Today we hear the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is a hard Gospel lesson. The idea of Jesus turning away a woman’s plea for her sick child is difficult to hear. It is even more difficult to preach. Perhaps that’s why so many preachers pass it by.
You see to preach this Gospel story, you have to wrestle with the way first century Jews would hear it told. You have to read and think and pray it out. And in the end, you have to be willing to preach truth to power, to challenge patriarchal power. That force which too many men still employ to dominate others and subjugate women.
If I sound fired up about this, it is because I am fired up. You see, I posted a calendar announcement of today’s service topic on a web site we use to tell folks what is happening here. the site allows people to comment on our posts. Once again, some people objected. Someone said our calendar announcement was “proselytizing.” I said: “It’s a calendar announcement.” Another person said our service announcement was “indoctrination!!” That’s indoctrination with two exclamation points. I said: “It’s a calendar announcement.”
Another person said “’The scriptures’ are very clear. One doesn’t have to agree or abide by them, but they certainly are not subject to this watered down, pick & choose what I like interpretations that you espouse.” But the fact is that preachers are supposed to pick and choose which verses of scripture to discuss. That is our job. It is what we trained to do while in seminary preparing to be preachers.
“With all due respect, I do not ‘tolerate’ beliefs that are not based on scientific fact,” one replied. Which is fine except it makes it impossible to discuss spiritual, theological, or philosophical questions. By their very nature, these matters tend not to be arguments of provable fact but are matters of faith. And God does not deign to be bound by the flimsy logic of human minds. God is too big for that and we are too small.
“The content of the post is egregious on so many levels,” one added. “What kind of a Reverend paints Jesus in a bad light? None besides Rev Tom that I know of.” You see, this individual had explained, they grew up in a Christian home but had never heard this story before.
As I said, this is a hard Gospel lesson to preach or to hear. It’s especially hard to bear if one insists on reading scripture literally, like a history book, or an instruction book from Ikea. That’s why we don’t just sit here and read the Bible and make up our own interpretations of the scripture out of thin air.
My job as a preacher is to explore the context, to wrestle with the text, and come out in the end with something that makes the process relevant to life in 21st century San Francisco. Anyone who thinks a story about a woman who persisted despite all odds is not meaningful to our lives today is simply not paying attention. Or remembering the genesis of the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
So let’s walk through this difficult Gospel story, one that starts by painting Jesus in an unfavorable light. This Gospel was written at a time when Jews that followed Jesus were fighting with the rest of Judaism. The Christ-following Jews were being condemned for sharing Rabbi Jesus with gentiles. The gentiles weren’t circumcised. They didn’t keep Kosher. They didn’t follow Jewish purity laws. They were – and we are – unclean. Jews weren’t supposed to be in touch with gentiles, weren’t supposed to sit with them in the synagogue, weren’t supposed to eat with them.
This story begins when Jesus says: “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.”
That’s a big deal. To an observant first century Jew, Jesus is saying to stop focusing on keeping Kosher and focus on what you are saying. But then it gets even more unorthodox.
Jesus is hanging out with his Bros and a Canaanite woman came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus ignored here – he wanted some quality time with his buds. Nevertheless, she persisted: she kept shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
So his friends say “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And he turns to this woman and says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Nevertheless, she persisted: she kneels before him and asks “Lord, help me.”
But Jesus is having none of it: he replies “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even in the first century, that was not a nice thing to say.
Nevertheless, she persisted: she said: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And in that moment, Jesus broke through the blinders that made him see here as an alien woman, something comparable to a dog. Instead, he saw her as a woman, a mother, a person of great faith. And he healed her daughter.
But wait, there’s more; more for me, and more for you. What’s important here isn’t whether this story is literally true, whether it is an historically accurate report of the confrontation between a woman who had no standing in Jewish culture and a rabble-rousing dark-skinned Rabbi. What’s important for us is that this story makes clear that you and I are also loved by Jesus, we’re also able to be part of his community of faith. For this powerless woman – this woman who persisted – justified the expansion of what had been a small segment of Judaism into a group that accepted both Jews and Gentiles.
And that’s why the anonymous author of Matthew’s Gospel wrote this story. It wasn’t to make Jesus look bad. To have credibility with first century Jews, Jesus had to start at a place of patriarchal power which was congruent with the beliefs of that time, place, and group. There’s no memorable story if Jesus just says “Oh sure. You child is cured.” It is only because we see a powerless woman persisting that this story has power and depth and meaning.
Remember, the people of Israel spoke of Wisdom as a feminine force. Perhaps that’s why time and again Jesus gains or shows wisdom from interacting with a woman. Women are, in the first-century faith of Jesus, a source of wisdom and justice.
To stop at the calendar notice for this service is to miss these points. To avoid this story because it presents an unsympathetic Jesus is to miss these points. To expect Jesus to be 100 percent perfect is too miss his humanity, to diminish him from what he is if we but let him into our lives.
What does all this mean to us here today in the Western Addition’s NoPA neighborhood?
It reaffirms the place of women as leaders and valued voices of wisdom and compassion in both the first-century church and our church today.
It reminds each of us that the door is open for us to be part of a community of faith that walks a spiritual path set out by Jesus and his clear commandment: love God and your neighbor.
It reinforces the importance of reaching out into and being the church in this neighborhood as well as in our daily life and work.
It calls us to resist the evil that surrounds us and is too often done in our name.
And it offers us a chance to bring the Kingdom of God a little bit closer right here at the corner of Turk and Lyon.
Let us pray
Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, heal what is wounded, and gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to speak as steadfastly as did the Canaanite woman, that the outcast may be welcomed and all people may be blessed.
May the Church say: Amen.