Isaiah 56: 1-8
Matthew 15: 21-28
On Making a Scene
“My daughter is sick. She has violent seizures and then sleeps for hours on end. She stopped eating days ago and now hardly speaks. Curled up in a corner she bears no resemblance to the little girl I knew – so happy and full of herself. Nothing makes her smile. At a time when she should be growing into a young woman, she has turned into a ghost. I have taken her to the physicians, but nothing has worked. I am afraid she is dying.
That’s why I am here. This man, Jesus bar Joseph, from Nazareth is here — in Sidon. They say he can heal. They say he has miraculous powers. They say he is kind. BUT he is a Jew, and I am Canaanite. He is a man, and I am a woman. He is surrounded by followers, but I am alone.
If my husband were still alive, he could do this. He could call out above the others and perhaps get this man’s attention. But I must do it. I will cry out and keep crying out until he hears me. I will not give up. My daughter is dying . . . and she is all I have.”
“Jesus, this way! If we keep to the back streets, we can skirt the crowd and make it to the synagogue. But there will still be people. They will press in, and shout your name, and try to touch your cloak. We will do our best to protect you, but you must not look left or right. Ignore their cries and keep your eyes focused straight ahead. This is not the best of places, Lord — mostly gentiles, lots of poverty. There has been violence and we are all at risk.
And remember, our mission is the lost sheep of Israel, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our people. They need the love of God. And that is more mission than we can ever accomplish. Our time is too short to concern ourselves with the gentiles.
This way, Master. Look straight ahead.”
“What is that incessant screaming? I hear it above all the others: ‘Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy!’ I’m tired, and hungry, and eager to get out of the throng, and yet they call for me. No matter how hard I try not to look, I see them. I hear them.
‘Have Mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,’ says this woman. I cannot stop, I will not stop. I was sent to the lost house of Israel.
‘Send her away,’ my disciples urge, but before I can speak she is cowering at my feet, a beggar’s pose.
It is not fair, I tell her, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. There is only so much time and so much of me. I simply cannot . . .
But then she says, ‘Yes, Lord. I understand, but just a crumb will do. Even the dogs eat crumbs from the Master’s table. Couldn’t I have a crumb, a word, a touch, a tiny blessing for my daughter? You see, she is dying, and she is all I have.’
And in that moment, my resolve crumbles. Yes, she is quick with a retort, but more than that, her faith! She believes so strongly in me, in God, that a crumb is enough? How can I refuse a faith so strong? How can I ignore a woman in whom God has put his spirit?
The bumper sticker on the back of my car says, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Said in the affirmative, a paraphrase would be, “Women who make a scene are the ones who are most remembered.” Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony made a scene for women’s suffrage, and they and their sisters are remembered. Mother Jones made a scene against the evils of child labor, and for that she is remembered. Rosa Parks made a scene in defiance of the Jim Crow law that demanded she give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, and for that she is remembered. Ruby Bridges inadvertently made a scene simply by being the first child of color to enter a previously all-white elementary School in New Orleans. Malala Yousazai made a scene by insisting that the girls of Pakistan be allowed to.attend school – even after she was shot and nearly killed by the Talaban.
The same formula for making history certainly pertains to the Bible. Everyone knows remembers the real bad girls: Eve, for eating the apple; Delilah for betraying Samson; Potiphar’s wife for seducing and incriminating an innocent Joseph; Jezabel for worshipping Baal and killing a prophet. But they also remember the loyalty of a brave daughter-in-law Ruth; the humility of a teenage girl willing to carry the Christ child – Mary, the woman who interrupted a dinner party to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears and dry them with her hair; the many women who were early church builders and leaders. The list goes on and on.
The Canaanite woman, in today’s text, is almost as well-known. Her crime? Making a scene. To us who live in the culture of public demonstrations, heckling, and 60 seconds of fame, making a scene has become the norm. But, in her culture, the woman crossed the line – first, by being a woman standing alone among men, second for daring to cry out in a public place; then, by being Canaanite confronting a Jew; and finally, by persisting in this exchange with Jesus, refusing to take no for an answer. Her behavior is unacceptable. It violates all social norms. Jesus recognizes it as an affront that should not merit consideration, so he does what any of us would do. He ignores her. Despite being called a “dog” – a dehumanizing ethnic slur then as now– she accepts it and uses it to justify her position. She does it because she loves her girl and because she believes in Christ’s power to heal. “Okay, call me a dog,” she says, “but even the lowest of creatures deserve God’s love and power.”
