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The Canaanite Woman's Faith

Matthew 15:10-28

Matthew 15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

*****

She didn’t know what to do. He had come to her daughter one day, speaking words of enticement, gilt in a patina of beauty and light that would’ve been hard for anyone to resist. But before long he whispered words of accusation and abuse when she tried to protest he told her that it was really all her fault and nothing he’d done had been so bad. It was all in her head. As the weeks went by she saw the life in her child’s eyes begin to fade and his presence covered her life like a shadow.

Her mother didn’t know what to do. She went to people she thought were her friends and they said it was the girl’s own fault, that she’d been foolish to let him get so close and now she was reaping what she sowed. She went to the wise of her village and they said “Who sinned, you or the girl? Ones like him are drawn to sin. This is God’s judgement on your family. The gods are angry, you know.” Others said, “There’s nothing you can do once one of them come around. Better to curse god and die. Don’t drag it out for her.”

She didn’t know what to do but she would do anything for her daughter, anything to cast this shadow out of their lives. And then one day she heard that a certain Galiliean was in the city. Some called him a prophet, some a teacher, some even said he was the Jews’ anointed, the royal heir to David’s throne. She had also heard rumors that this man was a healer, that he had the power to cast out demons.

It was a long shot. He was a Jew and she was a Canaanite. There was a history there and not a happy one. But she was desperate. She would do anything for her daughter. She had to try.

She thought he could help but she knew he probably wouldn’t. The possibility and the unlikelihood side by side were maddening and as she came to the place where he was she felt all of it, all the despair and the slight hope and the pain and the loss and her powerlessness in the midst of someone she loved so deeply being hurt. On the cusp of getting what she needed and yet knowing she would probably be turned away, she shouted. She shrieked. She wept. “Surely not me. But I have to try anyway. Please help me. Please help my child. She didn’t do anything to deserve this, no one deserves this. Please help!” (We all have a breaking point like this, even if many of us are fortunate enough never to reach it in public)

The disciples heard her. “Lord please send her away,” they said, “She’s making a scene. There are proper channels to get the help she needs. She probably just wants attention.”

And this is where we expect Jesus to surprise the disciples. They’re so sure of themselves, and then normally Jesus totally flips the script on them. But this time, Jesus looks at her and says, “I came only for the lost sheep of Israel.” She draws closer. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Not you.

How crushing that moment must have been for her, how devastating. Not, “I can’t do it,” but “I can’t do it for you.” Not, there’s no treatment, but “your plan doesn’t cover that procedure.” These miracles I’m doing, you’re not the kind of person I’ve come to do them for. Not you.

Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. If I were the Canaanite woman, I would be enraged. “Not me. But why not me? Because your family took this land from my ancestor a thousand years ago? What does that have to do with my daughter? Why not me? Why not a Canaanite? Because I eat meat sacrificed to Baal? Because our sons aren’t circumcised? Because we work on Saturdays (we'd rather not)? That’s it? Don’t you say I’m born in your God’s image, too?”

Perhaps you know what it feels like to believe you’ve heard a “no” from God or God’s people? Perhaps you’ve heard that gnawing voice in your head saying, “Yeah, not you.” You prayed for that person to be healed, but it didn’t happen. You prayed that your baby would be healthy, but it didn’t happen. You prayed that we could go just one month without a police shooting or an act of vandalism against a Jewish cemetery or a black church. And yet here we are. Not your prayer. You asked your friends to pray for you or you shared something with them in confidence and all of the sudden you found your own pain being wielded against you like a weapon. You asked an honest question and someone slapped your wrist because you were violating some unspoken ideology you’d never even known had existed, much less that you must agree with it. And you can’t help but think, “Why? If a God who is Love made heaven and earth and is still at work in the world, why?”

These are not easy questions to ask because they strike right at the heart of our traditions, the ways we have come to faith, the very things we say we believe. And traditions are complicated. We have been handed beautiful words of blessing that carry us to this very day, and yet we have also been wounded deeply, sometimes by those same people. We think we have a handle on the right answers, on what’s common sense, on what is wise in any given situation, but then something arises where we realize that there are inner tensions in our stories that are being drawn even more taught. We realize that our traditions have oppressed people and at the very same time they point those people on trajectories to overthrow oppression and it feels dishonest not to acknowledge both.

Our traditions are these tensions, not one or the other but both in a tangled mess that we cannot easily smooth out: a nation founded on ideals of freedom and equality that has simultaneously upheld slavery or segregation for most of it’s history; a religion that preaches God’s grace that also has a history of burning heretics; a denomination that invented separation of church and state that now bows down to Baal just to sniff the seat of power. Freedom and chains, one or the other activated depending upon where you place the accent, which underlying story you hear at work in each verse.

These tensions exist throughout the Bible, and one of the deepest tensions is the relationship between biblical Israel and the other nations, like the Canaanites. At times, the people of Israel are called to see God’s goodness working through the hearts of their neighbors, like Melchizidek, Jethro, the Queen of Sheba, Nahum the Syrian general, the widow who feeds Elijah. God’s people see their neighbors and do not need to conquer them because God is already beyond the horizon of their lands.

