Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“A New Perspective”
Rev. Art Ritter
August 16, 2020
Matthew 15: 21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
During the pandemic, I have done my best to do what I can to maintain my health. I have been more diligent about exercise. My daily schedule includes a run or walk or visit to the elliptical machine. I am trying to eat a little better. With the help of my personal dietitian, who happens to be my spouse, I am eating a lot more fruits and vegetables and less red meat. This change in diet and behavior wasn’t something I consciously planned. But its evolvement has now led to a more intentional effort to live healthier.
Most of you at Meadowbrook know that I have some strong opinions about certain foods. I get a lot of teasing, especially around Thanksgiving, about my dislike of pumpkin pie. I am constantly reminded that just about everybody loves the taste and the effect of coffee. Me – I can’t stand it. I prefer to drink my coffee in an empty cup. There are other foods that I would just as soon avoid: hummus, squash, sweet potatoes, eggplant, liver, venison, and banana flavored anything.
Until recently my food to avoid list included Brussel sprouts. I had tried them once or twice in my life and it was a terrible taste experience. Then one night last spring I roasted some in the oven as a surprise for my lovely wife. When I took them out of the oven that night I decided to put my personal prejudices aside, take a chance and reassess my opinion of them. I ate a few and found that they were actually edible. But I decided I could make them better by adding some onions and lemon pepper and garlic salt. They now became delicious. I now cook some weekly on the grill with some redskin potatoes. As unbelievable as it seemed six months ago, Brussel sprouts are now part of my weekly diet.
Most of the time, we let our personal prejudices and our personal likes and dislikes rule our responses of life. It is hard to step aside from that accustomed frame of reference to see some new possibility. We have usually have to be cajoled and persuaded. We usually get defensive and lash out. We usually reinforce our opinions and judgements to assure ourselves of the safety and sanity of our own identity in the midst of challenge and attack.
In this time of COVID 19 and upcoming presidential election, opinions and feelings run hot. Judgments we hear made from other perspectives are either found to be inspiring and supportive or crazy and frightening. If we are honest with ourselves we can see that each of us labels other people and their beliefs and practices as different. We each could make a long list of those whose behaviors and opinions we just don’t understand. While I tend to have strong opinions about food and sports, often the list of what and whom we see as different includes different races, different customs, and different religions.
Andrea Elliott, a reporter for The New York Times, tells of attending a town meeting a few years ago in which the plans for a proposed mosque were being discussed. One woman spoke against the mosque, asking through her tears, “What happened to my America? I want my America back.” Our worldview, our prejudices, and our complacency about change moves us to keep things and people that are different from us distant or under the table. We make unconscious judgements each day about who deserves our help, our kindness, our attention, and even God’s favor. It is easy for us to grow complacent about how we treat the stranger and those who are different from us. We want to draw lines and build fences.
In the 15th chapter of Matthew, we read about Jesus encounter with a Canaanite woman. The incident is only eight verses long but the lesson it speaks to us is lengthy. Jesus and his disciples were in a region of the country between Tyre and Sidon, a land of pagans with no established temples or religious authorities. The disciples were probably concerned about what they were doing there in the first place, believing that they should be spending more time preaching and teaching to the Jews.
Suddenly this crazy woman, a Gentile Canaanite, ran up to Jesus screaming at the top of her voice about her demon-infested daughter. Jesus looked at her but didn’t say a word. The disciples looked at her and probably wanted to say, “Get this crazy woman out of here before we get caught up in her craziness!”
Finally Jesus made a comment. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Perhaps the disciples took this as an affirmation of their preferences and prejudices. Jesus appeared to be telling the woman to “Get lost!” She was a Canaanite. She wasn’t a Jew. She wasn’t part of his agenda. But Jesus’ words didn’t stop the woman. She knelt before him just as if she were worshipping. “Help me!” she cried. Jesus, more coldly than we can ever imagine him responded, “It is not right to take perfectly good bread meant to feed children and give it to the dogs.” Ouch. Jesus called the woman a dog. It was a slur. It was an insult. The disciples probably liked it. It spoke to their emotion. Jesus was on their side. But the insult didn’t stop the woman in her quest for help. She said, “I may be a dog, but even the dog gets the crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table.” And with that, Jesus’ attitude completely changed. “Woman, you have great faith! You are right. Even the dogs get fed. Go home and your daughter will be healed.”
There is no explanation of this scene. Matthew did not write any commentary in the verses that followed. The early church didn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking when he said these cold things. This was the only time in any of the gospel when Jesus ignored someone’s request for help. Some scholars believe Jesus was toying with the woman, using people’s prejudices to teach the crowd a lesson or two about why such evil should not exist. It was satire or sarcasm. Some maintain that Jesus was actually testing the faith of the woman, seeing just how far she would go in believing in his power of healing. Some commentators say that this incident was a lesson to help define Jesus’ ministry, much as his testing in the wilderness following his baptism.
Still others believe that Jesus was a human being, and that part of his humanness meant that he had to learn about life through situations and experiences, just like we do. I can only imagine that it was painful or at least uncomfortable for Jesus to step beyond the cultural and religious lines of his day. Yet he had to come to some understanding about his own limitations and world view, and to be open to new possibilities and potential. In this story, Jesus encountered something that he previously regarded as a nuisance. Yet he let the nuisance engage him. And he let the engagement change him. Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the face and voice of that Canaanite woman. In offering food to the dogs, the truth of God became clearer. His outlook, his worldview was lifted to something new. Jesus, may have believed that his ministry and calling was limited to one people. But he learned to widen his perspective and to challenge all of us in the church to be like him, to extend the gospel to all people, starting with those who we might feel are least deserving.
Nadia Bolz Weber writes that she was once told that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is on the other side of the line. On that day, with the Canaanite woman, Jesus saw through his own human tendency to divide and judge and rationalize and opened himself up to God’s divine tendencies to love and speak kindness and show mercy.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner writes that Jesus really learned something from this woman. His heart didn’t change from stingy to loving. Jesus’ heart was always loving. But his priorities shifted. Through this story the gospel of Matthew wants to teach us that we might think we know exactly what is right, and exactly what come first in our priorities; but we always must remain open to what God sends our way. If we are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that what it takes to be more loving to those we encounter.
In a sermon on this subject, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Let go! Step out! Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe.” I might add- trying eating some Brussel sprouts! “You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been…with Jesus as our model- and our Lord- we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that is it our God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”