Jesus and the Canaanite Woman Sermon by Fr. Winston T. Smith
Year A, Proper 15, Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Most of you probably don’t know it, but standing before you is the president of the North Mecklenburg High School Chess Club. In 10th grade, my very first year of high school, I noticed that it was suddenly very important to belong to some kind of club or team.
There were many to choose from. Of course, if you were into sports you could choose baseball, football, wrestling, swimming, etc. Even if you weren’t athletically inclined you still had options. You could join a service organization like the Key Club or something fashionably academic like the French club. But at all costs, you must not find yourself without a club affiliation. That would be to leave yourself on the outside, without any real identity. If you were desperate you could join the Christian club of about five students that met to pray before school, but even though I wasn’t cool at all in High School, I wasn’t that desperate.
So I decided to take one of the few respectable interests that I had as a 15 year old, the game of Chess, and turn that into a club. And that’s what I and a handful of my equally nerdy friends did. We started the North Mecklenburg High School Chess Club. And we were a legitimate club. We had a faculty sponsor. We met a couple of times a month to play chess and have tournaments. We even got our picture in the Year Book along side of the other clubs. We really felt good about ourselves. I think if we could have gotten away with it we would have gotten letterman jackets with chess pieces embroidered on them to make sure everyone knew that we were a club, that we belonged and were not outsiders.
There’s something intoxicating about belonging to a group, to being on the inside. And there’s something very lonely, even scary, about being on the outside, in part because insiders can be very cold and cruel to outsiders.
Poet and essayist, Patricia Lockwood, who is the daughter of a parish priest reflecting on her own experience wrote, “All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their ‘we’. A ‘we’ is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The ‘we’ closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.”
Hold onto that last sentence, “The ‘we’ closes its ranks to protect the space inside it . . . It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.”
This morning’s readings remind us that God did not create the church to become an isolated “we”, a religious club that exists to protect itself and ignore the needs of others. The church is the body of Christ and must, like Christ, leave the comfortable boundaries of the in-crowd to love those on the outside. The church must reach out to heal, to reconcile, and to restore.
- God’s Plan to Save the Entire World.
Our Old Testament lessons protect us from the “we” mentality by reminding us of God’s plan from the very beginning to not to only bless Israel, but to bring all the nations of the world into his fold. In Isaiah 56 the prophet proclaims,
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer . . . Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” I like the way God speaks to Israel as “outcasts”. God has a heart for the outcasts. He calls Israel during the exile “outcasts” and promises to gather into them even more “outcasts”.
God’s plan from the very beginning was to bless and restore the entire world through his chosen one, his Messiah. He set that program in motion by choosing Abraham and promising that his descendants would outnumber the stars of the sky and that the whole world would be blessed through him. And so through Abraham, Israel became God’s chosen people, chosen out of all the nations of the world to be a special people, to act as his nation of priests, to bring knowledge of God’s grace and love to all peoples. They were not chosen to become an exclusive “we” that exists to protect the insiders. Not chosen because they were better than anyone else. Not chosen to exalt themselves above others. Not chosen to withdraw from the world and play it safe. But chosen to be the light of the world, the beacon that would draw all nations the Messiah that was to come, to Jesus Christ, our Lord.
- Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
In light of that, this morning’s Gospel reading seems especially challenging. Jesus encounters an outsider to Israel, a woman from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon who is crying out to him for help and, at least at first, Jesus totally rebuffs her. First, he is silent and completely ignores her and then in terms that can only be considered insulting refers to her as a dog and the Israelites as children. What’s going on here?! Where is the Messiah who comes to gather the nations and the outcasts?
It’s important to understand this passage within the broader context of Matthew’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind. More than any other gospel Matthew speaks to Jewish concerns – the connections between Jesus and Old Testament promises and prophecies, the place of the law in the Kingdom of God, and Israel’s place in the world. These are all in the foreground in the Gospel of Matthew.
One of the things that Matthew wants us to notice is the difference between the complacency and contempt that Israel has towards Jesus, and the faith and zeal of outsiders. In other words, Matthew wants us to see how when the Messiah shows up, Israel sort of shrugs its shoulders and yawns, and is even hostile towards him, but the outsiders, the Gentiles, are breaking down the door to get to him.