For Jesus, the confrontation is more than an unwanted interruption. It rocks him. It erodes all he thought he understood about his mission to the lost sheep of Israel. His purpose is now unclear He has just encountered a Canaanite, a gentile and — in that brief exchange, he saw her as a human being in need. No longer can he stereotype this ethnic population. No longer can he dismiss gentiles with a broad stroke. He has now met this woman whose culture, background, gender, and social status are different, yet whose faith is great. From him, through her, to her daughter flowed a surge of healing energy that Jesus could not have predicted. And neither can it now be ignored.
If this gentile woman has such faith, then there are others. What is my mission? What is God the Father showing me? What is this troubling new awareness that pushes me beyond what I thought I knew?
For the woman, the encounter must have exceeded all expectations. Her daughter, the text says, was instantly healed. Though we are offended by Jesus’ sharp remarks, the grateful Canaanite mother discounted them. She knew her place in the culture, she knew that making a scene would subject her to scorn. She was prepared for that. It was worth it!
For us centuries later, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is more than a little troubling, primarily because Christ’s initial response to this woman is not what we would expect from the son of God. Would Jesus have used such an epithet –calling her a dog? What would explain such rudeness? Didn’t Christ defend the outcasts? Take up the cause of the poor? Show compassion for widows and orphans?
So why does Jesus behaver as he does? Was Jesus still learning how to be perfect? How to be God? Was God gradually molding Jesus of Nazareth into the Messiah? The Savior? Could it be that God was allowing Jesus to get his feet wet in ministry before revealing the full scope of his assignment? (I can identify with that!) Was this brazen Canaanite woman actually used by God Almighty to bring Jesus to a new threshold of ministry? Was she the unsuspecting catalyst?
I can’t tell you how to answer these questions, and they have been debated for hundreds of years. I can tell you how I resolve the tension. We Presbyterians profess that Jesus was “fully God and fully human” – a contradiction to be sure. Christ’s heart and soul were one with the heart and soul of God the Father. Yet, he was born in a particular time and place, raised by human parents, schooled by human teachers and rabbis, privy to only the knowledge available in that time and place. He was genetically human, the product of an anthropology that told humans that safety was to be found with their own kind; that strangers meant danger? In other words, Jesus bar Joseph, product of 1st century Nazareth was born into a way of thinking and believing and reacting. As the Son of God, he would be called to transcend the sensibility of his time.
As children of God, we are called to do the same. In order to welcome strangers, fully accept and include those who are different, extend the love of Christ to those whose complexion, language, religion, and lifestyle are not ours, we have to suppress the knee-jerk reaction of our culture. We have to swallow the slurs and insults and hurtful jokes. We have to tamp down the urge to fight or fly long enough to hear what the stranger is saying. In other words, we have to remain open to unwanted interruptions because they, too, may be of God.
Jesus generally referred to himself not as the son of God, but as the son of Man. Jesus offered us the status of “children of God.” The leap from children of man to children of God doesn’t happen all at once — at baptism, at confirmation, at a tent-meeting or a worship service. It happens in tiny increments – often awkward, painful, frightening tiny increments – when we are called to kindness or service beyond what we thought were our bounds. When we are confronted with or own version of the Canaanite woman begging for mercy. When we are called to stand with “the other” and discover they are more like us than different. And, sometimes, when our faith is put to shame by theirs.
As we grow –day by day– into children of God, we become more bold. We find ourselves more willing to make a scene, to stand up with those who are needy, to challenge the prevailing social norms when we know they are not of God. We find the courage to cry out for an equal share of God’s blessings for all his creatures. Like the Canaanite woman, we discover that begging on behalf of those we love is a most honorable occupation.
Through Isaiah, God said “Maintain justice, and do what is right. . . . Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To all those who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give a monument and a name better than sons and daughters! . . . . I will make them joyful in my house of prayer and will accept their sacrifices on my altar.” Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel” [Isaiah 56: 3 – 8]. AMEN