As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Challenging Love with Justice
Scriptures: Matthew 15:21-28
Our reading from Matthew today is challenging. It looks like Jesus is behaving badly, out of character: the gospels typically portray him as open and welcoming.
Mark’s gospel calls this woman Syro-Phonecian; Matthew calls her Canaanite. Either way, we know she is not Jewish; not “one of the lost sheep of Israel”, as Jesus puts it.
Essentially we see Jesus and his disciples on vacation. They have left Galilee, and gone into Syria near Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast. It wasn’t a Jewish area, so it’s surprising that this woman had heard of Jesus and knew he was a healer.
Mark tells us this happened in a house, where Jesus was hiding from the crowds. It sounds like he is exhausted, and wants a break.
Matthew tells us it happened in the street where the woman kept shouting at Jesus and the disciples, drawing unwanted attention.
It’s not hard to sympathize with Jesus: it is clear from the gospels that he was overworked. Was it too much to ask for a bit of a break?
Jesus’ message has been a consistent one: God is love; God welcomes outcasts; God helps the helpless. In Matthew’s gospel we have the Sermon on the Mount, which summarizes this really well.
At the same time it is clear that Jesus ministered pretty exclusively in Israel. Matthew has already shown us two exceptions: the Centurion with the dying slave boy was the second, but he was stationed in Israel.
The first was the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus and his disciples had left Israel briefly for a break. Jesus was confronted by the possessed man
and Jesus cast his demons out into the nearby herd of pigs (proof that he wasn’t in a Jewish area at all!)
So when this woman shows up, Matthew has already shown us two occasions where Jesus has healed non-Jews; which makes this event even more striking.
It’s almost like Jesus is exasperated: “Leave me alone! This isn’t in my job description! Can’t I get a break anywhere?”
This lesson is a challenge to people who embrace the idea of Jesus as flawless. His treatment of the woman seems cold and harsh: first he ignores her and lets his underlings handle her, something we recognize and dislike in this government town. Then he describes her in very disrespectful language: dogs get no respect in the Middle East.
In Mark’s version, he calls her a dog to her face. In Matthew’s version, Jesus ignores her and says it to the disciples instead. For someone who preaches love and acceptance, this is stunningly disrespectful.
The people who want to see Jesus as flawless have argued that this is all a test; he is making the woman prove her faith before he heals her daughter.
She certainly proves her faith; more than that, she demonstrates her love for her daughter. She advocates for her child, calling and shouting, refusing to be ignored, demanding that this healer pay attention, no matter how he feels about her.
For this woman it’s about justice: healing her daughter is important regardless of her race or creed. She is challenging the whole idea of exclusivity; not the idea of a chosen people, necessarily. She doesn’t say the people of Israel don’t have a special status, but she challenges the idea that God will only deal with one nation. She demands justice for her daughter, even if it involves interrupting Jesus’ vacation.
Her passion for justice is so clear that a 3rd century Christian author declared her name to be Justa and her daughter, Berenice.
I like to think of Jesus in very human terms: I don’t expect him to be flawless, so I favour the interpretation given by some scholars in the late 20th century that this event was a challenge to Jesus’ own attitudes; that he had to re-consider the assumptions he had grown up with; that he had to expand his ministry because of the challenge of this remarkable woman.
It’s hard for us to face our own prejudices, especially if we’ve heard them since birth. We may just assume that that’s the way life works, until someone demands our attention and makes us look at it from another perspective.
Jesus was impressed by this woman’s faith, maybe even surprised by her tenacity and her conviction that the God of Israel would help her, a Canaanite woman.
Jesus never did expand his personal ministry into other regions. It wasn’t long after this meeting that he went to Jerusalem and was crucified.
But it is clear that the early church figured out that their calling was to look beyond the chosen people of Israel and include everyone in their ministry.
That was hard. It still is! We have a built-in prejudice for familiar people and situations and a natural distrust, maybe even fear, of what we don’t know.
But if we believe in that message of God’s love and care, then we cannot ignore the call of God’s justice which says that God’s love isn’t reserved for just a few, but must be shared.
I like the idea that Jesus could be challenged this way and learn a lesson from this woman. It’s an example to us of the need to listen to the marginal and unexpected voices in our lives: the people we may not want to know, but who have something to teach us.
It is also important to learn from this woman herself: she didn’t permit the bureaucracy to shut her out. She refused to be meek, or polite. She wasn’t disrespectful, but she was loud. She demanded to be heard and she wasn’t prepared to give up until her daughter had a chance at healing.
Her call for justice also came out of love. It’s not unusual for someone to be more courageous in advocating for their children than they ever would be in defending themselves. It’s tempting to call her a momma bear, defending her cub; but the problem with that is it puts what she did into the realm of the feral, the instinctual, the ferocious. Instead, what we should hear is that what she did is totally reasonable and appropriate, and powerful enough to influence Jesus himself. And the shape of the whole church.
So let’s follow the example of Jesus. This woman’s call for justice can influence our ministry of love by challenging us to open our eyes and ears to the people we don’t normally notice. It challenges us to open our hearts to love even those who feel most challenging; to stop before we dismiss out of hand, those insistent demands we don’t understand.
God’s love and justice cannot be separated. May we have the courage to remember this always and to make it real in our lives.