A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard
One of the frustrating things about today’s Gospel, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, is the fact that we can’t get inside Jesus’ head. This happens a lot when you read Scripture – you often simply can’t tell what is motivating people.
In our day, we are used to films and novels that delve into the human psyche. Well, Biblical narratives aren’t like that. The way they tell the story is nearly always strikingly economical, and they almost never give the kind of subjective psychological descriptions we 21st century people enjoy. Which means we often naturally find ourselves guessing at people’s inner thoughts or motivations. So of course people have made various guesses as to what is going on in Jesus’ head as he, a Jewish man, talks with this woman of a different ethnicity and a different status. ....
Some have guessed that he actually does have his mind changed by her from a negative bias towards Gentiles to a willingness to accept them. Others have guessed that he knows perfectly well that his message is meant for Gentiles as well as Jews, but wants that expansion out of Judaism to happen only at a later phase, after his Resurrection. Others have guessed that Jesus is actually completely ready to help her from the beginning but is in some way testing her faith. The Bible does not tell us.
But it is interesting that, for whatever reasons, there’s sort of an extended conversational exchange with this Canaanite woman. Because with many Gospel stories of people requesting healing, they come and ask for help and that’s all there is to it.
In Matt 8, Jesus walks into Peter’s house, sees Peter’s mother in law sick in bed, heals her. In Matt 17, a father comes and says “Lord have mercy on my son, he has seizures, but your disciples couldn’t help him,” and Jesus says “Bring the boy here” and heals him. In Matt 20, two blind men are on the side of the road, they start shouting “Lord, son of David, have mercy on us” and Jesus stops, asks what they want, and heals them.
Not here. For whatever reason, he seems to hold out here. The Canaanite woman says exactly what the two blind men were saying, “Lord, son of David, have mercy on me,” but Jesus doesn’t answer her at all. When he finally does, it’s to give her a challenge: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She kneels before him and deepens her plea: “Lord, help me.” But he tells her, “it’s not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to their dogs,” and only when she cleverly points out that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table,” he finally agrees to heal her daughter. It takes awhile.
But this woman does not give up when she faces what must at least feel to her like opposition. She perseveres. Perhaps as a pagan she is used to having to try a little harder to get a hearing when she’s talking to a Jew, or as a woman is used to having to try a little harder to get a hearing when she’s talking to a man. She has to try a little harder here than most everyone else who asked Jesus for healing in the Gospels did.
You know, the world is full of people like that. People who just have to try a little harder to get the same place. For whatever reason! -- and I’m sure the reasons vary depending on where people live, who surrounds them, all kinds of factors. Yes, people have to try harder because of gender, but also economic differences, racial differences, religious differences, educational differences, family background, maybe a learning disability or a physical disability. All these factors play into how we human beings react to each other.
I mean, we all know that sin has separated us from God. That’s a basic biblical truth: sin separates us from God. But my gosh, we have done a bang-up job at helping it separate us from each other as well. At following through on sin, letting it seep into our attitudes and shape the dark corners of our various cultures.
I’m not talking here just about the big darknesses, like the sectarian violence going on in Iraq or the tensions in Ferguson Missouri, where those separations seem so entrenched people are dying from them. I’m also talking about the small attitudes, the biases and roadblocks each of us has, the assumptions we barely even notice, but that leave others having to try a little harder to get to the same place.
Now any of us who are disciples of Jesus would immediately want to affirm that before him, everyone is on the same footing. We’re all creatures made in the image of one God with the same dignity and worth, we’re all sinners in need of grace, none of us can feel superior. That’s what our book says. But don’t we often encounter in ourselves at least the temptation to slip back into the kind of ranking systems the world uses? To think in terms of the people who count, and the people who count a little less? The people who are part of our own world, and the people who are on the outside?
So we need to keep reminding ourselves that when God’s Kingdom has fully come nobody will have to try harder to receive the same acceptance others do. In Christ we really are on the same footing. All of us have the same desperate need for grace and the same infinite value to God. In the new heavens and the new earth, there is no them; there’s only us.
That ultimate time is not fully here yet, but surely we who have received the promise of the Gospel ought to know already a little bit about what it feels like. Because we’re the foretaste people, right? We’re the ones who gather here at the altar to taste and share in God’s anticipatory down payments on that day of justice and joy we know is coming.
We’re the ones who come here to rehearse the Kingdom, to be a little laboratory of living the way things are when God is in charge. And we are the ones, after our weekly rehearsal, whom God sends out of these red doors to perform that Kingdom in Champaign County in all kinds of small and everyday ways.
So I want to suggest for us this week a small and everyday spiritual practice. First, whether they’re part of your day to day life, or happen to be next to you in the line at County Market tomorrow, or are standing around in the Great Hall looking like they don’t know anybody half an hour from now, or live in a place you drive past, notice someone who is having to work a little harder, for whatever reason.
That may take quite a bit of effort right there, actually. Everything in the spirit of the present age trains us not to notice. Even standing in the Great Hall at coffee hour, the spirit of the present age whispers “Talk to your friends! Notice the people you already like!” Driving through a neighborhood you don’t want to live in, the spirit of the present age whispers “Listen, your favorite song is coming up on the playlist.”
Everything in the spirit of the present age trains us not to notice. Well, let’s disobey the present age this week. Be a foretaste person, be an agent of the Kingdom, and notice.
Notice someone who is having to try a little harder for whatever reason, and instead of leaving it to them, you make the effort. You be the one to bridge the cultural or economic or age or familiarity or whatever gap it is that needs to be bridged. You go the extra mile. I don’t mean that you should become all patronizing about “capital H” helping, I just mean take the initiative to step over to their side instead of expecting that the way it works is that they step to yours. Just step over to their side.
That is, in essence, where Jesus ended up by the close of today’s Gospel, whether he meant to go there all along or whether he had to be encouraged a little. And because he went there, the disciples got to see, and we get to see: hey, it works on that side, too. Healing works over there with the Canaanite women. Grace works on that side too.
God’s love is moving and breathing among all the people on that side too, the side with the outcasts and the awkward people and the foreigners and the dubious characters and the people who annoy and bore and frustrate you. The people who have to try just a little harder to get to the same place.
It works for them just like it works for us. God is for them, just like God is for us. Step on over, and you’ll see.