August 27, 2017 Matthew 15: 21-28
Prayer: Dear Lord, We rejoice in being with you and each other in this holy place. We pray that our worship be pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
For those of you who may not know us well, I have been on a writing sabbatical for two months. I was finishing a novel, so I sat in my sunroom-slash-office day after day, and lived in an entirely different place in my head.
Sometimes at night I’d wake up, and not know if I was Deb in Greenville or Branigan in Grambling, Georgia.
But before I did that, Vince and I took two weeks and traveled to eastern Europe to visit our son, Taylor. He’s living in Warsaw, Poland. He took off with us, and we traveled by train through Poland, eastern Germany and the Czech Republic.
His sisters texted him and asked, “How are you tolerating Mom for two weeks?” Not Mom and Dad. Just Mom.
By this time, I had tried to help him translate some Polish and some German, neither of which I speak. I had helpfully tried to figure out the train and bus schedules.
So he texted his sisters back, “She’s clueless and hopeless, but has an opinion on everything.”
Between now and Christmas, you’ll probably hear me refer many times to things we saw. And you will ask yourself, Does she think no one has ever been to Europe before?
It’s not that. It’s just that I hadn’t left the country in awhile, and it allowed me to see things with a different eye, to put things together in different ways. It altered my perspective.
In Berlin we took a bike tour through heavy traffic and intermittent rain. We arrived at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is 4 ½ acres right in the middle of the city’s government district.
Around the edges of this acreage are gray concrete slabs that are perfect for sitting after a long bike ride. So we sat there as our guide swept an arm to indicate 4 ½ acres of these concrete slabs that looked pretty much the same.
The memorial was designed by American architect Peter Eisenman. As I looked out over the 2,711 gray slabs, I gave Eisenman the benefit of the doubt. I was sure the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe represented something in his mind -- even if I didn’t quite get it.
If the art world waited for me to actually understand art, we would all be waiting for a long time.
But then our guide said, “Make sure you go in.”
In what? It looked like a wide open field, dotted with over 2,000 gray slabs.
But I trusted him and began walking the pathways between slabs. And what were knee-high slabs on the edge, became waist high. And then chest high. And then neck high.
And before many steps at all, I was on an undulating pathway with these concrete slabs towering over my head. They seemed to lean together to block out the sun, to block out the sky. It was hugely disorienting. Stifling. Bewildering. Perplexing.
Not unlike what went on in that part of the world in the 1930s and ’40s.
Ah, so this is what the artist was doing.
It was a matter of perspective.
Close by the memorial, under a parking lot, sits the entrance to Adolf Hitler’s bunker. There’s no sign, no plaque, no recognition. Not that Berliners don’t think it’s worth noting historically. It’s that they fear neo-Nazi groups would make it a shrine. Would camp out there, inciting violence.
But oddly, a month after we were in Berlin, the place where neo-Nazism flamed into violence was our own Charlottesville, Virginia. We might think that Nazism and the Holocaust are part of our history. But history has a way of rearing its ugly head.
The great Southern author William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
But he wrote something else that I think expresses the same idea even more clearly: “History is not was, it is.”
History is not was, it is.
After all, what do we do every Sunday morning but look to a 2,000-year-old document for direction?
The controversy that got twisted and perverted enough to spark a world war in the last century was actually raging in the first century. The controversy between Jew and Gentile.
In our Holy Scripture, we read it from the Jewish perspective. Over and over, we read that Jesus Christ came to the Jews. He was the Jewish Messiah. He practiced Judaism his entire life.
So were Gentiles to be included in this salvation plan? Two thousand years later, it’s easy to say, Sure, yes. Paul devoted his ministry almost exclusively to bringing the Gentiles in.
That’s us. That’s how we were grafted in, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. We were grafted onto the tree of Judaism. Without those roots, he warned, we would die.
The Jewish gospel writer Matthew gives us glimpses into this saving act. In his opening, he tells of magi from the East – Gentiles – who come to recognize and honor the Jewish king. In his closing, the risen Jesus tells his disciples, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations.” (Mt. 28: 19)
All nations. All nations. Let those Gentiles in.
With that background, we turn to today’s gospel passage. It is one of the hardest passages in the Bible to understand. Why? Because our beloved Jesus is using ugly language about an ethnic group different from his own.
Please turn to Matthew 15: 21-28, and let’s see what is going on. Be aware that he has left “that place” – which was Gennesaret, where he’d had run-ins with Jewish Pharisees and scribes. Now he’s heading into Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. And he will meet one of “them” – a pagan woman from the Canaanites, unclean enemies of the Jews.
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’
24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’
26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
In Matthew’s story, Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon, which are Gentile towns. Matthew identifies the woman as Canaanite – enemies of the Jews. She calls Jesus “Son of David” – which is an outsider’s title that refers to his Jewishness.
Matthew is saying in every way he knows how: Jesus is getting ready to deal with an outsider, a non-Jew, someone considered beyond the scope of the Jewish Messiah. And oh by the way, a woman at that.
