Jesus left that place (Gennesaret of Galilee) 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.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What do you make of Jesus’ rudeness? First he ignores this poor woman whose daughter is sick. Then when he finally does acknowledge her, says it’s not his job to help her, and he calls her a dog.
Are you bothered by Jesus’ treatment of this Canaanite woman?
The thing is, for the audience the author of Matthew wrote this gospel for, they likely wouldn’t be offended at all. They may not even notice Jesus’ attitude, because it may have so reflected their own. Matthew’s Christian audience was Jewish historically. They were wrestling with this concept of non-Jews being part of the church.
They understood Jewish Christians to be God’s elect, special people God had chosen to bring light into the world. They believed that their way of life, their view of the world, their belief in God was given to them by God, and therefore the rest of the world should do things the way they did them. Especially when it comes to faith, religion, and Jesus. They had the answers. In order to be doing God’s will, the rest of the world—certainly non-Jewish Christians in Israel—needed to listen to them and follow their lead. They were the ones who knew what God wanted, and how God wanted it.
So of course this Gentile, this apostate, this enemy, this woman isn’t worthy of Jesus’ time. She represents everything that good Christian people ought not to be. She’s wrong in her ethnicity, her heritage, her religion, and her gender.
What’s worse, she’s culturally way out of bounds too. Women of God were expected to be reserved in public. But she’s shouting at Jesus, making demands of Christ. Who does she think she is?
Jesus would be right, according to Christian belief in Matthew’s community, in ignoring her. You can’t encourage such dog-like behavior from a dog-like person. She needs to learn what it is to be a believer in the one true God. Jesus needs to put her in her place. He needs to show her what God-fearing people are like. She’s wrong in every possible way, and Jesus needs to let her know that.
That’s likely the background of Matthew’s audience as they hear this text. So the offense wouldn’t be Jesus’ rudeness, but her un-Christian behavior and inferior beliefs.
So the surprise would be Jesus actually listening to her, then changing his mind and agreeing with her, and then commending her faith! God’s mercy, apparently, is even for people like her—a woman so far outside their Christian thinking that it’s offensive to have to include her.
I want to stop a moment and check in with you. How are you feeling about this story now? Are you more sympathetic with the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s community? Have your views of this woman changed at all? Does their being offended by her affect how they should treat someone like her?
But mostly, I want to see if you are making any connections with our lives right now.
In our American Christian thinking, who do we automatically assume is outside God’s mercy and grace? Who, by virtue of their inclusion, would we be offended by? Who do we all pretty much agree, without even needing to say it, have no place in the church?
I’ll tell you who that is for me. It’s the racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, white supremacists who planned an evil rally of violence and hatred in Charlottesville, VA. I do not want them or any of their sympathizers anywhere near this church. I am desperately offended by their use of the name of Jesus to proclaim such vile, wicked, sinfulness. Their actions and attitudes are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, absolutely, completely, totally despicable. Make no mistake about that. That behavior is truly contrary to everything Jesus lived and died for.
I’ve always known that racism and hatred have been present. But in my own white privilege it hasn’t always affected me. I could ignore it, or at least be silent about it, because I wasn’t victimized by it every day.
But now the lid has been blown off that superficial comfort. Now the very present, even bold, evil of racism is right in my face. And people who look like me are using Jesus’ name to justify horrible, evil actions and attitudes.
And I can’t stand it.
And this gospel text points out that God’s mercy is for those people too. If I ever were to swear in a sermon, right now is when it would come out. Because that offends me in ways that are so deep I can’t express them. The actions of those people, who dare to call themselves Christian, are as far away from Jesus as possible, yet this text says that God’s mercy is for them too. There’s room at the communion table for them too. And it is my job—our job—to proclaim that and live that. Regardless of how offensive that is to me, I’m the one who has to adjust to that. My attitude has to change. I cannot condone or justify their actions or attitudes, but they, as human beings, are included in God’s grace.
If even those who are dispensers of evil are included in God’s mercy, then it seems the door is pretty wide open. Wouldn’t you say that it’s a pretty easy call that people who aren’t spewing vile, hateful rhetoric ought to be invited and included?
About 55% of this congregation lives in zip code 80228. The other 45% live in concentric circles around 80228. There are over 32,000 people just in the 80228 zip code. Of those, over 5000 of them are people of color within a couple of miles of this building’s doors. Hundreds of these, just in 80228, are Black. And if only 55% of our congregation lives in 80228, then don’t tell me there are no Blacks who live here. Thousands are Hispanic or Latino. Although I couldn’t find statistics on how many are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, Denver has the 9th largest LGBTQ population in the country. God’s mercy is for them, and we are the ones called and equipped to proclaim and to live that. So why are so few here?
We need to change that. We need to live and breathe the reality that God’s mercy is actually for all people. We need to be the visible witness of the wideness of God’s grace.
And here’s our next step. We, as a congregation, are going to have a conversation in the not too distant future, about becoming a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation. Which means in the ELCA that we state publicly that we openly welcome and affirm those in the LGBTQ community. God’s mercy includes everyone. We may as well say it. We may as well show it. We may as well live it. If you’d like to be part of the team to plan that conversation, let me know.
As disciples of Jesus, Christians are God’s chosen people. But not for privilege. We are chosen to proclaim, to reveal, and to live out God’s mercy and grace to all people. And we each can take another step forward in that call starting today.
My friend, Pastor Meta Carlson recently wrote a simple way to take a step forward, “Turn your face to the truth. The truth about God’s love, God’s people, God’s justice. And then find someone to tell. Wake a child, call a friend, kiss a lover, stand awkwardly outside until a dog-walking neighbor comes by and scare the crap out of them with some love. Tell someone the truth tonight. ‘You are created in the image of God. God made you and said “very good.”’”
You see, God’s grace includes everyone. We begin anew today.