Growing up, as a typical older sister, I did not want my two brothers entering my room. And one day, when I was probably six or seven, I decided the best way to keep them out was to set a booby trap of sorts made out of jacks buried in the carpet. I know, I cringe even thinking about it now… Well, my brothers did not find that boundary… Instead, my barefooted Mom did. Now, in talking with Mom, she pointed out that while it hurt at the time, after the fact, she thought it was pretty creative and even funny. But, I still injured my innocent mother and, in the end, hurt myself because I got in trouble for that little stunt!
The point is, when we create or draw boundaries, we often hurt ourselves and others. Today’s readings look at insiders and outsiders, and the boundaries and barriers we so often put on God’s grace and love for the world. And the words we hear from Scripture this morning help us realize that “us” versus “them” is a problem as old as time itself.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that foreigners who follow God’s commands and love God will be welcomed in – that the new Temple of God will be a house of prayer for all people. God is doing a new thing and gathering those who have formerly been on the outside – the marginalized, the foreigners, and those on the fringes of society.
To our ears, this probably sounds like great news – and it is. But I would argue that it was probably difficult for Israel to hear that God was going to be gathering outsiders in. And the Gospel lesson shows us that this hadn’t gotten cleared up by Jesus’ time either.
In an encounter with the Pharisees, they are having a hard time understanding why Jesus’ disciples aren’t obeying the traditional food and purity laws. So in order to clarify, Jesus says that it’s not what goes in your mouth that makes you unclean or separate from God. Instead, the heart is where all of the uncleanness and evil in the world come from. The disciples report to Jesus later that the Pharisees took offense at hearing this. And of course they’re offended, Jesus has called them out for being hypocrites, saying that all their laws and rules are no good if what’s in their hearts isn’t right. The traditional categories of clean and unclean are being challenged.
But it’s what happens next that really brings the idea of inside and outside, clean and unclean into focus. Jesus and the disciples head north to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities located on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon. As they enter, a Canaanite woman appears, shouting at them, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Talk about a welcome party!
Now a couple of things we should keep in mind. First, the Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Jews. Second, this region was one in which Baal worship was traditionally practiced. And yet this woman immediately recognizes Jesus and calls him by his Jewish Messianic title, “Son of David.” She knows who he is, right off the bat. She’s coming to him because her daughter is being cruelly tormented and she believes – no, she knows – that he can do something about it.
And here’s where my heart breaks for her. Jesus is completely silent. She’s at her wit’s end, worried about her daughter and willing to cross every known cultural barrier to get help. As a Canaanite, a woman, and as someone who’s daughter was possessed, she would have been designated “unclean” many times over. And yet, she calls upon Jesus for help and he’s silent.
In the meantime, the disciples, who have just gotten an outstanding lesson showing that the categories of clean and unclean are changing, tell Jesus to send this woman away because she keeps shouting at them. What an overwhelming show of compassion…
But Jesus does something here that he hasn’t done in his other interactions with Gentiles in Matthew’s Gospel. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That, to me, must have felt like a punch to the gut. But this woman runs up and kneels before Jesus – she worships him and pleads, “Lord, help me.”
And then comes the part that makes this one of my least favorite Gospel readings… Jesus answers her pleas for help with, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Here is a woman in desperate need and Jesus is equating her to a dog? People have said that this is Jesus testing her, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that. People have pointed out that it’s Jesus showing how awful it is to designate who receives mercy or who doesn’t based on whether they are clean or unclean. People have also said that this is the gospel writer trying to show the ever-widening inclusiveness of the Gospel to a predominately Jewish-Christian church.
I don’t know. It certainly is an uncomfortable text, but I think that through this woman’s faith and determination, she shows that no matter who you are or where you come from, you still deserve a crumb of justice and mercy. When still kneeling in the ground she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she is both humble and extremely daring. And it seems to bring Jesus back to the Jesus we’ve experienced at other places in the Gospel – the Jesus that acknowledges her amazing faith and immediately heals her daughter.
I’ve been wrestling with this text and I’ve come to see this woman as a type of prophet. She calls out for justice for her daughter and she speaks boldly, helping the disciples, and perhaps even Jesus, to remember that God’s mercy is not only for Israel. She is an outsider, calling the insiders to step out of their comfort zones for the sake of the good news of God’s grace, mercy and healing.
We, like the Israelites, probably don’t like it when we hear that others – the foreigners, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the broken, and the imperfect are all loved by God. We don’t like it because those people aren’t like us. We don’t like it because it forces us to step out of those flimsy little places we’ve constructed as our safe comfort zones. As J.J. Heller sings about the expansiveness of God’s love in her song, “Small:”
Cardboard cutouts on the floor
People wish that you were more like what they wanted you to be
Eventually they won’t have much of you at all in their theology
The walls are closing in on you
You cannot be contained at all
I don’t want to make you small
I don’t want to fit you in my pocket
A cross around my throat
You are brighter than the sun
You’re closer than the tiny thoughts I have of you
But I could never fathom you at all
We need people who are different than we are to help us see the limitless nature of God’s love. We need people to help us see different points of view – to stretch us and challenge us.
And when we create barriers or form groups, we eventually set up an us versus them mindset. Instead of admitting that we may have been at fault for something, we place the blame solely on others, never finding reconciliation and healing. Or rather than agreeing to disagree on certain political issues, we hear the blanket statements “all Democrats are wrong” or “all Republicans are wrong” and we cannot learn from the other side. This kind of attitude can even coopt the Gospel. The good news that Christ died on a cross and was raised to new life for the forgiveness of our sins and the reconciliation of the whole cosmos becomes, “well, Lutherans do it right and other denominations are wrong.”
Right now, the boundaries drawn due to race have come to the forefront in our country. In the city of Ferguson, Missouri it has become clear that there is a divide between blacks and whites – a divide highlighted by painful clashes between protestors and police. In the middle of all of this, it has become clear that there is a conversation that needs to happen in our country regarding race. We can either ignore it and pretend like things are fine, or we can, like the Canaanite woman, shout out “something is not right here – where is the justice and mercy for all people; white and black, poor and rich?” We can ask, “how might God be calling us to act prophetically?”
The Canaanite woman caused Jesus and the disciples to stop short and pay attention – to rethink the boundaries of God’s unfathomable grace. We need to listen to the stories of others who are different than we are in order to hear and better understand their lives. We need others to shake us up out of our normal routine so we can hear again the good news of God’s saving grace for all people. After all, when we come to the Lord’s Table, each of us comes forward, hands outstretched to receive a little crumb of God’s grace and mercy. And it is more than enough. Strengthened by those crumbs, how can we be agents of that grace by standing with those on the margins and speaking out against the injustice we see?
Let us pray… God, as you broke through the barriers and humbled yourself to take on flesh to redeem all creation, challenge us to break through the boundaries and barriers we set that keep us from loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.