A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
by Rev. Laura Gentry
I don’t know about you, but I find the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman difficult. Painful, even. And right now is a painful time for our country, so how might this story speak to our current context? What does this story have to teach us about what we are to be doing today? That’s always the goal of our scripture study, isn’t it? So let’s fearlessly dive into today’s Gospel text in hopes that we can find some crumb of wisdom to guide us.
First, the painful part of the story: Jesus seems to treat the Canaanite women badly. He ignores her until she’s so annoying she can’t be ignored any longer. As an advocate for her daughter, she is persistent. You could say that “nevertheless, she persisted!”
But Jesus refuses to help her and then insults her by calling her a dog! Some commentators try to soften this by reminding us that the word he uses isn’t actually “dog” in the original language, but “little dog”. Personally, I don’t find it any less offensive. It just seems so not Jesus. Why! Why would he say this?
Well, the traditional interpretation goes something like this: Jesus isn’t actually being mean to her. No no, he’s just testing her so that we can all learn from this encounter. And when she passes her test, he rewards her by healing her daughter. Maybe. But I’m not totally buying it.
The truth is that we don’t know why Jesus said this and we’ll never know for sure. So if we really want to understand this story we need to focus not on Jesus but on the persistent woman. She’s obviously the hero of the story, but why?
It seems like she “gets” Jesus more than anybody. Even more than his disciples do. She’s an outsider and a woman so she might not even expect Jesus to deal with her. But she is utterly desperate and she believes he can heal her daughter who has a demon. She’s got this audacity and this unrelenting drive to get him to help.
So when Jesus dismisses her and calls her a dog she responds in this way: “Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She’s a marginalized person who has always been run over, left out, and discriminated against so I guess she’s used to getting the leftovers if she gets anything at all. But she believes that what Jesus offers—the mercy of God—is so amazing that leftovers are okay. Just a crumb would be sufficient. Just a crumb.
Perhaps this understanding does more than just teach us. It even seems to teach Jesus. Maybe it's just coincidence but his mission gets enlarged after this encounter with her. This Canaanite woman asks to be seen and heard—recognized as child of God. And through her her plea, she expands Jesus’ sense of mission. By the end of this Gospel, the commission is to take the good news to the very ends of the earth! Now it is clear that the good news of God’s healing mercy is not just for the Jews, not just for the “in” crowd, but for everybody—even little, run down, crumb-grabbing “nobodys” like this Canaanite women.
Why does this matter? Well, it is a human tendency to assume that God is on our side—that God looks like us, favors us, endorses our views and is most certainly a card-carrying member of our political party. I don’t know why we are like that but we are. We tend to imagine God is just like us. And it is wonderful that Jesus came to earth to be like us and to connect with us on a human level. The problem is when we imagine God is only like us and not like others.
And just as the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision and love and mercy are bigger than he may have initially imagined, so might she teach us the same at a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists march the streets: every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God made known in Jesus on the other side.
But here’s the thing: we already know this. Yet at a time such as this, simply knowing that God loves all people and shows no partiality is not enough. I think that this text and others like it in scripture when the outsider is lifted up remind us that we are called to action. We need to be more than not racist—we need to actively fight racism. We need to find ways to listen to, stand with and stand up for our minority brothers and sisters. We must demand that their interested be cared for, too. When one part of the body of Christ hurts, we all hurt. We are all in this together.
This is no new endeavor for us here in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We’ve been fighting against racism for a long time now. The ELCA’s social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture” states: “Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.”
That social statement, adopted by the ELCA 1993 Churchwide Assembly, calls on the church to make confession for complicity, name the spiritual crisis at the roots, commit to change and make pledges to public witness, advocacy and action to confront racism.
“We recognize that the kind of violence we witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend is very real and affects all of us,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton. “We need to stand up firmly against racism and anti-Semitism, show up for and advocate with others. Jesus, who makes visible those who are invisible, is already there. We need to show up, and we need to listen in each of our communities.”
As it was stated in a press release that came out last week: "The ELCA is a church that belongs to Christ and Christ’s church universal, where there is a place for everyone. The job of Christ’s people today is to celebrate the diversity of God’s creative work and embrace all people in the spirit of love, whatever race or ethnicity, economic status or gender."
The Canaanite woman was persistent. She stood her ground and demanded God’s mercy—even a crumb of mercy—for her child. How can we learn from her how to have courage and demand mercy, too? We cannot afford to sit this one out. Let us prayerfully consider how we as a church can stand with and for all of God’s children. And then get to work. Amen.
© 2017 Laura Gentry