August 20, 2017

At first glance today Jesus kind of looks like a very ethno-centric-Israelite – (to put it mildly) – as he says his mission field excludes all non-Israelites. And as if to add insult to injury, Jesus seems rather rude and lacking in pastoral concern for this Canaanite woman in distress. Its hard to hear Jesus using this metaphor of not-feeding-dogs-with-children’s-food. (Bible commentaries that note the word “dog” here means domestic pet-dog, not stray-dog soften the insult only very slightly.) This story is difficult. A Canaanite woman begging Jesus to heal her afflicted daughter. And Jesus not even answering. Ouch. Not hearing a word of reply or acknowledgment can seem worse than “no.” But the woman keeps shouting-and-begging and won’t give up. The disciples of Jesus tell him ‘send her away!’ We don’t know if they mean send her off without helping, or give her what she’s asking – but for sure they want Jesus to get her to hush and go away.

But Jesus says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” My mission stops at the border. Which just doesn’t sound much like the Jesus we know. So what can be going on here? Is Jesus having a really bad day? Has he gone too long without a day-off? Is he so running-on-empty that now he’s trying to raise-up boundaries to ward-off a compassion-fatigue-meltdown?

If so, is this story then about Jesus being taught a lesson by the Canaanite woman – whose persistence finally does wear Jesus down, and gets him to do the right thing? I’ve heard the story interpreted this way, and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Jesus does learn something from her; at least that seems possible.

But I don’t think this is the main message. And I really can’t help noticing how… St Matthew seems to go out of his way to use the word Canaanite – a word that’s antiquated, no longer in every-day use by the time of Jesus. In Mark’s version of this story she’s called a Syro-Phoenician woman, the usual name for descendants of Canaanites of old, who by now have long-since intermarried with Phoenicians, Syrians, and others. But Matthew seems to really want to remind us of the ancient history of Israel, going way back to the conquest of the land of Canaan, 1200 years before Christ.

So we’ve read from Deuteronomy 7 today as a reminder of Israel’s early history. I’m indebted to Rev. Thomas Blackstone, pastor of Pleasant Street United Methodist in Waterville, Maine, for the excellent sermon he preached at New England Annual Conference this year, the Ziegler Preaching prize sermon, inspired by our gospel reading today, in which he called attention also to our reading from Deuteronomy, with it’s explicit message of ‘show no mercy’ to Canaanites – highlighting the sharp contrast between Deuteronomy’s command to show no mercy to Canaanites and the mercy Jesus (eventually) shows to the Canaanite woman today.

I’ve always felt enriched by most of the Old Testament. I say this partly because I’ve heard many people over the years say they’d just as soon do without most of the Old Testament. (Most of us like Psalm 23 and a few other comfort passages, but – there are admittedly some very different parts of the bible.) And our reading from Deuteronomy has been up there among the most difficult of all texts for me. I remember naming this and related texts dealing with the theology of conquest as my very least favorite parts of the bible. But over the years, with prayer and study, I’ve come to believe first of all that we need to keep working at understanding the Old Testament better. We really can’t understand Jesus well apart from the Old Testament stories, poetry, parables, and history he uses as his preaching and teaching texts… And Old or New Testament – for Christians it’s all about learning to read and hear with the eyes and ears of Jesus.

I’ve also slowly, sometimes grudgingly, come to believe, it’s especially worth the effort to struggle with the even difficult texts of the bible. For me, it’s like facing my  deepest fears. There’s great gain in confronting fears and learning where they come from. And any text that troubles us is surely going to trouble others too. And as we help each other better understand difficult texts and our fears, our faith is strengthened to the benefit of all….

And with the help of good commentaries I’ve come to believe the deeply troubling language of “utterly destroy them” we hear in Deuteronomy 7 is a very deliberate metaphor – comparable to Jesus telling us to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand if either causes us to sin. I’ve come to believe Deuteronomy is speaking in metaphor here also because of the language that follows about ‘don’t intermarry with these Canaanites and other tribes’ – something one obviously can’t do if they’ve been destroyed. The concern of Deuteronomy is for Israel to avoid close relationships with the inhabitants of the land – because Canaanite religion was all about worship of the gods of war, prosperity and fertility–with child sacrifice also part of Canaanite religion and culture.

