“Teaching Jesus a Lesson”
A Sermon on Matthew 15:10-28 for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached August 17, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
This morning, I’m going to get right down to it… this is quite frankly a challenging story—a disturbing story even—this scene of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who wasn’t at least a little puzzled by it. People right in this very congregation will tell you that how Jesus is in this story just doesn’t seem to square up with who they believe Jesus to be. Or for that matter, really just about anything they’ve ever been told about Jesus.
I don’t imagine, for example, that anybody’s ever told you Jesus was kind-of a tool… I mean, obviously, not all of the time… but he is quite a big jerk to this woman, is he not? First he ignores her. After the disciples complain about her to him, he brushes it off. Then, when he and she finally do talk to one another, he ends up telling her that “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, the dogs. The… dogs…
I don’t imagine that you’ve been told Jesus was exclusionary, either. In fact, quite the opposite. Certainly in churches like this one, but even among more moderate and conservative Christians, just about everyone admits that Jesus had quite a habit of welcoming outcasts and eating with sinners. This Canaanite woman wasn’t even particularly a sinner as far as the story goes, just an outsider, a non-Jewish woman. Most of us know about the Jesus who tells his followers to make disciples of all nations… the one who sent them forth to all the ends of the earth… the one in whose name the apostles said all were one: male and female, Jew and non-Jew, slave and free. But here, in this story, Jesus states that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
I also don’t imagine many of you have been told much about a Jesus who changes his mind, or a God who gets called wrong and then changes direction in return. Now, this part doesn’t actually bother me, myself, as much, but it seems to bother a lot of people. Did the Canaanite woman actually prove Jesus wrong, and he had to rethink things? Was it her retort that convinced him of a different way? Indeed, it would seem so, the way this story is told. And the gospel itself doesn’t seem to have much problem with it. Now, we, on the other hand tend to have a problem with that. Whatever our understanding of Jesus is, whatever our concept of God entails, most Christians are tied—whether consciously or unconsciously—to the idea of God’s immutability. That’s a big fancy word for the understanding that God doesn’t change. And you find this hang up all across the different theological spectrums. In fact, if you want, you can pick up that New Century Hymnal right in front of you, the one with the black cover, and look inside at the very beginning. If you turn to the title page itself, you find a little quote from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” And then if you flip past the 60-or-so pages of liturgy material to hymn number one, what do you find? That great Scots Presbyterian hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” a hymn that sings of how God’s life exceeds beyond and above our finite human ability to understand or experience. In this hymn’s original wording, the second half of verse 3 proclaims, “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, then wither and perish; but naught changeth thee.” And lest there be a few of you out there that looked down at the background blurb and thus think this is simply a Calvinist hang-up, the ol’ Methodist hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” also sings the claims “Thou changest not” and “As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.”
So, right here in a mere 8 verses, we are told about a Jesus who seems to change his mind, even though we tend not to think that’s supposed to happen… a Jesus who seems to be saying his mission is limited and exclusive, even though we believe him to be otherwise… and a Jesus who is downright derogatory toward another person, even though obviously we wouldn’t imagine that could be possible.
Quite a challenging story, indeed, no?
But you know what? None of us needed to hear today’s passage from Matthew to know a challenging story this week. We have wondered what can possibly be done in the face of the largest outbreak of people infected with the Ebola virus—more than even the word ‘epidemic’ captures, really—the largest outbreak ever since this disease was has been tracked. We have watched with a sense of horror and of helplessness as the Yazidi community in northern Iraq languished on a mountain, starvation and dehydration the only seeming alternative to the immediate danger and death they face from the militant extremists sweeping their way across the region.
And then, of course, there is Ferguson, Missouri. I’m not sure any one word can capture what’s been going on there and how I or any of us feel about it. I would be tempted to say “disbelief”, but the truth is that for my sisters and brothers with brown skin and black skin, what happened to Michael Brown last Saturday is all too believable. Less than a week earlier, after all, police shot and killed John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black male, in a Wal-Mart outside Dayton, OH, when all Crawford was doing was looking at a bee-bee pellet gun, a toy… in an “Open Carry” state no less. But Crawford’s case at least is a tiny bit of an “anomaly, inasmuch as he was at least carrying something that looks like a weapon.” Others have been shot while holding cell phones or wallets or, as with Michael Brown in Ferguson, while holding nothing at all it would seem. So, if there is any feeling of “disbelief” to be had, it really is because as a white person I have the privilege of having such a feeling. What I have might have trouble believing could still happen in this day-and-age is simply day-to-day reality within communities of color.