But at other points that relationship is one of strife, of conquest. The Israelites conquer the Canaanites, they enslave their enemies just as they had been enslaved in Egypt, they are suspicious toward their neighbors and fight to maintain the purity of their community: Don’t marry Canaanites, don’t eat like Canaanites, don’t work like Canaanites: that’s how you know who you are. Adopt our neighbor, conquer our neighbor, let our neighbor be because God can do what God wants with them. Depending on which story you think you are a part of, you might emphasize any one of these and be reading the Bible carefully.

Just before Jesus and the disciples leave for Tyre and Sidon, they have a conversation about these very tensions. Jesus has just said to some teachers of the Law, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth. What goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and passes into the toilet, but what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart.” Jesus is talking specifically about food laws, which were one of the main ways that biblical Israel distinguished herself from her neighbors.

Jesus isn’t saying that the Law doesn’t matter. He’s saying that you can follow the Letter of the Law and completely miss the Spirit. The purpose of the Law is to make God’s people more like God, full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, temperance.” It’s not to browbeat those who are not on the “inside.” If hatred of goodness is coming out of your mouth, you miss the point of keeping kosher. If wickedness comes out of your mouth, you miss the point of the Sabbath. Kashrut is supposed to help God’s people love Goodness, Sabbath is supposed to help God’s people live well, but the Law is not a technology that produces perfect people.

The Law is a guide that must constantly be discerned and interpreted because the Devil can quote Scripture, too.

When many Jewish students learn to read the Scriptures, it is with a text called a Chumash. In the Chumash, the Biblical text takes up the middle of the page, but all around the margins are commentaries by different Rabbis. And the really interesting thing is that sometimes the Rabbis disagree with each other on the page. So learning to read the Bible doesn't mean mechanical repetition of certain verses, but practicing discernment in regards to passages that could be taken in a number of different ways. Reading the Law is no good if you read the Law without wisdom and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Without the fear of the Lord we completely miss the point of the Law so that even the Law can be used for awful purposes. Without the fear of the Lord we can use the Law to crush the very people God wants us to love. The words of the Bible are heavy enough to wound, if we don’t read them in the Spirit.

The drama of our story this morning is precisely that it requires this kind of discernment as we're faced with a deep tension in the biblical tradition. It feels as though even Jesus is about to cling so closely to the idea that the Canaanite is an enemy worthy only of conquest, that they do not belong, that he will not even help the desperate woman before him. Not her. In this moment it feels as though the whole gospel, the very character of this one we call LORD is at stake.

She speaks to him, after he has insulted her: “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And in that moment, the most remarkable thing happens. Jesus changes his mind: “Woman great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish.” Like God speaking with Abraham about Sodom and Gemorrah, Jesus changes his mind. Or rather, the Canaanite woman gets Jesus to change his mind. Perhaps her words make him remember his own, that it is what comes out of the mouth that really matters, and what comes out of her mouth is faith, relentless faith that her daughter can be saved and she will not stop shrieking and carrying on until someone can help her. No matter who insults her, she will keep on coming. She makes Jesus change his mind. He hears what comes out of her mouth and he makes a choice, a choice that echoes through the rest of the Bible: in him, the Gentiles are blessed, too. There is no one who is disqualified from God’s love because of their family of birth or their country of origin or the color of their skin. Jesus is the Jew who makes a conscious choice to bless a Canaanite because that Canaanite woman called him out.

When divinity is joined to flesh, sometimes flesh must change it’s mind. Sometimes we have to learn to say no to parts of our traditions because sometimes monuments to the past do not just teach us about our history so much as they maintain a certain kind of present. And so when tensions in our traditions arise, we must choose. We must reject ideologies and stories, even familiar stories, that run roughshod over what actual people need. We must allow the fear of the Lord rather than the fear of loss to guide what we say yes and what we say no to.

Perhaps the Letter said, “Not her,” but the Spirit says, “Yes, her too.” Yes to Centurions and Canaanites and Samaritans and young women running from their demons. Yes, you too. Despite all the reasons you have been told “not you, you don’t count,” Jesus, nudged by the Canaanite woman, Jesus always willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the lowly and the powerless says “yes, you too.” To all the Canaanites in our own world, the people to whom our traditions have taught us to say “Surely not, Lord tell them to stop shrieking and go back home,” perhaps we need to learn to change our minds, too.

My friends, so many of us have a voice in the back of our heads, a shadow cast over our lives, that no matter how much we pray, how much we sing, how faithfully we come to church, God still looks at us and says, “Not you. It doesn’t count for you.” Many of our neighbors have this sense and it makes them terrified to walk into churches because they think that’s what they’ll hear. But the good news of this story is that the Canaanite woman has a say. She is made in God’s image and when she opens her mouth, along with the cries of pain, faith and hope and love come out, too. And so in the end, even if that end seems in doubt for a moment, God looks at her and says, “Of course you too.” May you know that the same is true for you, and when our neighbors meet us may they know that it is true of them, as well. Amen.

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