Year A Proper 15
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
Year A, Proper 15—Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
Today’s Gospel is one of those passages when the temptation is strong to decide to preach on the story of Jacob, or the psalm, or the passage from Romans, or just about anything other than Jesus calling a woman a dog (which, by the way, was a favorite Israelite slur for the Canaanites that meant exactly what does today when hollered in high-school hallways). The interesting thing, however, about the Matthew’s use of the word “Canaanite,” is that it is totally anachronistic—like calling someone from one of those Scandinavian countries with hot springs and good health care a “Viking.” Indeed, when we look at Mark’s version of the story (7: 24-37), we find that he uses the contemporary “Syrophoenician” descriptor for the distraught woman who calls upon Jesus to heal her tormented daughter. Matthew is employing a loaded term—Canaanite—in order to evoke a whole series of negative, stereotypical associations. Remember, Jesus was fully divine (the part we all like), but he was also fully human (the part we tend to forget). As a fully-human human being, it makes sense that Jesus is at least partially a product of his cultural conditioning, a man (a Jewish man) of his time and place. That’s the scandalous particularity of the incarnation—God came among us as a flesh and bone person born in the mud and straw of a stable in 1st century Palestine. It’s that particularity, that nitty-gritty specificity of a life that shows us what love looks like in the world, not a timeless truth, or an abstract set of moral principles that dropped from the sky.
As a Galilean Jew, Jesus would have grown up imbibing a whole set of negative assumptions and stereotypes about Canaanites—that they were the worst of Israel’s enemies, oppressors of Israel in the period of the Judges, and tempters who sought to draw Israel from its God in favor of their idols and sacrificial practices. And for those of you who like to keep fun little lists of genocidal violence in the name of God, you might remember this passage from Deuteronomy 7: 1-5—
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods.
The Canaanites are listed here as one of the seven nations that Israel will (by divine edict of course) wipe off the face of the planet.
Now, the encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel is a kind of recapitulation of this incident. Matthew plays the story again, but this time through a filter. Not through the filter of prejudice, bigotry, vengeance and violence, but through the filter of Jesus as the embodiment of hesed—mercy. In the first telling, the protagonist Joshua is a figure triumph, conquest, slaughter, sacrifice and total destruction. Jesus as the second Joshua emerges not as a conqueror, but as the embodiment of mercy—“I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:913 and 12:17). Indeed, the Canaanite woman asks for mercy—the very thing her ancestors were explicitly denied in the text from Deuteronomy—“…show them no mercy.” Matthew’s retelling of this story is part of how scripture, under the pressure of love and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, undoes the exclusionary “us” versus” them” “God is on our side” triumphalism that so turns our stomachs. That’s why the whole of scripture, not just the good bits is so important. The messiness of scripture tells us a lot about how we have misperceived God and created him in our own vengeful image. The messiness of scripture tells us how hard it is for human beings to conceive of God without relying on images of sacrificial violence and to live into the reality of unconditional love.
Brian McLaren goes so far as to suggest that it’s as if Matthew is actually uttering a kind of confession with Deuteronomy ringing in his ears—
Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now, we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed—to nurture and protect life rather than take it.
We begin to see that the human, all-too-human depiction of God as someone on our side against those others, starts to be revealed for what it is—a human projection of fear-based yearnings for power onto the divine. In its place, we see the bubbling up of a new vision—not justice for us, but justice for all. God is coaxing us and them out of violence and injustice into a new way of peace and reconciliation where there are no insiders and outsiders and God loves everyone, everywhere, without exception.
