The Old Turtle and the broken truth. I asked Beth to read this book as the children’s message this morning specifically as an introduction to this morning’s scripture. The story of a world holding up the mantra You are Loved, sounds amazing, sounds peaceful, sounds Holy, and it is, but it is not the whole message.
You are a child of God. It’s an amazing, peaceful, Holy thing. But it’s not the whole truth, not by a long shot.
Let us listen for the word of God.
Read Matt 15:10-28
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
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.
The Word of God, for the People of God.
I have struggled and wrestled and fought with this scripture so much this week that it has seeped into my relationships with other people. I’ve talked about this scripture with friends and family. I’ve fought about this scripture with my Mom, and blessed the truth of these verses and found agreement with my brother. I even considered naming this sermon “Going to the Dogs” but couldn’t bring myself to be bold enough to put it in the bulletin.
I love and have loved this passage of scripture. It is an honest, clear theological debate between Jesus and a woman. And, like most of us in this world, my ears perk up when someone I perceive as “like me” is mentioned in scripture. I’ve had an affinity with this persistent, loud mouth woman who refuses to give up. I’ve admired her tenacity, her spirit. This woman, who gets in a theological debate with the Messiah, has always been my hero.
But there’s been a part that is unsatisfying about her story. Most of my life I have heard it interpreted in this manner.
Jesus is with the disciples, perhaps tiered in spirit if not physically, and this annoying woman makes her plea. Jesus ignores her, then denies her to test her. If she passes this litmus test of faith, her daughter will be healed. If not, well, let’s not think about this too much.
When viewed from this perspective, the woman, and her sick daughter, are turned into an object lesson with little to no actual value of their own. And that bothers me.
It bothers me because it doesn’t jive with the way Jesus acts in the Gospels in general and in Matthew specifically. It bothers me because it dismisses the experience as nothing more than a training exercise. It bothers me because the langue of test is nowhere in this scripture. It bothers me because it isn’t true, to the character of Christ, or to the witness of scripture.
Too often this story is read in isolation, which is why I choose to add verses 10-20 to our reading today. Context is key.
This section comes at the end of a discussion about the Pharisees and their purity culture obsession. They were so concerned about remaining pure and clean that they created an entire system of dos and don’ts and ins and outs. These laws and systems had become oppressive, rather than life affirming. They had been twisted and turned to keep people down instead of uniting God’s people under a shared identity. They had become tools to harm rather than signs of holiness.
Jesus argues against such systems, using words that would make any little boy giggle, saying that it’s not what you put into your body that makes you unclean, it’s what comes out of you that is unclean. Jesus’ potty humor here may make you smile, or may offend you, but it has a purpose. He goes on to say that it’s what comes out of the mouth, the words you speak, that show the cleanliness or uncleanliness of your heart.
Immediately following this we have the Canaanite woman calling out “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.” This is shocking and unexpected. Why?
Well a couple of reasons. One, Canaanites had not been around for many, many years. The promised land had been the land of Canaan, and the region had been “cleansed” shall we say by the Israelites as they moved in.
There were not a group of people who called themselves Canaanites at this time, it was an ancient label meant to evoke a feeling, an image. “Outsider, other, Gentile.”
This woman was not Jewish, she was not of the family of Abraham, she was not a part of the family of God.
She however, has heard of this Jesus, this Lord, this Son of David, and as a mother, will do anything, even speak publicly to a man she is not related to in any way shape or form, for the sake of her ailing child.
And Jesus ignores her.
Perhaps he is exhausted from the crowds. Perhaps he doesn’t hear her. Perhaps he thinks one of the disciples will step up. These are all arguments I’ve heard, but they go in the face of what is on the page. He does not answer her at all.
He couldn’t have missed her crying out, described as squawking, and to be sure he doesn’t miss it, the disciples beg him to send her away. Send away this gentile, loud obnoxious women, Jesus. Her begging for mercy is getting on our nerves, we are sick of it. She needs to be quiet and go back where she comes from.
The disciples are uncomfortable. This Gentile woman is making a scene with her asking/demanding for mercy and healing. She should know better, she should know her place.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree. “I was sent to the lost children of Israel.” That’s it. Jesus was sent to the people of Israel and everyone else is just out of luck.
She however, she persisted. She did not give up. She hit her knees in the dirt before him and again cried out “Lord, help me!”
Jesus looks at her there on her knees and says, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”
Yes, this is Jesus here, calling a woman, an entire group of people, dogs. And not in the cute and cuddly, I love that puppy kind of way. Dogs were not pets. They were utilitarian at best, used as living alarm systems. But more often than not, they were scavengers, roaming the outskirts of town and launching missions into populated areas in search of food.
Jesus say his mission as being to the children of Israel. The chosen people. God’s people. This gentile woman did not fit into the picture. She complicated things, perhaps even made him as uncomfortable as she made the disciples. She didn’t fit into how Jesus saw this whole thing working out.
And that’s a hard thing for many of us to hear. Jesus had to learn. As Jill Duffield points out perhaps at this point, “How can this be? He is Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, divine, Jesus!
But he's fully human too, remember? Without sin, but fully human, and being fully human encompasses grief, frustration, desperation, fatigue, love, compassion and indifference. And I find this messy display of Jesus' complex discernment a relief. If Jesus has these feelings they are not only allowed, but sanctified and holy. It is also a relief to know that our circumstances today, no matter how dire or seemingly intractable, are not destined to be our circumstances forever. God is, after all, always doing a new thing, and Jesus in this story proves that truth.”[i]
The woman does not give up at this point, but instead says “Even the dogs get to eat scraps.” And with those words, in that moment. Jesus learns more about himself, recognizes more about his calling. He sounds joyful to me as he is honestly surprised by this gentile woman’s faith. His tone is celebratory as he agrees to heal her daughter and to step into this part of his mission, as a savior to not only Israel, but to the world.
It is as if she showed him the other half of that truth, you are loved, and so are they.
That is the truth that Jesus, for lack of a better word, learns in his encounter with the Canaanite Gentile woman. There is a wildness in God’s mercy. It spreads farther than we can imagine and is deeper than we can fathom.
Sometimes I am guilty of forgetting that truth. Sure, I know God is no made in my image. I know that God is reflected in the eyes and faces of all nations, races, genders. But it’s not always easy to see.
Jesus didn’t take the easy road here, and neither should we. We need to speak out against the things that are sinful, that harm God’s people, like the sin of While nationalism, the sin of Neo-Nazi attitudes and actions. These things must be condemned in the strongest of ways.
At the same time, we must not become that which we condemn. We must pray for, love, seek to teach those whose sins lead to actions and words of hate. We must not fight fire with fire, because if we keep doing that, the only thing that will happen is the whole world will burn.
The woman could have yelled at Jesus to treat her better. She could have spat in his face, called him racist and shook the dust off of her feet. She could have led a group of demonstrators against him. She could have called for Jesus and his people to be attacked. But instead, she humbled herself before him and honestly spoke of her need.
We need to humble ourselves before God and ask for what we really need. Healing, forgiveness, unity. We must listen when our brothers and sisters tell us what their lives are like. We must acknowledge that, in the words of Will Wheaton “It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life!”
We must be willing to open our eyes, minds and hearts, just like Jesus. And have faith that the God in whose image we are all created, will heal us all.