Posts Tagged ‘Canaanite’

What kind of gospel is this?

Let’s be honest with one another. I hate the fact that this is the lectionary text this week. It’s a terrible story. Very un-gospel-y. It makes Jesus look like a jerk. It’s confusing, and full of what seem to be secret metaphors I don’t immediately understand. It feels incomplete. It makes me stop and ask the question, “What kind of gospel IS this?”

I try to preach and pray from the lectionary for one very particular reason: it keeps me honest as a believer. It makes me read stories like this, that are hard. It stretches me not to stick with what is comfortable, because the gospel isn’t comfortable. This Matthew text where Jesus meets the Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter definitely makes the list. What is the story we’re looking at today?

Jesus had just left “that place,” where he’d been ministering to the people – he’s headed toward Jerusalem, on the downswing of the gospel story, toward the cross. We’re more than halfway through Matthew, and he’s starting to really build momentum.

The district of Tyre and Sidon where he’s headed are outside the boundaries of Israel proper. Jesus actually told his disciples in chapter 10 not to go to these areas. However, while Tyre and Sidon aren’t Jewish, there are large pockets of Jewish settlements north of the Galilean border in these territories.

So here comes Jesus, striding through this territory, likely with his mind on how to proclaim the gospel to the Jews he would find there, and BAM here comes this Canaanite woman, shouting after him. The disciples follow – after all, that’s what they do – and everyone in the traveling party hears her yelling.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”

She literal screams for mercy.

And what does Jesus do? The scripture says, “But he did not answer her at all.”

What?!? He ignores her. A screaming, frantic local woman. Probably pretty difficult to pretend she wasn’t there, but that’s what he does.

So the disciples hurry up to him. In my heart, when I read this text, I sort of breathe a sigh of relief, “Yeah, of course, this is a test. They’re going to beg him to help her and everything will be okay.”

Except. It doesn’t go like that at all. Instead, they beg for their OWN mercy…
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

They’re more worried about their own precious eardrums than the woman in pain in front of them…

What in the world is going on here? Usually, when the disciples are uncaring, Jesus finds a way to correct them. But here, HERE, Jesus seems to be on their side! What can this possibly mean? What sort of Gospel IS this?

Let’s talk briefly about this woman. The Israelites and the Canaanites had historically been terribly at odds. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Canaanites had been in the Promised Land LONG before the Israelites wandered in from the wilderness. And once the Israelites got there, all they wanted to do was to have God destroy the people living there already, to make space for them. The Promised Land wasn’t empty when they arrived.

So this woman is outside of Jesus’ frame of reference in some pretty striking ways. Their cultures are at odds, sort of enemies – in ethnicity, in heritage, in religion. Her behavior is entirely unacceptable for the time. She’s a Gentile woman approaching a Jewish man, and she is not reserved, respectful, and quiet. She’s shouting, she’s likely running, she’s demanding. Unacceptable. She’s a gentile and unclean. And where’s her husband? Meanwhile, she’s got this daughter who’s ill with demon possession. In a Jewish world worried about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s not – this woman is as much an outsider to Jesus’ group as it can get.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus only ministers to Gentiles 3 times. Once to the centurion in Capernaum, once to the Gaderene demoniac who lives among the tombs, and (ultimately) here. His mission, he says to the disciples as they tell him to shoo off this woman, is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What he’s basically saying is, “This is not my problem. I’ve got my eye on other things.”

What sort of Gospel IS this?

When you hear these texts, it might make you wonder who you consider to be inside, and who is out. Where do we draw the lines and who matters? People of Jesus’ time asked these questions, and we do, too.
If we only have so many hours in a day and so many dollars to spend, who gets our resources? We live in a world of scarcity. Who gets our generosity and who gets our silent rejection?

These are tough questions to face.

It might surprise us that Jesus has to face the same questions, and he struggles with them.
He is focused on who he is and what he is about. He has come as prophet, priest, and king to restore his people – the Jewish people – to their right place in the world and their right place with God. The cross is coming.
There’s a lot of work to be done. He can’t do it all, and focusing may be the difference between success and failure.

Basically, Jesus has been called by the Father to bring people to repentance and to hear the good news about the Kingdom of God, and in Matthew – but not in Luke or Mark’s gospels, where he ministers to Gentiles in numerous contexts – his calling is limited to the Jewish people. Limited.

But here’s this non-Jewish woman begging for mercy from him. She’s planted herself in his path – literally – and won’t be ignored.

She kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” The mercy she is begging of him is something she believes he owes her. The word she uses is the same one that the merciful receive in the beatitudes “the merciful shall receive mercy.” It’s the same quality the unforgiving servant in chapter 18:33 lacks when he refuses to forgive the debts of his debtor. Mercy, here, is a challenge. She is challenging Jesus to admit that he has an obligation to God and to people to pay back debts that HE has. This is revolutionary. Does she really think Jesus owes her something?

Jesus doesn’t. In fact, he answers her harshly by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically, “I don’t owe you anything.” She begs for help, and his answer is to call her a dog.

Now, there are a few interpretations of what is going on here. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s read this story and is uncomfortable with it. Theologians and biblical scholars have tried to give Jesus a “bye” on this passage a lot over the years. Suffice it to say, though, that no one has been able to honestly get around the fact that calling someone a dog (and using this word in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke), is a familiar insult, a favorite of the Israelites. Calling a woman a female dog would have had the same tone and effect as if it were shouted down a high school hallway today.

It was not a kind thing to say. More frankly, Jesus was being very rude. Dismissive. Discriminatory.

But the woman doesn’t scrub over, or try to wiggle out of, what Jesus labels her as. Instead, she brings their differences into the light and calls them into question. She uses the opportunity to teach Jesus a lesson.

Can you imagine?

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I may be a dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t matter – you owe me mercy.”

In Romans, Paul struggles with this question of “who matters.” What separates people from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Who deserves grace?

He ultimately comes to the conclusion that all people are the focus of God’s saving grace. Jew or Gentile, Christ came to save us regardless of our background – remember, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman?

And here’s Jesus, on that journey, in that moment, excluding this woman and all people like her. To him, here, SOMETHING DOES separate some people from the good news.

But she challenges his laser-focus and says, “There is enough grace for everyone, even people like me.”

And here’s the kicker. He changes his mind. Literally, in the middle of chapter 15 in Matthew, we watch a nobody Canaanite woman preach a bigger gospel to Jesus than he’s been preaching, and he changes his mind. From ignoring her to insulting her to answering her prayers, he changes his mind, decides he DOES owe her something, and forever after the gospel is different, bigger.

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Here’s how we know his mind is changed forever: at the end of Matthew, the gospel is for all nations (28:19). All people. All nations. Jew or Canaanite, African or Greek. Free, slave. Male or female.

The final word in Matthew is basically Jesus saying, “The news is good, and there’s enough for everyone.” THIS is the kind of gospel this is. Amen and amen!