The first portion of our Gospel text is in brackets, so we could leave it out, but I’d like to point out its importance in hearing the rest of the text. In this text, Jesus is teaching about the second table of the 10 Commandments, those commandments that are about our relationships with others. The first three commandments deal with our relationship with God. This set begins with and end with a focus on what comes from the mouth. As he teaches about life together, Jesus attempted to have his listeners understand the difference between keeping the laws and moral requirements as a part of tradition and keeping them because they are something we live in our heart and express with words that come from our mouth. He is attempting to have them understand that tradition for the sake of tradition is mere law keeping – our modern day “We have always done it this way”, which can get in the way of what God really wants us to be about, losing sight of God’s mission in the midst of change, controversy, differing opinions, our own personality quirks and ways of doing things. Jesus is telling them, telling us, that we are made unclean by the unloving words that spring so readily from our mouths. He is calling them and us to treat others with respect and abstain from verbally attacking others who have views and practices that differ from our own. It is the ugliness of false witness, slander, and unkindness that we sometimes carry in our hearts that trips out of our mouths, wags from our tongue and out over our lips that can kill, maim, and destroy those we speak of. We hear this teaching, and then we turn to the next section of this text and wonder if Jesus was present and listening as he was teaching the previous crowd. Here is a Canaanite woman shouting at him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus doesn’t even respond to her. If he wasn’t going to tend to these Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon, why did he go there? If he was called only to save the “lost sheep of the house of Israel, why didn’t he just stay in Jewish communities? This woman is not likely even culturally a member of the community but a person from a rural community; folks shut away from the Jewish community, an unnamed outsider woman. It’s about more than her cultural heritage; it’s a story about her faith. It’s not WHO she is by culture that heals her daughter; it is because of her faith that Jesus heals her daughter. She recognizes Jesus for who he is, and she humbles herself, kneels down before him and begs Jesus for his mercy and his help. She acknowledges Jesus as “Lord”, recognizes him as one who has come to heal, to save and to cleanse. Not only does she recognize her position in society, but she recognizes that her daughter will not be helped if she, her mother, does not plead in her behalf. Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who changes things for the better, is rewarded. Jesus acknowledges her faith and her daughter is healed. We only have a brief part of her encounter and Jesus’ response. I wondered as I read the text what she might have been thinking and what her life might have been like. As I teach Biblical Images in the Synod’s Diakonia Program, I urge my students to put themselves in the story, to somehow get a sense for what’s going on and as a way of identifying ourselves as a part of the gospel story. Putting myself into this story as the Canaanite woman, my own story of a daughter in need of healing comes to mind. The moment Shari was born I became her medical advocate. There were seemingly constant appointments at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in eight different clinics. When she was born, there were only five study cases in the world with similar birth anomalies. While she was a patient with learning appeal to the residents and medical students, she was my daughter and I felt like I needed to walk a fine line of hoping they would learn things that would help her as well as others they would treat, but not turn her into a medical guinea pig. We were fortunate to have some of the finest physicians in the world provide their wisdom and medical expertise, but it was still a painful and unknown journey we were on. I was young but tenacious – for her sake as well as my own. I get this Canaanite woman’s despair as well as her tenacity. I get how she was relentless to get help for her daughter, even if it was just the crumbs of this Jesus, the one others were talking about as a teacher and healer. I get how she didn’t give up even when it seems she’s going to be sent away. I get that she will put up with being put down if it will get help for her daughter.
This daughter apparently has a mental illness. How fraught our news is with frequent news of those who suffer or have suffered from the darkness and despair of depression and addictions. Working as a mental health professional and often on the suicide hotline, I know the pleadings of those who wonder if life will ever be any better than the darkness and torment they find themselves in. I knew the parents who tried desperately to get the help their child needed – not just young children, but their adult children – to help them hang on until they could see some light of day. I heard their pleas to keep them hospitalized so that they would be safe from the harm of their own hands. I also worked with those on the addiction unit with hopes of helping them fight their demons and find resources that would give them the strength to battle their way back to a healthier life. I know the battle of family members and friends who also battle the demons of depression and anxiety and how debilitating all this can be. I get this Canaanite woman pleading with Jesus. And I think that Jesus sees something new in her pleadings – that he indeed was sent for more than a particular community, but to something more, and he is stretched as well in his understanding of who he was sent to save. She may well have had her faith tested and stretched, but that Jesus sees her wrestling with challenges of her daughter and the deep love she has for her and the desperate need for healing. It would seem that Jesus learns that God’s kingdom and his mission to enact that kingdom is bigger than he had first imagined or dreamed of.
This is a text to truly wrestle with. It’s not a fun story, although we can rejoice that Jesus sees this woman’s deep faith and heals her daughter. How we wish for that kind of healing for ourselves and for our children, as well as for the very world itself – the wars, the shootings and killings, daily news of yet more hate and violence – Lord, heal us, we plead. But I wonder what other lessons we might learn from this challenging text. I wonder about those we wish were here worshiping with us today. I wonder what it is about the present-day-culture who either doesn’t find what they are looking for when they show up to visit a congregation or whether there’s something we have gotten so locked into that we can’t or are unsure of how to change to reach out to them in ways that are inviting or healing or whatever it is they are looking for. We all are looking for that place to fit in, to find some kind of comfort zone and to find something that feeds the needs gnawing inside ourselves. We need to be tenacious in our praying – prayers for renewal and revitalization – to be God’s people alive with the gospel good news inside ourselves to be shared with others, lived out each day.
Gospel stories are not just for those who lived so long ago in the midst of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but they are gospel stories that intersect our very lives. That’s why I will keep teaching and urging you to find your story and Jesus’ story merging and bring meaning and learning and healing to our lives. It may not always be exactly what we are pleading with Jesus to give us, but I’ve learned throughout life that healing comes in a myriad of ways. Be faithful, be tenancious … Jesus is listening.
We gather to worship God. Lines once drawn in the sand are erased by Jesus’ mind being changed. Jesus grew in his understanding of what it meant to be Son of David, Messiah, and what he was to do. God’s kingdom is inclusive; God gathers everyone, including outcasts. God chose you in your baptism and loves you. Follow your faith. You will receive more than crumbs. Jesus, our Savior is here. Grace poured out for you; it is God’s love for us. Amen
Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Psalm 67: 1-7
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: [10-20] 21-28