The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 15:21-28

It’s more than a little hard to imagine that the Jesus who told the story of the “Good Samaritan”–the point of which is that anyone who needs your help is the neighbor whom you are to love as yourself–is the same man who here refuses to help a desperate mother with her critically sick child. But there it is in black and white–etched on the pages of Holy Writ–and read as the first part of today’s gospel.

So, what are we to make of this passage? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” suddenly becomes a bit questionable. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” begins to show cracks under the weight of this new restrictiveness.

Can this really be true? Jesus, with undeniable sharpness, not being inclusive? Had he not been more than ready to go to the home of the Centurian – also a non Jew – when that man needed Jesus to heal his acutely ill servant? Why now the change? Why now the sudden, stark aloofness?

Well, this is purely conjecture on my part, but, nevertheless, entirely plausible to me, especially since it’s the middle of August when most clergy are on vacation, and we all know how enthusiastic pastors can be about having their vacations interrupted at all, much less by some needy person outside the sheepfold.

This, I think, may be the case and the situation with Jesus. He needs a holiday. Almost since the beginning of his ministry, Jesus and the disciples have been swarmed over by the crowds – teaching them, healing them, and feeding them – not to mention having to elbow their way through them hour after hour and day after day. And if the crowds aren’t after them, then the guardians of orthodoxy are—questioning, accusing, and condemning every teaching and every act.

The disciples have just returned from having been sent out “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” (which is the ancient equivalent of what our culture calls “high-stress” work) and both the faithfulness of Jesus and that of the disciples have taken their toll. Like so many of their modern counterparts, they are suffering from over-exposure to the world. And, as if the unrelenting strain of ministry wasn’t enough, add to it the emotional impact of having your homefolk summarily reject you, just as the people of Bethsaida, and Capernaum had done earlier. Factor in the tragic news about your cousin John the Baptist’s death, and it becomes much more understandable why Jesus and the disciples–tired out, worn out, and burned out–head for the region Tyre and Sidon. They need a vacation. They need to get away from it all. So they head out for the beach – away from Judea and Galilee, and into Gentile territory, where supposedly they are anonymous, with no crowds following them, and no phone service either.

But, just when Jesus and the disciples are settling into the guest house, ready to kick off their sandals, set up the volleyball net and hit the beach, –this heathen, this woman comes up to them out of the blue, shouting at the top of her lungs, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” No wonder Matthew records that initially Jesus doesn’t say a word to her. Perhaps Jesus was just following the rule that if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.

But one thing the Canaanite mother doesn’t lack is stick-to-it-iveness. She knows deep down, Woody Allen’s immortal words, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” And show up she does.

So, because of her importunity, her unrelenting persistence, Jesus is forced to move from silence to a theological explanation to account for his apparent unconcern: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. But the last thing this mother of the deranged daughter is after is a good reason she shouldn’t be assisted. She’s wants help, not an explanation.

That in itself must have been refreshing to Jesus. For wherever in the Gospels he encountered this kind of “genuine faith,” he marveled at it—and he rewarded it. The leper who falls at his feet seeking healing; the companions of the paralytic who lower their friend to Jesus through a hole in the roof; the woman suffering from the issue of blood for 12 years, who reaches out just to touch the hem of his garment; or Jarius, the synagogue ruler, who sends after Jesus to heal his daughter on her death bed, all exhibit a faith that compels Jesus to respond. And Jesus never refused that kind of faith—no matter how tired he was or how much of a holiday he needed.

The faith that the Canaanite woman and these others exemplify is not a general trust in God. Nor is it the faint belief that God is “omnipotent or omniscient,” or even the stronger creedal assertion that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” All of that comes later. What faith is – as it’s taught by the Gospels in general and by this episode in particular – is a belief and trust in Jesus’ power to work wonders. Miracles.

The faith Jesus recognizes, and delights in, occurs when genuine human weakness gives way to a radical openess in the power made manifest in and through Jesus. In the Gospels, this happens most often when a person in need realizes that his or her capacity to help themselves is exhausted. Such persons have no delusions about self-sufficiency. And because of this, they believe that Jesus, in the concrete situation at hand, can and will work a miracle on their behalf. They are truly ready to receive.

And nowhere in the Gospels or in life can I find that Jesus ever disappointed such people. On the other hand, what I do find, in both the written Gospels and life, is that without this sort of receptivity, Jesus has a hard time working any wonders at all.

It is just this type of expectancy on the part of the Canaanite woman – this quick wit bordering on brazenness – that captures the attention of Jesus and all but forces him to act on her behalf. With a little imagination, we can almost see Jesus’ weary harshness fading in the midst of the verbal jousting, and then a smile coming over his face as he sees faith brim full in this adamant mother. And with just a little more imagination, we can see the mother arriving home to find her daughter in her right mind, and the tremendous joy they must have immediately shared together. And then, how she must have gone back the beach house the next day to tell Jesus and the disciples about the miracle that had happened, and to hear Jesus tell her, as he so often told those unlikely faith-filled folk, “Go your way, your faith has made you whole.”

There’s a story told about two brothers who, for a long time, had been embroiled in a very nasty family feud. One day, the two men unexpectedly came face to face with each other and, as they did, one of them immediately scraped his foot across the ground drawing a line between them.

For the next few minutes (but what seemed like an eternity) the two men stood there, staring, recalling all the hate and hurt, and division and anger and disagreement that had separated them in the first place. But then, the other brother did something quite unexpected. Using his long walking stick, he very slowing and carefully drew a circle around them both. And with that, the two men broke down and, with tears in their eyes, they embraced, and arm in arm walked home together.

Sometimes, we in the church, and in the rest of our lives, too, spend too much time drawing lines when we should be drawing circles. We exclude when we should include, we discriminate and separate and push people away, when we should be opening our arms as wide as we can to bring them in.

And the reason we do is because if we give those we disagree with the benefit of the doubt, if we consider the possibility that they might not be wrong, then we also have to consider the possibility that we might not be right.

If we allow any questions at all to contaminate our beliefs – to challenge the way we think things ought to be – then we have to admit that, just maybe, we don’t have all the answers.

If we accept anything new, then it means we’ll have to expand and change that comfortable, old, fixed mind-set of ours that has settled in so well, and felt so good all those years.

There were a number of things – important things – that separated Jesus from the Canaanite woman. Religiously, philosophically, ethnically, they were miles apart. But, ultimately, Jesus refused to allow those walls of separation to keep them apart or to interfere with his relationship with this person who was undeniably a child of God.

We need to follow his lead in our relationships with one another. We’re not called to agree with or embrace every lifestyle or philosophy or theology that comes down the pike, but we are called to love and accept and include each other. And like the lesson we learned in the parable of the wheat and the tares a few weeks ago, to leave the separating and the judging to God, who is far more wise in these things than we, –and, thankfully, for our sake, far more merciful. And, for our part, to love one another as Christ loves us.
May the peace of God, the love of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all this day and for ever.