Proper 15A; Isaiah 56:1-8; Rom. 11: 13-15, 29-32; Matt. 15:21-28
St. Paul’s Smithfield, 8/20/2017; Jim Melnyk, “Pushy Faith”
Some of you may recall hearing me tell a story about two monks who come across one another in the wilderness. The first monk, glaring at the other for some unknown reason, takes his staff and draws a line in the dirt between the two of them. The second monk looks for a few minutes at the line on the ground, and then at his fellow monk. Finally, taking his own staff, he draws a circle in the dirt around both of them. After a few moments of deafening silence, the first monks face is transformed. Knowing himself to be accepted and welcomed where he had expected animosity and rejection, he drops his staff to the ground, and embraced his brother.
We human beings are quite accomplished at drawing lines in the sand – and not quite as accomplished at drawing circles.
The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is a story about centuries-old lines and about the drawing of circles – and the radical surprise that finds Jesus as the one drawing the lines in the sand, while the Canaanite woman turns out to be the one who teaches Jesus not just to draw circles – but about the need for him to make his circles even wider! Not only that, we see the same lesson being taught by Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome as well.
Simply put, Jesus is ready to turn his back on the Canaanite woman for two reasons. First, Canaanites were centuries-old enemies of Israel. The woman is a descendent of those whom Joshua was supposed to drive out of the land so long ago. Second, Jesus seems to understand his call, for the most part at this time, as one that is only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This reality only makes sense if we’re willing to accept that Jesus has to grow into mission – that just like us, he doesn’t always see all the details of the pathway he will one day take.
The Canaanite woman and her daughter are distractions that seem to be getting in the way of his time set apart to teach his disciples. The two are no more than dogs according to Jesus – and don’t let anyone fool you. Jesus didn’t call them puppies – it wasn’t meant as a cute term of endearment. Jesus called them dogs – a common insult in his day.
Jesus draws a line in the sand between himself and the Canaanite woman, and she, perhaps unknowingly arguing with the deep wisdom of gospel truth, draws a circle which includes them both. She reminds Jesus that there is no room for prejudice and discrimination in the kingdom of God. I can almost hear her reminding Jesus of Isaiah’s words: “Maintain justice, Jesus, and do what is right! Heal my daughter!” And Jesus, having been schooled by a Gentile woman, must have roared with laughter at his own expense.
Paul has been running into some of the same experiences of prejudice as the Canaanite woman. He’s been dealing with the Gentile followers of Jesus living in Rome, some of whom seem to think that Judaism has been superseded by this new religion. Paul argues with pride that he is an Israelite and member of the tribe of Benjamin. He emphatically proclaims that God does not reject the heirs of Abraham (Romans 11:2). There is no place for prejudice and discrimination in Paul’s faith communities either.
In other words, in today’s lessons we have a Canaanite woman who argues that the people who conquered her ancestors have not supplanted her right to God’s love and mercy, just as Paul argues that those who follow Christ have not supplanted the Jews – have not supplanted the very people of which he, Paul, and Jesus, are a part.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “Over and over, God’s call to us means pushing old boundaries, embracing outsiders, giving up the notion that there is not enough…to go around. We may resist,” she writes; “we may even lose our tempers, but the call of God is insistent, as insistent as the Canaanite woman who would not leave Jesus alone. The call of God keeps after us, calling us by name, until finally we step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves and discover a whole new world on the other side” (Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven, quoted in Synthesis).
In essence, we are called to embrace a “pushy faith.” And when we look closely enough, we find that we have a God who is just as pushy as the Canaanite woman – perhaps that’s where she gets it from – a part of the divine image alive and active in her. But the truth is, we’re not comfortable with pushy people, or with a pushy God, when either one calls us to account for our brokenness – challenging us to be transformed, or calls us to stand up on behalf of others who are hurting – challenging society to be transformed.
What we will find, if we’re open enough and brave enough to seek, is that Holy Scripture is filled with strong women, and strong men, who stand firm when told to mind their place, and who step up when God gives them a push – or even just a nudge. Holy Scripture is filled with those who are willing to get in other people’s spaces, and even in their faces, to help bring about the kingdom – or kin-dom of God in this world. The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel lesson is one of them. Bold and desperate, out of love for her daughter, she refuses to let the disciples or Jesus off the hook, and her daughter is healed.
A few of us talked about today’s gospel during Theology on Draft the other night. The next morning Curtis Brookshire sent me a link to a story he heard on NPR. A 65 year-old African American woman named Francine Anderson tells a story about a night 60 years ago along a road in rural Virginia. Her father made the mistake of running out of gas in a sparsely populated area – at night – with his wife and children in the car. He pushed his car along the road until he came to a single gas station with a sign that read, “Whites Only.”
Her father went to the door with his hat in hand, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible, only to be rudely turned away by the owner. “I don’t deal with your kind,” he growled before slamming the door.
Back in the car the father was faced with questions from his children. “Why can’t we go?” “Why won’t he give us any gas?” And at five years of age it suddenly occurs to Francine, “This is a dangerous world. We’re in real trouble.”
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).
Thankfully, Francine tells us, the owner’s son comes out a few minutes later, apologizing for his father’s actions, and gives Francine’s family the gas they need without taking any money. Francine gets mixed responses to the story, she tells us.
When white people hear her tell the story, they focus on the kindness and generosity of the man’s son. On the other hand, she says, “When I talk to blacks about that story they’re more focused on the fact that it wasn’t illegal for [the owner] to deny them gas.” The son’s kindness should not have been necessary, had attitudes and laws been gospel-oriented. http://www.npr.org/2017/08/18/544264905/after-60-years-girls-experience-at-whites-only-gas-station-still-hurts
“It’s not fair to take the children’s food….” But at least the son gives us a glimpse into the hope God holds for our world – that as the kingdom of heaven on earth, we might do more than just find our way around attitudes, rules and laws that restrict and oppress.
The dream of God is that as people of faith, filled with the Spirit of God, we might create a world where such laws, and the attitudes behind those laws, might become a part of our history we would be embarrassed to memorialize and hold dear.
In the end, “The Divine compassion for all who suffer” means more to Jesus than time alone with his disciples, or ancient racial and ethnic animosity. A gentile woman is not only received by Jesus, but her daughter is healed. And whereas Peter was chided in last week’s lesson for having little faith, this woman – this enemy of Israel – is celebrated for her great faith.
In the end, God calls us – in the end God pushes us – to step over the lines we so expertly draw in the sand, and discover the kingdom of heaven waiting for us on the other side.