August 20, 2017 – 11 Pentecost A, Proper 15
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
How Jesus does things is as important as what Jesus does. What first attracts your ear in this story of the Canaanite woman? It’s not the fact that the woman’s daughter is healed that first grabs us. No, where we first go in this account is to that interchange between Jesus and the mother. It’s disturbing. It rubs against us. We hear words of prejudice and bigotry and we know they are wrong. The way Jesus did what he did seems extraordinarily important. He does this right in front of the disciples and the gospel writer reports it to us with these troubling details. Jesus and the gospel writer want us to spend some time with this troubling interchange before we jump ahead to the outcome. As we do that, we come to hear what is really being told here, the whole story of the healing and the salvation of the world, the clear message of Jesus Christ that prejudice and bigotry and hatred have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been ministering exclusively among the Hebrews. He has healed and taught and preached, and many people have begun to follow him around. He has faithfully maintained his quiet discipline of prayer with his Father and, after feeding the multitude, walking on the water, calming the storm, and challenging the Pharisees, Jesus again goes apart to pray. Where he goes is very important for it makes possible what is to happen. He goes north, into the land of the unclean Gentiles. He goes perhaps to get away from the crowds but he goes, as well, to show that the salvation to be offered by God through him is not just for Israel but for all the world, not just for us but for our enemies.
While praying there, a woman from Canaan comes to him in desperation. Somehow she has heard that he is here and she has sought him out. Her daughter is in such bad shape that the mother has had to leave her to find help. Something inside her has already begun to happen. She has struggled enough with her daughter to know that she cannot do anything more to help her. Presumably she’s tried everything she can think of and she knows she needs something beyond her own power to make things well. Something inside her has been broken in such a way that she quits trying to fix her daughter herself.
And something more has begun to happen. Not only has she been broken and left her daughter, she has come to Jesus. She has not been broken and led to hopelessness; she has been broken and led to a new sense of hope. Life often breaks us and we are led to conclude that what we were trying to do just won’t work. But God’s way is not to break us and leave us hopeless; God’s way is to lead us to a new hope.
She comes to Jesus with this new hope. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon. Help me, Lord, because I now know that nothing else can help me and I’m beginning to know that you are the only hope I have. She comes with a question and the beginning of faith. Faith isn’t something you just slip over your head like a sweater; faith is something that bubbles up from within and it often starts with a desire for something that you haven’t been able to meet with anything else you’ve tried. It starts with a brokenness and a spark of hope.
But he did not answer her at all. The desperate and unclean woman is here. The disciples are watching. The matter is brought to the Lord and he says not a word. How he is silent invites the moment forward. Jesus allows the moment to be there for a while before he adds anything to it or takes anything away. It is a moment of expectation for everyone. What’s going to happen now?
Have you ever been broken of your old hope, sparked within by a new hope, and come to the Lord with the question, and been met with silence? If you’ve been there, have you assumed God’s not listening or doesn’t care? The silence of the Lord may well be an honoring of what is and a patience with what is to come. You may want to rush forward and put your brokenness behind you, but the Lord may well want you to spend a while waiting and hoping. There’s a holiness in considering the pain out of which I am being called. But in our waiting, sin often jumps in and causes some problems.
The disciples jump into this silence with a plea to send the woman away. Jesus even works with that impure offering of the disciples. He doesn’t wait for them to get it all right, to figure out the dilemma. In his silence, he has allowed anything to arise, endless possibilities. The disciples were free to jump in with compassion or care or generosity but they offer only their sinful and selfish perspective. That’s the way God works: he pauses to let us bring an offering to the situation. He allows endless possibilities: what will you do and how will you do it? And out of that total freedom, we choose sin, usually without even being conscious of it. And then God acts. Certainly it’s not that God wills our sinfulness, but our sinfulness never defeats his purpose. His will allows our freedom and then redeems our sinful choice, weaves it into his ultimate purpose.
Jesus turns to the woman and lets her hear the perspective of the world. I didn’t come here for you. You’re not deserving. It wouldn’t be fair to help you. How he says that invites her to hear the perspective of God. This is what the world says: do you believe it? Somehow, the way Jesus says all this draws the woman in further. It’s as if he describes the door between where she is and where she wants to go and, instead of slamming it shut in her face, he invites her through.
The woman pauses. She gets a little clearer about her yearning. And then she indicates she is ready for the invitation. I just want a little bit of you Lord. Just a crumb will be enough. I can see there’s plenty for everyone and I need what only you have. You are the banquet for the world and a small taste will be enough. She is ready for the invitation!
This is the story of the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, who is indeed healed by the grace of Jesus. It is a story of the salvation of the world that is indeed saved by the grace of Jesus. The story’s not just about what happens; it’s about how it happens. God offers grace all along the way. He allows us freedom to choose him or to choose sin. And then he brings grace to our choice, to invite us into his kingdom.
Words of bigotry, prejudice, and contempt for our fellow brothers and sisters, actually have the opposite effect of how the world intends them. The horrid nature of such statements by white supremacists, for example, are so far removed from the gospel of Christ that when we hear them we are reminded of the value of each and every human being. Every time we witness the birth and baptism of a child we know deeper in our hearts the great value of each of God’s creations and God’s great love for every one of us. The disturbing words of hatred in our world actually reveal even more deeply the great love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.