.)
We do not know if Jesus’ response “I was sent to only the lost sheep of Israel” was directed at his disciples or the woman.
We also do not know if Jesus’ next comment “It is not right for me to throw the food meant for the children, the children of Israel, my people, to the dogs” was directed at his disciples or the woman.
However, there is interesting things about that word “dog”. On one hand, it is the Israelite’s favorite insult directed at the Gentiles. On the other hand, the Greek word used here is slightly different than that normally used for “dog”. This word means “little dog” and since people were beginning to domestic dogs at this time, perhaps it is the difference between “Lady” and “Trump” (thinking Disney), the “street dog” and the “house dog”. Either way, being called a “dog” is an insult.
The art of insulting, at this time, was a means to show superiority. Your mastery of the language, via the ability to insult another well, showed that you were educated and elite. This is Jesus’ most well-aimed insult in the whole of the Gospels, but she was quick.
She had wit and her response was essentially:
“I might be a little dog. I might not be worthy of that food, however I know you have an abundance of crumbs”.
(Remember, the baskets of left over food after the feeding of the 5,000+).
“I know you’ve got crumbs. I know you’ve got enough grace to spare and even us little dogs not worthy of it, get those crumbs from the master’s table”.
She is saying “I may be a dog, but I am YOUR dog”.
She won the battle of the wits. She won the battle of insults.
Jesus tells her that because of her faith, again faith can always be translated as trust, because of her trust in his ability and willingness to heal her daughter it was done.
Afterwards, the Gospel of Matthew has a second miraculous feeding in this Gentile land. It is the feeding of the 4,000 men, not including the women and children who would have been gathered. It concludes “they knew who the God of Israel was”, which is another indication that these people were non-Jewish people.
The Canaanite woman and her story is a ‘turning point’ in the Gospel of Matthew. Prior, it was clear that Jesus is an Israelite, a Jewish Rabbi, and the Jewish Messiah sent to the Jewish people. Afterwards, it becomes more universal like our other texts embracing “all nations” and “all peoples”.
It is not difficult to understand how this message hits us in the gut in our world, and in our time, and in our place.
“Why can’t we see the walls, we can’t see though?” (Thicker than Blood, Garth Brooks). We build up walls that divide us on a number of fronts.
While researching my ancestry, I discovered that my research findings did not match the stories my family had told me. I had my DNA tested to discover ‘what am I’ and ‘which narrative is correct’. The research was on the right track, but the family line I had been told was English-Cherokee is German-Irish.
- The “Mc” was dropped from the family name at about the time of the potato famine, although they were already established in the states.
- Several Germans started hiding their German ancestry after World War II.
The family narrative was changed (out of ‘shame’?) to remove those scars.
Recently, there was video shared online about an experiment that had been conducted. They spoke with multiple people about their ancestry, these individuals were extremely proud of their ancestry openly admitting that their ancestry made them superior especially in comparison to those whose ancestry was from regions in previous or current conflict with the culture they self-identify. They had DNA tests performed.
The DNA results were returned. Surprise, surprise! Those who thought their ancestry made them superior realized their DNA was not as pure as they had thought. Their DNA results often included the genetic ancestry of those cultures they despised due to their own heritage. It was a reality check for these people and they walked away with a different perspective about what does divide or does not divide us.
Let us return to “pride”.
We all know that I am not ashamed of my Scot-Irish (English) heritage and I do not believe I need to be ashamed of it. BUT, my question is at what point:
- does our pride become prejudice?
- do we let our pride become a reason for separating us? dividing us?
- do we let our pride build walls between us and out fellow human beings?
- does our pride make our acts of compassion, mercy, and love limited to one group or another?
There are many ways in which we build these walls and divide ourselves that doesn’t make sense. We are good at that.
When I hear “all peoples”, “all nations”, and this ‘turning point’ in the Gospel of Matthew, I think about all the ways we divide ourselves and all the ways we are dividing ourselves, whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexuality, or any of those categories used to place people in boxes. According to Paul, in our Roman texts, we are all imprisoned to sin, so:
- When will we realize that we are all beloved children of God?
- When will we realize that we are all worthy of grace, mercy, compassion, and love?
- When will we realize that we are all those “little dogs”?
Yet, God’s grace is abundant enough for all of us to get crumbs from the master’s table.
“We love thy neighbor with fists in our hands” (Thicker than Blood, Garth Brooks).
How often do our words and deeds truly reflect our baptismal promises:
- proclaiming the WORD (Christ) in word and deed?
- acting with compassion and mercy?
- seeking justice?
This is the power of this Gospel story:
- It is the ‘turning point’.
- It is the opening of the eyes.
- It is the widening of the ministry.
This is why I love this story; in addition to the sassy female.
There is a prayer that I want to end with today, it is a Cherokee prayer that came across my Facebook page.
Oh Great Spirit, who made all races,
look kindly upon the whole human family
and take away the arrogance and hatred
which separates us from our brothers and sisters.
The scriptures were Matthew 15: 10-28, Romans 11: 1-2, 29-32, and Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8.
Originally preached on 20 August 2017 at Gloria Dei (Kelso, WA).