Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Saint John’s Church/Newtonville
August 20, 2017
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 15A

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus, Ethiopian

Ethiopian Image of the Risen Christ With His Disciples

My Friends: For almost three centuries now, scholars—and even popular writers—have been preoccupied with the search for the so-called historical Jesus.  This quest is based upon the premise of a sharp and real distinction between the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth, a rabbi who lived and died in first-century Palestine during the Common Era, and the “Christ” of faith who—depending upon your degree of post-modern skepticism—is either long dead and gone; a complete fabrication of the early Church; or is the resurrected and glorified Messiah of God, the incarnation of God’s eternal Word.
Too often, this dubious enterprise of searching for the “historical Jesus” is undertaken without any critical humility or reserve about its “scientific methods,” and with complete and utter confidence in its noble effort to inform us concerning the so-called real Jesus.  Utilizing modern historical analysis and literary theory, together with archeology and the insights of the modern social sciences—all of which do shed great light on Jesus’ life and times—the searchers go on to posit that only those things that can be verified by modern historical-critical methods may be held with any confidence and certitude.  All of the rest is just idle and quaint speculation by “people of faith” using such “suspect” means as prayer, intuition, and—God forbid—divine revelation to arrive at their dubious faith-claims about Jesus.  These questors after the historical Jesus would leave us to the false choice between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” ignoring the sage advice of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, way back in the twelfth-century, that we must first know Jesus in his humanity before we can hope to know anything of his divinity.

Fortunately, this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew forces us to transcend this false dichotomy between the so-called Jesus of history and the Christ of faith by presenting the itinerant rabbi in all of his divine humanity.  Here, we truly have the one “who is like us in all things except sin.”  For just as the canonical Gospels present a Jesus who eats and sleeps; who angers and weeps; who suffers and dies; this morning we see a Jesus who teaches and, apparently—like every good teacher—also learns!  Perhaps, this is explains why so many clergy hate to preach about this particular episode in Jesus’ ministry.

At first glance, today’s reading from Saint Matthew’s Gospel does not look like a very flattering portrait of Jesus.  We find Jesus apparently struggling with his own human prejudices and conceptions about the inclusivity of God’s reign, just as you and I and the rest of the Church continually struggle with them.  Insofar as Jesus is concerned, he and his disciples have only been sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  So he seems very clear about who is worthy of God’s mercy and messianic salvation, or—to put it more crudely—who is in and who is outside the dawning “kingdom of God.”

Or does he?   This warrants a closer look!

Saint Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus literally leaves his comfort zone in Galilee. He “went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon”—the modern nation-state of Lebanon—known back then as “Galilee of the Nations”

Image, Tyre

The modern-day city of Tyre, Lebanon.

because the populace of these port cities consisted of both Jews and many gentiles from the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ decision to take his already bold and eclectic ministry right into gentile territory—the land of the goyim—would be very odd if Jesus did not intend to share his “good news” with its very gentile inhabitants.  Otherwise, why go there?  We presume that Jesus is not vacationing in these coastal cities.  So, while the Gospel never explicitly states Jesus’ reason for making this highly unusual journey into gentile territory, Saint Matthew underscores its boldness by referring to the plaintive woman in the account as a “Canaanite,” Israel’s ancient enemy, rather than the more technical, period term “Syro-Phonecian” used by Saint Mark in his Gospel’s parallel account of this incident.  It seems that Saint Matthew wants to be absolutely clear about the remarkable significance of Jesus’ impending encounter with this outsider and former enemy of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus has clearly come into this region to deliver an important message about the “Kingdom of God.”  But just what is that message?

To make matters even more dramatic, Saint Matthew underscores that Jesus’ supplicant is not only a “Canaanite,” but also a woman who, in the social hierarchy of that time, had little more standing than a child or a slave.  And for a ritually unclean gentile woman to approach the ritually clean Jewish rabbi—and worse—to touch him, places her completely outside the pale of acceptability.  And yet, with all of these strikes against her, she has the temerity to call out to Jesus and to address him with the messianic title “Son of David,” a usage that even Jesus’ own Jewish disciples and contemporaries—including his own bemused family—find difficult and troubling at times.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she begs.  “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But, according to the evangelist, Jesus “did not answer her at all.”  His outraged disciples, unconcerned over fine distinctions concerning Jew and gentile, are simply embarrassed by the shouting “shiksa” and want her to go away:  the Greek word translated as “send her away” actually means “get rid of her by giving her what she wants”…for she keeps shouting after us”!  And, while Jesus doesn’t outright deny the disciples’ or the woman’s request for an exorcism, he does seem reluctant to act.  Perhaps he is wrestling with his own social expectations and qualms or—just maybe—Jesus is goading and testing his disciples when he finally answers with the conventional view of his ministry among many Jews at that time:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But the desperate woman persists, this time kneeling before Jesus and crying out,

Canaanite woman

Jean Colombe (15th c.), “Jesus and the Canaanite Woman”

“Lord, help me,” an expression reminiscent of Peter’s “Lord, save me” as he sank beneath the waves in last Sunday’s Gospel according to MatthewOnce again, however, Jesus responds, but this time with what appears to be a cruel insult:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says.  In the Middle East, to refer to anyone as a “pig” or a “dog” is the ultimate insult to this very day.  And, although Saint Matthew tries to soften the implied insult by using the Greek word for a “small domesticated dog,” it’s not exactly an attractive comparison for this desperate Canaanite woman.  So, when the importunate and nameless woman replies to Jesus’ remark with great faith,  humility, and just a touch of irony—not claiming salvation as a right, but as a gift—with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” Jesus acknowledges her persistence, faith, and humility and grants her request.  The account ends with the words, “And her daughter was healed instantly,” just as Jesus “immediately” reached out to the sinking Peter in last week’s Gospel.  Humble and persistent faithfulness—not religion or sect or ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation or social class or the thousand-and-one other barriers we continually erect between each other and against the extravagant love and tenderness of God—is the only relevant consideration for God’s redemptive and healing work among us.  According to Saint Paul, “in Christ there is neither circumcised nor uncircumcised, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female”—nor any other of the countless, futile, and empty distinctions that we humans are so quick and eager and happy to make about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the steadfast love and compassion of God and inclusion in God’s “kingdom.”  God’s love and radical welcome are timeless and universal with no exceptions.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, you and I are all painfully aware of the unprecedented carnage and suffering of these last two centuries.  In the wake of events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, we have seen once again the cruel and hateful face of Nazism, fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism in the very streets of this nation, along with a shameful abdication of political and moral leadership at the highest levels.  We live in a demonic age of nihilism and terror, when civilization and planetary survival themselves seem to hang by a thin and tenuous thread.  Surely, this is not what God intends for humankind, whose true vocation is simply to be human.  God has made us active participants in God’s as yet unfinished work of creation, and he has sent Jesus Christ in all of his divine humanity as “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people Israel.”  So let us join our plaintive voices this morning with the Canaanite woman—and in solidarity with all of the other despised and rejected and wretched of the earth—persisting and persevering until our humble faithfulness receives the divine blessing as a sheer gift of God.  And, even more importantly, let us also strive to follow Jesus’ example in today’s Gospel by wrestling with and challenging every conventional expectation and impulse to exclude others from God’s salvation and the blessings of a faithful life in God’s household.  Let us always remember that we too were once “aliens and strangers” to the salvation of God before God—first in the Torah, and then in Jesus the Christ—stretched out God’s mighty hand to save you and me and everyone else!

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