“Jesus, a ‘Canaanite Woman’, and Inclusion” Matthew 15:21-28
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, August 16, 2020
Palestinians and Jews, Republicans and Democrats, Black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, quarantined and non-quarantined, member and non-member, Karens and non-Karens, Boomers and everyone else, masked and non-masked, employed and unemployed, distance learner and in-person. These are just a few of the lines of distinctions we are familiar with these days. We love making distinctions, always to our benefit by showing that we are in and others are out. That’s nothing new, as we have heard in our Gospel text this morning.
At the beginning of our reading, Matthew describes Jesus’ disagreement with the Pharisees’ practice of making distinctions between pure and impure. Jesus points out to the disciples that what makes a person impure is what’s in their heart; what’s on the inside rather than what’s on the outside. After making this point with his disciples, Jesus is approached by a woman who is asking for mercy on her and her child tormented by a demon. Matthew refers to her as a Canaanite woman, a throwback term indicating to his audience that she is not only a foreigner but one despised like the Canaanites Joshua battled as the enemy. Jesus had been taught that Gentiles were outsiders, not a part of God’s flock in the world. He would also have been aware of their history of oppressing his people. This is why he gave such a harsh response to her request for help and mercy. The woman, though, wasn’t having any of it and persisted to be recognized and helped, especially with a sick child. She counters his remark of exclusion with a response of faith in God’s inclusion. If she had a sign to hold up, it would’ve said “Canaanite Lives Matter.” Jesus is taken aback by her words and faith and changed his response. He then includes her in what God wanted him and his people to share with the world–blessing of salvation and justice. What a powerful exchange as God has her help Jesus see things in a new way. From then on, Jesus expanded his reach into the world to include her and others outside Israel with mercy and love.
Our first reading this morning from Isaiah (56:1,6-8) reveals this as well, as God used Isaiah to expand Israel’s understanding of God’s limitless inclusion, saying, “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed,” and “Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” Jesus was familiar with these words of Isaiah and they must have come to mind after speaking with this woman, an outcast of Israel, as she helped Jesus broaden his work for God in the world.
Isn’t that what God still does, expands our horizons, and dismantles whatever limitations we put on the reach of God? Thankfully, God doesn’t allow our limits to hold up and block the abundant flow of justice and love in the world. As prophets of old have described it, God’s love and justice for all people is like a river flowing into the world. Such a mighty river can’t be controlled or thwarted for very long by the artificial distinctions we build between people. If you don’t think I’m right, just look at recent events in our nation as the sinful markers white people have drawn between them and Black people. Many times throughout our nation’s history these lines have been challenged and changed but they have never been erased. Just recently, with the killing of George Floyd, we see God’s justice barreling up against those lines of racism and creating a disrupting flood of activity that must run its course and remove what God never intended for us to build. And, like Jesus, we must let it do so, changing us and our limiting cultural notions of who is in and who is out. As author Christopher Vanhall states about Jesus’ conversation with this woman, “If the Messiah, of all people, had to address racial bias, it means we all should take pause and excavate our own internal prejudices.” Sometimes that happens with a watershed event like with George Floyd. Sometimes it comes through a person God sends our way who challenges our thinking and help us become what God has called us to be. Other times God changes us by allowing us, like with the disciples and Pharisees, to hear from Jesus how God’s work in the world happens best when we allow God to go to work in our own hearts and through our own obstacles to God’s activity.
I believe God’s river is flowing now into our nation and world today much like in times past. It isn’t just trying to get into the world; it’s also attempting to come through our churches. Perhaps this is where it is needed the most and yet faces resistance the most. We Christians have lots of distinctions and exclusions, especially when it comes to people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be more like Jesus, to let go of what gets in the way of God’s flow of love and justice in the world? We can do that here in our church by continuing to cherish and develop our diversity, by listening to one another through storytelling, conversing with people of other races through programs like Dialogue on Race, by registering to vote and then voting for people who will contribute to justice for all, by committing to anti-racist work here in our city, by getting to know and partnering with people of other religions in Interfaith, just to name a few.
The story of Jesus and the woman ends in a powerful way–with the healing of her daughter. All because of the woman’s persistent faith and her interaction with a teacher who was reminded that God’s reach of love has no limits.