And then we get to the part that is so hard for us Gentile Christians to read: At first, Jesus doesn’t answer the woman at all. He ignores her.
The disciples – all good Jewish men – want to send her away because she is annoying. All that shouting. And Jesus doesn’t rebuke them, as we might expect. He agrees with them.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, you’re not in my job description, lady.
Then it gets worse. She was persistent in seeking help for her daughter. She knelt before Jesus, insisting, “Lord, help us.”
And he answered: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
That is every bit as bad as it sounds. He is using the Jews’ derogatory word for Gentiles – dogs. He calls her a dog. This is not something we expect to hear from Jesus, is it?
That’s why preachers frequently skip this passage. That’s why we jump to the Old Testament or a psalm or Paul when this passage rolls around every third August.
And when we do preach it, we focus on the woman’s faith. I think Matthew was commenting on her incredible faith, just as he commented on the Gentile centurion’s faith back in chapter 8. In that story, the centurion wanted his servant healed. Jesus healed him, then said:
“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
And he warned that outsiders would enter the kingdom of heaven while the heirs to the kingdom, the Jews, would remain outside. (Mt. 8: 10-11)
So here again in chapter 15, we have a Gentile responding in faith, juxtaposed with stories of the Jewish authorities who do not accept Jesus.
But here and only here do we have Jesus saying these nasty things. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This woman stands firm in the face of the slur, in the face of being called a dog. She responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And to our great relief, Jesus responds to that faith: “ ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Whew! That sounds more like the Jesus we know. Not Mean Jesus, ignoring someone, telling her she was outside his care, calling her a “dog.”
Quite frankly, this passage used to bother me a great deal. I didn’t know what to make of it, how to interpret it. I did not understand why Jesus was participating in hateful speech, why his perspective on someone of another ethnicity or religion or race was so negative.
What finally allowed me to make peace with it was when I took note of the two passages that come immediately afterward. Remember: our Bibles have stories separated with little headlines. They have numbered chapters, numbered verses.
But that’s not the way Matthew wrote it. In Matthew’s original manuscript, it was all squished together – no headlines, no chapters, no verses.
So picking up from “Her daughter was healed instantly,” we read:
29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down.
30Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing.
And they praised the God of Israel.
Do you see what has happened? The doorway has been flung open to the Gentiles. We know these people are Gentiles, because “they praised the God of Israel.” That wording indicates he was not their god.
So from a reluctant healing of one Canaanite daughter comes this mass healing of “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others.”
Then, thevery next story is the feeding of the 4,000. That is the Gentile version of the feeding of the 5,000 back in chapter 14. Instead of 12 baskets of leftovers – a Jewish number of completion – there are seven baskets of leftovers – a more universal number for completion.
It is this middle portion of Matthew’s gospel that links the magi of the birth story to the Great Commission at the end. The adulation of foreign kings to the resurrected Jesus’s command to “go ye therefore and teach all nations.”
It is in this middle portion where we see Jesus’s mission opening to the Gentiles.
It is with this woman’s story, this acknowledgment of healing for one beyond the stated scope of Jesus’s mission, that Matthew narratively flings the door wide open. For Gentiles. For us.
In Jesus’s time, the issue was Jew and Gentile. In the era of World War II, the issue, to some extent, was Nazi and Jew.
What is it in our time? Amazingly, outside the realm of everything I once believed possible, it may be neo-Nazis, white supremacists, nationalists, anti-immigrants against Jews and people of color and religious minorities and immigrants and people of varying sexual orientation. Two thousand years later, seventy-five years later, history is not was, it is.
And so maybe it’s time to think about how we’d like to be known when our time in history is over. If you are like me, you’ve read probably 100 books on the Holocaust. And of course, I want to think I would have been the person to hide Anne Frank, to fight in the German Resistance, to hide Jews in the Warsaw Zoo or to assemble Schindler’s list. But would I?
Let’s think about how we want to look back when we’re 80 or 85 or 90 at how we lived in the world. Did we say everything we should have said? Did we act in ways we should have acted? Did we stand up to injustice when we saw it?
Did we stand bravely on the right side of history?
So, why did our Savior Jesus Christ speak harshly to the “other”? I honestly don’t know.
Maybe it was to show his humanity as one who grew fatigued and weary.
Maybe it was to provide Matthew’s story with narrative tension. Certainly, it was Matthew’s understanding that Jesus was sent first to the Jews.
But as Matthew so eloquently shows, the Gentile woman’s persistence – and Jesus’s acquiescence in healing her daughter – threw open the doors to a mass Gentile healing a few verses later.
And by the end of this gospel, Jesus was instructing his disciples to carry his message to all nations, all nations. The barrier to the Gentiles had been lifted.
Let us follow Matthew’s storyline and lift the barriers in our world.
In our time and place in history, that means standing alongside the endangered, the powerless, the targeted, whoever they may be.