Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
SERMON The Other August 16, 2020
Context is so important. It really is. Today’s story from the gospel of Matthew gets included on every pastor’s list of “stump the preacher.” How are we to understand Jesus’ unwillingness to help this poor woman who was begging him to heal her daughter…even worse, his calling her a dog.
It has been suggested that maybe he was testing her or maybe he was just having a bad day or maybe he was just exhausted. Having just fed 5,000 people, then saved Peter from drowning, then getting into a debate with the Pharisees…all in one day…after all that it makes perfect sense that Jesus would have wanted to head up north to get away from it all.
According to the story he heads up to Tyre and Sidon. This was a Gentile area….part of Phoenicia…an area that had a long history of paganism. It was not an area populated by Jews. Here Jesus would have been under no religious obligation to respond positively to this woman who was pestering him. While he would have been under an obligation to help this woman if the same scene were to take place within the borders of ancient Israel he was under no religious obligation to do so when he was outside of Israel.
Once again, context is everything. Israel had strict laws regarding the treatment of foreigners. Jews believed they had a special responsibility to the aliens, the sojourners, the undocumented immigrants in their land. Having been aliens themselves and survived through the kindness of the natives, Jewish law required Jews to treat foreigners well. And it still does. Throughout the Hebrew scripture the foreigner is one of the members of the trinity of Hebrew mercy: the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.
Yet, this scene takes place away from that land that was holy to the Jews. Tyre and Sidon are vacation spots not places where you are expected to exhibit piety. So the context for this story is that Jesus is in a foreign land, probably needing some time off.
While stay-cations may have their value, these days I think most of us are longing to be able to travel again. It’s good for our mental, physical, and spiritual health to do so sometimes, to experience something different, to explore new worlds, to leave behind our comfort zones and be reminded that this is a great big world in which we live and that not everyone thinks, looks or acts like us.
It’s good for us to head off to Rome sometimes, seeking to do what the Romans do when in Rome, but when we do that we also need to be careful not to presume that we know what the Romans in Rome do. You have to be cautious when you are in foreign territory…and of course I’m not just talking about geographically foreign. . .I’m talking about places that are psychologically foreign, physically foreign, culturally foreign, spiritually foreign….any kind of foreign you can name. When you are a foreigner you need to be cautious about what you say or do so as to not offend, or cross a line, or presume too much.
When in a foreign place it is important to recognize that you are OTHER, so when you see something that might seem amiss to you, something you don’t understand, you don’t assume it’s wrong and rush in to fix it. You take the time to understand what’s going on, what things mean and how they work in a place that is foreign to you.
Unfortunately, too often we don’t do that. We rush in to fix something before we understand. And allow me to suggest that this is something that especially afflicts those of us with lesser amounts of melanin in our skin. We have a tendency to think we know more than others, that our way is the right way,.that we are the only ones who know what really is true. . .which is, of course, nonsense.
Jesus is in unfamiliar territory here…he‘s the foreigner….and so it is fitting that when someone comes up to him asking for help he would pause. He should pause. We all should pause before rushing in to be helpful in a situation about which we know little or nothing.
Of course it is possible to feel like you are “other” even in your own country. Our African American and immigrant friends and neighbors often describe how they feel like that here. The same is probably true if you’re Muslim or Jewish or transgender or unhoused. You often experience yourself as being seen as “other.”
The General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ says this is why we need to find a word other than “diversity” to describe the kinds of communities we seek to establish. After all the word “diversity” suggests that there is “normal” and then there is something “divergent from normal.”….something “other” than “normal.” I’m not sure what word we can find to replace it, but I do understand the problem with language that in any way other-izes someone.
But when we intentionally place ourselves in situations that are foreign to us we need to be careful before jumping in, especially when we think we are trying to be helpful. How much harm has been done by well-meaning folk, by people who may have had good intentions, but who were completely insensitive to a cultural and historical context.
How often has Christianity itself been guilty of this…of thinking we were doing good by going to foreign lands to convert people, when in fact we were too often disrespecting the beauty of what was there, tromping on their traditions, destroying their sacred lands and treating the wisdom of their elders and ancestors with contempt.
I appreciate the fact that Jesus paused before stepping into something where maybe he didn’t belong, before rushing in to help the Canaanite woman. Maybe it was a sign of respect toward a different culture…toward a people who had their own stories, their own beliefs, even their own ways of healing. So Jesus paused. “I am not here for you. I’m here for the lost sheep of Israel.”
But this Canaanite woman persists. She cries out from across the line. She insists that she knows who he is. She calls him Lord and Son of David, something his own people had yet to see in him. This foreign woman recognizes who Jesus is in a way his own people didn’t. The reaches across the cultural, ethnic, and religious barrier that should have divided them and insists that he help her daughter.
Was it a sign of her desperation? Absolutely. But it was also a sign of her recognition of a great truth…that, yes, every person is “other” but at the same time we have no business ever seeing any person is “other.”
She is telling Jesus, “My daughter needs you just as much as the daughter of every Jewish father and mother. And you can look down your nose at me….call me a dog if you have to….but don’t you dare push me away.”
Oh I know….we don’t like hearing Jesus call anyone a dog…it’s just not very nice…but it is very human…and let’s not forget that Jesus was fully human.
This woman gets through to him and in that moment Jesus gets woke. He gets woke to the reality that too often religion, and culture and ethnicity are barriers to compassion. They divide us and place us in some kind of arbitrary pecking order. They allow some to have access to everything they need while others must settle for the crumbs that fall from their table.
This woman took it. She endured the insults and she persisted! And we aren’t told exactly how it happened but Jesus lets down his guard and sees her in the fullness of her humanity, as just another beloved child of God, who needed his help. Jesus gets woke. And then he instantly heals the woman’s daughter: “instantly” it says. No pause anymore.
So, what does this story teach us? It teaches us that we need to be humble when we walk into foreign territory. Yes, we need to be careful not unintentionally inflict harm.
But then yes, we also need to keep reaching across the barriers that threaten to divide us. In the name of humanity…in the name of divinity…yes, we also need to keep throwing caution to the wind and embrace every “other” who is, at the same time, never “other.” We need to engage in the human and most holy struggle of all . . .to be one. . .to be fully human….even as we must always recognize the fact that we sure as heck aren’t there yet. This is no time to sing Kumbaya. But this is no time to give up.
And there’s one more truth embedded in this story which is that none of us…none of us…should ever have to settle for the crumbs from someone else’s table. So if that is what this world is trying to give you, then let your voice be heard! And let those of us who have been given a seat at that table stand with those who haven’t….those who have too often had to settle for our crumbs.
In the name of the woke Jesus. Amen.