And it’s important for us to know some of this background – as we rejoin Jesus and the disciples and the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel, which begins today again with Jesus and disciples having left Israel, again apparently looking to get away from crowds and the press of urgent business. They’ve left Israel and gone to the neighboring territory of Tyre and Sidon, probably so Jesus can find time to prepare disciples for their forthcoming trip to Jerusalem, where Jesus knows death awaits him. He needs time alone with disciples to prepare them for this trip… And yes… Maybe Jesus is tired today and looking for a reason to say no to the Canaanite woman.

But as soon as we start to go in this interpretive direction alarm bells should be ringing, reminding us of last week – when Jesus had every right to be dead-tired – yet when he saw crowds waiting for him, he interrupted his scheduled retreat and went back to healing and teaching all day. As we see him doing again immediately after his encounter with the Canaanite woman today. So we need to be asking – what’s different now?

Remembering – this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Jesus healing someone from outside Israel. He’s healed a servant of a Gentile Centurion, and praised that non-Israelite’s faith as greater than any he’s seen in Israel (back in chapter 8). And further back, in the very first chapter of Matthew, in the genealogy of the family of Jesus, we hear the names of at least two Canaanite women – Tamar and Rahab. Tamar, the Canaanite mother of Perez and Zerah by Judah, son of Jacob, Grand Patriarch of Israel. “She’s more in the right than I am” Judah says of Tamar. (Review their story in Genesis 38.) Then there’s Rahab, Canaanite prostitute who hides Israelite spies and helps them escape from Jericho (Joshua 2). Rahab’s named as wife of Salmon, mother of Boaz the husband of Ruth – making Canaanite Rahab also great-grandmother of King David. The wife of Uriah the Hittite (first of the tribes named in Deuteronomy 7’s list) is also there in the genealogy of Jesus. Already in the opening chapter of this gospel, at least two, maybe three Canaanite women are named as great-great-great-grand-mothers of Jesus. The purpose of this opening genealogy is to locate Jesus in Israel’s history – and remind Israel it’s history is much more inclusive (and more colorful) than we sometimes remember. So I don’t really think the gospel writer is suggesting that Jesus’s mission is going to be only to the people of Israel.

Of course we still have to deal with the apparent rudeness of Jesus today. Unfortunately we don’t have the video footage – we can’t hear his tone of voice or see the expression on his face. But the more I pray and read over our scriptures today, the more I’m convinced Jesus isn’t having a bad-hair day, nor is he setting aside the law of Moses. We’ve heard him say, after all, in his sermon on the mount (chapter 5) that he came to fulfill, not abolish the law and prophets. And just before our reading today Jesus has rebuked religious leaders for neglecting the commandment to honor your parents.

And the more I read and pray about this story, the more I’m convinced – what’s really happening here is Jesus, teaching us what he means by fulfilling the law and prophets. As he teaches the Canaanite woman and especially his 12 disciples, and also all of us – what it means to be a believer in the God of Israel and included among God’s chosen people… And…

If we don’t understand or remember how the job description goes, we’re in good company. The disciples of Jesus also need plenty of reminding – we know, as we see them counseling Jesus – ‘send her away.’ Last week we heard them telling Jesus send the hungry crowds away, get them out of here… Now they’re telling him send this pesky woman away, get her out of here. And last week, remember, we heard Jesus tell disciples – ‘No. Don’t send them away. You give them something to eat.’ And not having made much apparent progress now in  understanding – even with Jesus involving them in feeding the crowd with only a few loaves and fishes – Still disciples really aren’t getting it… And…

So now Jesus has them watch and observe again. As he gives a refresher class in what it means to be the people of God. Acting out for them and for us some of the difficult situations they and we need to be able to face up to…in order to really be living into our job description as people of God. Jesus exposing us here to the kinds of testing we’re likely to face… Testing to see if we’re ready…

Are we ready and able, if necessary, to hear people – whether neighbors or Nazis, kinfolk or Klanners, call us a dog or worse? – and still stand on spiritual high-ground, peacefully? Are we ready to go to our knees and pray, not only for ourselves, our loved ones, our needs – but also for those who rebuke us, revile us, and call us names? Are we willing to be treated as outcasts and outsiders – as this Canaanite woman is? Are we ready and able to show our faith the way she does?

Because standing in faith in spite of insults – and praying for those who hate us and despitefully use us is part of the heritage of Israel. An even bigger part of the heritage of Christian faith. And…

 

This Canaanite woman proves herself very ready for the difficult test Jesus puts in front of her. Winning very strong praise and an answered prayer from Jesus…

 

Now it’s our turn… to be ready… in faith… in hope… and in love…Ready for whatever’s next… Ready to give Jesus all our thanks and praise… Even when the way is difficult. Remembering he is with us… Always.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.