I don’t know what day-to-day reality was like for the Canaanite woman in this morning’s gospel story. What I do know is that I at least have to give her a lot of credit. I don’t know if I would have had the courage, the strength, or—quite frankly—the wit to respond back to Jesus the way she did. After being ignored and then called a dog, I might have been inclined simply to slip meekly away. “Oh, he’s just like all the rest,” I might think; “let’s just keep moving on.”
But, of course, she does not just move along. She goes toe-to-toe with him, calling him into account in a way that indicts him with who he’s said he is all along. In fact, as we heard in the reading, he just got done speaking to a crowd in another town about how its what comes from the heart that matters, not the external observance of particular rules. Perhaps she had heard about that scene. Perhaps she had heard about the Jesus who healed and taught without prejudice, the one who had compassion on the hillside even in the midst of terror and grief. Perhaps she even knew about the God of Israel and that God’s promises, the sort of promises we heard in the Isaiah passage: that “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; …. for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
So, perhaps the Jesus that she met on that fateful day didn’t match up with who she knew he was any better than this story’s Jesus matches up with who we know he is. Maybe she knew the promises and knew that this wasn’t how it should be.
Now, I honestly can’t explain away for you this morning why Jesus comes across the way he does in this story. As you can imagine, this story makes us uncomfortable enough that others have tried to do so, tried to come up with explanations, tried to devise some way to let him off the hook for being the way he is in this scene.
But the Canaanite woman, she didn’t let him off the hook. She called him to account. She cried out with the plea of what the promises of God were to be. She looked into his face and asked him simply to be who he said he was.
Now, you see, my friends, even in as much as we tend to have trouble with this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, I think in a way it is one of the most “real” stories in the gospels. “Real” because it’s not hard to find ourselves in that Canaanite woman’s shoes. Ignored and brushed aside by the Holy One. Pleading for healing, and feeling like it only ever goes to someone else. Crying out for help, and wondering if it will ever come our way.
It’s hard to have “faith” sometimes, in the face of that kind of experience of life and that kind of experience of God. How can people do such things to other people? And how can God let it happen? And why doesn’t God intervene? It’s hard to have faith in the face of it. Hard to have faith.
Faith, though, is exactly what Jesus ends up praising the Canaanite woman for. But all she did was call Jesus to account. All she did was demand that Jesus be who he said he would be, live into all that his very being promised. She made no particular confession. And yet her simple act of not walking away and even calling him to account, it was accorded to her as faith.
It can be hard to have faith in the face of all the junk going on in the world, all the pain that the world inflicts upon us, all the brokenness we know inside us. It’s hard to have faith when an unarmed 18-year-old get shot by police, and when people afforded relative privilege in society dismiss justified anger and say such boneheaded things; it’s hard to have faith when people are dying on a mountainside, or, for that matter, at your own bedside.
But sometimes faith is nothing more than having the courage to cry out for help. Sometimes faith is nothing more than saying to the God whose name is “I am what I am”, than saying to God “well, then be who you said you are!”
And so, we join with all the other weary souls who have cried out “Have mercy on me, Lord.” We sing with the ancient psalm writers who pleaded with God to fulfill the promises of old. We stand alongside the Canaanite woman, calling God to account for who God said God would be. We join our voices and our hands with those marching in Ferguson and starving in Iraq, praying with them and on their behalf, voicing their pleas even when they are not our own.
We cry out, and in the crying out, we are held, we are healed, we are saved.
Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Words as appear in Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013); emphasis added. This section of the text in The New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995) reads “We blossom and flourish as leaves and as flowers, then wither and perish—but naught dims your powers.” It is unknown to me whether this emendation was made only to avoid the archaic form “thee” on which the verse ends, as was done throughout the The New Century Hymnal, or whether the editors also sought to soften the claim of complete immutability, instead claiming only that the strength of God’s power is unchanging.
 Mikki Kendal, “John Crawford: Killed Holding a ‘Gun’ in an Open Carry State”, News & Views, Ebony.com, 13 August 2014, accessed 17 August 2014 at http://www.ebony.com/news-views/john-crawford-killed-405