The healing of the Canaanite’s woman’s daughter, is also, then a story of Jesus’ own healing. We might even say that the Canaanite woman saved Jesus as much as Jesus saved her daughter. What did she save him from? From an exclusivist, territorial, and tribalist picture of God’s mission in the world. Jesus exorcised the demon from the Canaanite woman’s daughter, but she exorcised the demon of hatred and racial prejudice that infected Jesus’ culture. The encounter with the Canaanite woman, the triple threat outsider (woman, Canaanite, mother of demon-possessed child) teaches Jesus that the Kingdom of God is exactly like that beautiful image from today’s psalm—“It is like fine oil upon the head/that runs down upon the beard,/upon the beard of Aaron,/and runs down the collar of his robe.” Just like the oil that covers the beard and gets all over Aaron’s robe, God’s anointing oil spills over our divisions, our boundaries, all the various and subtle ways we create an “us” versus “them.” Jesus, despite being steeped and cured in ancestral prejudice as one can get, somehow was able to see through that distorting haze to the reality of the person in front of him.
Some commentators (like Augustine) have noted that this exchange is one characterized, at least partially, by silence, since Jesus doesn’t immediately respond to the Canaanite woman. They venture that this is a story about showing up when God doesn’t appear to be present or answer our pleas, and persisting in faithful prayer. Perhaps. But I also think that the silence that permeates this exchange is exactly what it looks like when our prejudices and preconceptions—“Oh, I know how that person is”—come in contact with the reality of love and mercy. Silence is what happens when we come undone and our old way of making sense of the world collapses. We’re stopped dead in our tracks. We’re speechless. Our image of who we think the person in front of us is begins to topple and we hear their cry for mercy for the first time. Mercy undoes us and opens our hearts to being mercy for others. Who is saving whom, I wonder?
In Jesus’ deep listening, and true hearing, the Canaanite woman ceases to be just another faceless Canaanite, an enemy of Israel. The Greek word for person is prosopon or “face”—to be a person is to have a face. In this seemingly troubling exchange, marked by so much ugliness and enmity, something truly beautiful emerges. She becomes a person—no longer a faceless, dehumanized abstraction erased under stereotypes about “those people” like the victims of the White Supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA erased and made invisible under the bumper of a car driven by a man blinded by prejudice and hate. In this encounter with Jesus she becomes a person with a face, a voice, and an equal place in the boundless household of God. The woman sheds the burden of being imprisoned by prejudice and finds herself a child of God seated at the table. But, in a way, she is also transfigured from being an enemy of the people of God into Jesus’ teacher; the enemy becomes the teacher. The unclean thing becomes the very vehicle of salvation that sets love loose in the world. Like that pesky, unruly mustard plant, and like the contaminating leaven—we might say the Kingdom of God is in the cry of the stranger whom you’ve ignored, in the voice of the unclean one whom you’ve shoved to the side, and in the face of one of “those people” you’ve made your mind up about long, long ago. That oil, that anointing balm of love that knows no exceptions, keeps pouring over everything.
If we continue to follow this story through, we notice something quite amazing happens. You’ll recall that just one chapter earlier in Matthew, Jesus fed the five thousand and there were twelve baskets left over—clearly an indicator that Jesus is meant to minister to the people of Israel—those members of the twelve tribes. Immediately after his encounter with the Canaanite woman, there is another feeding miracle—the feeding of the four thousand. But where does this one take place? Not on home turf with an adoring hometown crowd (the Israelites), but among a bunch of Gentiles up around the Sea of Galilee—outsiders just like the Canaanite woman. And in a nice little touch by Matthew, this time there are seven baskets left over—the same number of nations blithely rhymed off in Deuteronomy as marked for merciless destruction-- Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Matthew gives us both a reworking of the God of wrathful vengeance, and also a picture of Jesus living into the full scope of mission in the world—one without borders and boundaries.
What happened? How did Jesus go from thinking that God’s mission was simply to the lost sheep of Israel to symbolically including everyone? The Canaanite woman happened. She helped dilate Jesus’ eye of love wider and wider so that he came to realize there are no outsiders at the banquet. Keep your eyes open for Canaanite women this week. They are hidden in plain sight, under a thick layer of preconceptions. See her, hear her, and give a face to her; she might just exorcise your demons and save your soul. She might just teach you something about vigilance, persistence, and speaking out as a witness to the over-flowing oil of God’s love and mercy that slathers us all without exception.