This shows up at several important places in the gospel:
In the beginning of the gospel there are two very different responses to Jesus’ birth. Israel’s phony king, Herod, seeks to murder Jesus as a rival. The Magi, astrologer-priests from Persia, what used to be Babylon, travel a great distance to be present at his birth and bring gifts that recognize him as a King. In other words, the outsiders get it, the insiders don’t.
In chapter 8 a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant who is paralyzed at home. Jesus agrees to come to his home to heal him but the centurion tells Jesus that he is not worthy to have him come to his home and asks Jesus to heal him just by giving the command. Matthew says that Jesus was “amazed” by the centurion’s faith and hasn’t seen faith like it in all of Israel. An officer in the Roman army, the army of the oppressor, who has no reason to believe Jesus will help him, has more faith than anyone Jesus has met. The outsiders get it, the insiders don’t.
So Jesus has been honored, recognized as the Messiah, by religious astrologers from Babylon and an officer of the occupying Roman army. Now he meets the woman from Tyre and Sidon, outside of the boundaries of Israel, and Matthew signals that he’s making the same point that he made with the Magi and the Centurion as we meet a Gentile woman who calls out to Jesus using the Messianic title, “Son of David”. But this woman isn’t just a Gentile, Matthew calls her a “Canaanite”, the generic name of the peoples that ancient Israel despised and set out to exterminate. The ancient peoples that did all they could to take Israel back from God’s people and rejoiced at their downfall. The disciples want Jesus to just send her away, to make her shut up. Jesus compares her to a dog, a common term that ancient Israelites used to refer to Canaanites.
But it’s a set up. Jesus knows God’s promise to Abraham, the prophecies in Isaiah, the words of this morning’s Psalm. He’s accepted the veneration of Babylonians. He’s healed a Roman soldier’s servant. He hasn’t suddenly changed his mind or drawn the line with this Canaanite woman. He is heightening the tension in order to magnify the faith of the outsider. She persists. Like an expert hurdler, a track star, she leaps over the barriers and roadblocks that Jesus throws her way. She ignores the insult and acknowledges Israel’s special calling while at the same time hinting at the full inclusion of the Gentiles that was to come which was God’s idea from the very beginning. The outsiders get it, the insiders don’t.
Can you see how dangerous it can be to be an insider? It’s easy to become complacent. Insiders often forget their own need for mercy and help and become complacent with what they already have. Israel had forgotten its own need for mercy and had come to think of salvation more in terms of retribution than restoration, of teaching the outsiders a lesson rather than loving them. But Jesus crossed the boundaries. He always has a heart and a mission to the outsiders, to lift them up, to heal and restore them, to give them a place in God’s family. We have to follow Jesus and move from the inside to the outside. Like Jesus, get outside of our comfort zones, out of familiar territory and seek to know and love those that we think of as “outsiders”.
Before I end, I have to tell you about a man I learned about this week through an article on the Huffington Post. The headline of the article reads, “Black Man Gets KKK Members to Disavow by Befriending them”. I had to read that article.
The article is about Daryl Davis, an accomplished keyboardist who played with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. For the last three decades Daryl has made it his mission to befriend white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members and challenge them with the question, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” It started in 1982 after a performance when a man came up to him to compliment his playing. Daryl befriended him only to find out later that he was a card-carrying member of the KKK. Through this man Daryl met the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan and befriended him. Eventually those two Klansmen, and eventually dozens of others left the Klan because of their friendship with Daryl Davis. When they leave the Klan or other white supremacist groups they often give him their apparel and paraphernalia that he keeps on display in his garage.
Daryl’s approach is simple – he loves them. In one instance Daryl met a racist man and his family on a talk show about racist groups. The husband and his family did not like and were not impressed with Daryl. Shortly after the show aired Daryl found out that the husband was going to prison for ten years. So Daryl found the phone number of the wife and called her offering to drive her and her children across the state of Illinois to visit their father in prison. Later the husband and wife renounced racism and gave credit to Daryl Davis.
So what does it mean to step out of complacency and contempt and cross the line? How do we follow Jesus there? Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to love your enemy. Really love them just as Jesus has instructed us. There are many things that need to be done politically and culturally and I’m not trying to side step that. But whatever your political persuasion, we all uniquely share in the responsibility that Christ has given to us all and that is to love our neighbor, no matter who they are. Even if they call themselves our enemy.
That’s the gospel and that’s the power of God. AMEN.