Dear Christ Church Family,
This Gospel story from Matthew is such a troubling one, especially in light of the current troubles in our own land, that I’ve revisited this lesson from a few months ago. Then, it was about our personal responses to Covid-19. Now it is about so much more.
Monday, June 8, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
A life-changing encounter with Jesus. I don’t get this! How could Jesus be so cruel? Today’s lesson from the Gospel According Matthew is shocking! He is downright cruel to someone coming to him for help, calling her a dog, and only relents to help her after she keeps at him. The whole story seems so incongruous with what we know of Jesus and his love.
Actually, though, Jesus’ actions drive us toward the point of this passage. We will see that with some background information. Jesus is traveling in the District of Tyre and Sidon, because he has just finished some epic battles with the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and, yes, he needs a break. He needs to get away for a bit. This region of Tyre, to the north of Galilee, is totally pagan, and supremely Gentile. If we have read the preceding chapters of Matthew, or Mark where we originally dealt with this difficult story, we see that to this point, Jesus’ entire ministry has been understood as a purely Jewish mission; he is the savior, the messiah, for Jews alone. In this territory, no one will know him, no one will disturb him. He and his Disciples will be able to catch a break and rest. This is how the Disciples see it anyway. When this Canaanite woman (in Mark she is identified as Syro-Phoenician) recognizes Jesus, and seek him out, it is the Disciples who want Jesus to send her away. She is disturbing them, they say, with her cries for help.
Instead, Jesus begins to interact with her. His manner seems gruff to start. But remember, the Disciples are watching, and this is what they would expect from a holy rabbi when encountering someone the text is clearly identifying as a pagan, and worse, a gentile; one they would themselves routinely refer to as a dog (Hebrew slang for a pagan worshiper of idols.) To them, all of this is a given as to how things are understood to be done.
Now, suddenly, Jesus and this woman will turn everything the Disciples understand to be “a given” upside down. He banters with the woman, using the very ethnic slur the Disciples are already thinking, reminding her that since she is a pagan, she is unworthy of the gifts of God reserved for God’s people alone. The woman now responds with an amazing statement. Incorporating that very slur into her defense, she reveals a profound personal faith in the blessings of Jesus’ God, and most especially in Jesus himself, despite being the pagan-foreigner-gentile that she is. To the Disciples she is worthless. She is not a Jew. She is not one of the Chosen of God. She is not even among the tolerated of the gentiles who are known as proselytes. She represents the worst of the worst; she is completely irredeemable.
Yet, she has enough faith to recognize Jesus and seek him. Even Jesus seems stunned by the depth of her profession of faith. Jesus sees a child of God, and this conversation has revealed her as such to the Disciples. With this moment his whole ministry changes. Very shortly after this encounter, Jesus takes his disciples on a mission trip that will cover all the outlying pagan/gentile regions surrounding Galilee. Neither Gospel account records any objection by the Disciples to this change. Perhaps, for this moment anyway, they get it. His is no longer a parochial, limited purpose. He is now the Savior, the Redeemer, of the World.
We are now facing a moment of great distress, for never have we had so many hard times hit us all at once: political upheaval, economic downturn, and a continuing pandemic invading our land. We are experiencing the striking-out of many at those they see as irredeemable: those that differ from them ethnically, racially, socially, and, especially, politically. Many of us have experienced personal attack, especially through social media. Remember, though, fear and separation can cause any of us to do terrible things, to forget that we are Jesus’ disciples today, and to revert to tribal thinking as the Disciples did before Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. In this respect, this story provides us with a “check” on such behavior. It reminds us of whose we are, and whose purpose we serve in this world. Yes, we are called to lift the poor – not exalt the proud; called to raise the weak – not revere the strong; called to stand with the oppressed – not kneel before the powerful. But, remember too, we are to stand for justice not judgment, reconciliation not rejection, love not loathing. Even those who count themselves our enemies, who judge and reject us, need redeeming, need grace. Whatever our circumstance in this moment, our purpose is to serve the Redeemer of the Whole World.