Sermon from 8/17: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, The Canaanite Woman

Here is the sermon I preached at The Clare on 8/17. The lectionary texts are pretty difficult this week. The news was pretty difficult this week. I didn’t exactly know how to bring the news to a community of retirees. Hopefully, this helps just a little bit.

Here are the lectionary texts.

This story in our gospel lesson has always bothered me.

Jesus really isn’t the nice guy in this story. In fact, he’s kind of a jerk in his story. It’s really out of character and confusing.

A woman chases after him and the disciples, begging and crying out for Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her to go away once, claiming that he was not sent to help her, a Canaanite, but only the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she insists, he calls her a dog. He doesn’t heal her daughter until she negotiates with him literally for the scraps that fall from the table–and then, suddenly, he recognizes her faith as strong and capable.

I must admit, when I work with this story, I can’t really reconcile this Jesus with the Jesus that I know from the rest of the New Testament. The Jesus that I  read about in the New Testament heals even the littlest of children, even the beggars, even those possessed with legions of evil spirits.

So why does he call this woman a dog? Why does he make her struggle so much for her daughter to be healed? Out of all the people that he could have rejected, why does he choose reject this one? Most importantly, what is the lesson here for us about our own faith as Christians now? Can we learn something from such an out of character story?

One common way of interpreting this story, is to suggest that Jesus put the woman’s faith to the test, and that she passed it. Some suggest that because the woman is a Canaanite, Jesus wants to really make sure that she really has faith in God, and is not just calling after every healer under the sun.

I am hesitant to use that language, though.

The language of test can sometimes be useful: sometimes we do undergo tests of faith that help us become more faithful and more fully Christian people.

However, I would not want to tell any woman with a sick child that God’s outright rudeness to her is a test.

I wouldn’t want to suggest to anyone that, in their current state, they are not deserving of the healing power of God. Our teachings are clear–Jesus is clear in his healing ministries–that even the people we consider the lowliest are worthy of healing and wholeness.

To claim, then, that this woman must pass some test and degrade herself in front of Jesus–that seems irreconcilable, to me, with what I know of Jesus and his promise of new life.

Another common way of looking for answers, is to go to the critical scholarship. Scholarship can help fill in historical contexts and cultural contexts that have been lost to us, some two thousand years later.

And, in respect to this story, background information is useful.

In the early church, there was quite a curfuffle over what the Messiah’s purpose was. Is the Messiah here to save the lost children of Israel, or is the Messiah a universal savior who brings Gentiles and Israelites alike to God’s mercy and grace?

There were many debates in the early churches about what the true purpose of the Christian movement was.

Many saw themselves as a reform movement from within the Judaism of the time, and wanted to focus their energies on convincing their own people that Jesus was the Messiah.

Others, though, Saint Paul among them, considered Jesus’ ministry to be universally important, and that there was a real necessity to bring his teachings to the Gentiles.Our excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans shows us part of this argument within the early church.

Our story from Matthew reflects a similar argument, and here, we see Jesus himself considering both sides of the coin.

Here, the woman is a foreigner, not a part of the original covenant, not one of the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.” In fact, the names used here to describe the different peoples are the ancient names, usually only found in the Old Testament: Canaanite, and Israelite.

At first, Jesus tells her that he has no obligation to her, because that is not his purpose. But through her insistence, even after she has been insulted, she convinces him. She strikes a sort of compromise, negotiating with him: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Upon hearing this, Jesus is struck by the strength of her faith, and her daughter is healed instantly. Many of our Biblical Critical scholars suggest that this is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry: the moment when the Gentiles begin to come to him as well. This woman, who fought with Jesus about his own ministry, actually reflects a major shift in his story, a major shift in the trajectory of our own Christian story.

But, we’re not biblical-critical scholars, and this bit of historical information may help us put the story into context, but we can’t use it to answer the dilemma presented by the meanness of Jesus here. What do we make of this encounter as Christians, who follow the example of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, our God in the flesh? Would our God in the flesh really be such a jerk?

Well, maybe the answer is yes.

If Jesus is fully human and fully divine, perhaps we can interpret this interchange as a reflection of Jesus’s very human state of frustration. Crowds have been following Jesus everywhere. He goes into a place in Tyre and hides, so that he and his disciples can have some much needed rest. But here is this woman, calling after him and yelling after them, and causing a scene. Perhaps he is just frustrated and exhausted–a fully human response to ages and ages of crowds.

We always talk about Jesus forgiving us for our human shortcomings, but can we perhaps conceive that we might have to forgive Jesus for his human shortcomings?

This story may be a place of a wild paradox, a place where our brains cannot truly wrap themselves around the godlike nature of our human savior: he is perfect as God, and yet imperfect as human, experiencing all that we experience so that he might someday free us from the pain of our own failures. And perhaps, here, he has actually exhibited one of those failures. Perhaps he just got tired.

But the story doesn’t end there–and what happens next is the key, I think.

The woman fights with Jesus: she negotiates with him, she barters with him, she outsmarts him.

Despite the fact that he has insulted her, the woman’s daughter is important enough to her that she remains in conversation with Jesus. She keeps fighting for what she knows is right, for the faith that she has in his ability to cure her daughter. And here, Jesus recognizes her faith. After she outsmarts him, Jesus calls her faithful, recognizes her as a strong and dedicated woman, and sends the demon from her daughter.

The connection between her fight with him and her faith is central to this story. Here, Jesus names faith as a sort of disobedience, a sort of fight with God. Here, Jesus tells us that faith is more than just blindly following everything he says and does–here Jesus tells us that fighting with God, that negotiating with God–that this is faith, too.

The Canaanite woman changes Jesus’s mind. Her faith is a faith in Jesus’ ability to heal her daughter, and she forces him to be in relationship with her, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to. In the midst of his very human frustration, this woman–out of faith–fought with him and forced him into a relationship with her.

And, we are told that this is a kind of faith that is exemplary, that our relationship with God can also be fraught, and can also be full of fight if it needs to. This story tells us that sometimes, a full faith is a faith that fights with God. And God, who has faith in us, has the decency and the devotion to fight back.

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