8/20/17: Where Are the Borders to the Kingdom? Matthew 15-21-28
Where Are the Borders to the Kingdom?
Second in the Series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Isaiah 56:1-8
Second Lesson: Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Scott Dickison
Last week, Jesus and the disciples were out on familiar, if not troubled waters, crossing over the Sea of Galilee and finding themselves in the midst of a storm. Now we’re told that they make a turn. They leave “that place,” their home country, and make their way to the districts of Tyre and Sidon—port cities to the North. And I’m going to be drawing heavily here from Anna Case-Winter’s really fantastic commentary on this passage.
Now, geographically speaking, Jesus and the disciples weren’t traveling a great distance; just a few days journey. But in other ways: socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually, they were going worlds away. You see, these were Gentile territories. Jews didn’t live there and didn’t often even go there. And this turn in direction is doubly odd because just a few chapters before Jesus had instructed his disciples “go nowhere among the Gentiles.” At least until this point, Jesus has had a ministry solely among the Jews. And yet now Jesus finds himself out on the border—and all borders are more than just geography. They always have deeper meaning. All borders are symbolic before they’re physical. They’re always a little risky, a little dangerous, even. You don’t know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see, what you’ll do—lines are only crossed at the border. And it’s no different here.
Mark tells a version of this story, too, but refers to this woman as a Syrophoenician woman, also a Gentile. But Matthew pushes the envelope a bit further and says she's not just any Gentile, but a Canaanite. The Bible portrays the Canaanites as Israel’s oldest enemy ever since Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land and drove them all out. Scripture declares that they’re an accursed people—“destined for slavery,” it says in Genesis. So you get a sense of the setting of this story. Quite simply, Jesus and this Canaanite woman should not come in contact with each other—and not simply because she’s a Canaanite, butalso because she’s a woman! Women in 1st century Jewish culture, whether Jew or non-Jew were expected to be invisible. It would have been unheard of for a woman to approach a Jewish man, especially a very religious one, frankly, unless she was a prostitute. Jesus has probably crossed a line in even being in an area in which this woman could approach him, but this woman has without question crossed a very well-known and steadfast line in approaching Jesus. And notice that she didn’t just humbly approach him, she came up to him—actually it says she “came out” to him, and shouted to him, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon!
Did you know this woman is the first woman in the Gospel of Matthew to speak? Which means, canonically, at least, she’s the first woman to speak in the entire New Testament. Her’s is the first female voice we hear: this foreign woman, crossing a line, multiple lines even, taking a risk on behalf of her daughter, seeking healing by whatever means necessary. Knowing, it seems, that this is the Jewish Messiah she’s talking to, and that she is very much on the outside here, not expecting him to give her the time of day, but going out on a limb on the off hand chance that Jesus might heal her daughter too—that she, too, might have a “share in the God’s blessing.” And we’re told that Jesus, the Christ, God’s perfect love, perfectly revealed among us, Jesus “did not answer her at all.” He didn’t answer her.
His disciples do what they always seem to do when someone approaches Jesus that they feel are unworthy of his time, like a child, or someone who overstays their welcome, like the crowds that had followed them out into the wilderness and needed something to eat: they tell her to get lost. And this is a good reminder for us, that as long as there has been a church, those who understand themselves to be closest to Jesus have had the tendency to see themselves not as Jesus’ followers, but as Jesus’ gatekeepers. The ones there to protect Jesus from the riffraff, the troublesome, the annoying, the different. Fred Craddock has said there are at least two impulses that we so often find in institutions, and maybe churches in particular. The first is the impulse to throw the doors wide open: Yes, of course, come, be with us: live, love, serve with us—yes, of course—come. And the other impulse is what he calls “quality control.” Now wait a minute. We have standards to uphold. We have history and tradition and policies. This isn’t anything goes. Send her away, they urged him, she keeps shouting after us.
At this, Jesus finally responds to her, but his response is not what we would want or expect. He doesn’t offer her generous welcome, as he would later give the children that run up to him. He wouldn’t take her in his arms and say, the Kingdom of God belongs to you! No, he instead gives her an explanation for why she is not welcome.
I didn’t come for you, he tells her.
I didn’t come for you, I came for my own people, for the people of Israel.
The people who look like me, who talk like me, who dress and eat and live like me. I didn’t come for you.
And I think we need to slow the story down here and let this sink in. To try and put ourselves there in this woman’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like to be told by Jesus, I didn’t come for you. And then let’s imagine what strength it would have taken this woman to look back at him and say, Lord, help me.
I’m not sure I could have done it. I’m not sure I would have done it. I probably would have said, Well, if that's how it is. Thanks anyway, but I’ll just make it on my own. I would have found another faith, or in all honesty, been content to live a life of no faith— plenty of people live lives of purpose and meaning and happiness outside the church. Jesus doesn’t want me, well why should I want Jesus? Who would want faith in a God who doesn’t want them?
This is hard for us to hear, Jesus saying these things. And it gets worse. It isn’t fair, he tells her as if this would somehow make it better, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
And this is where we get into some dicey territory—territory far dicier than the region of Tyre and Sidon. I’m talking about the territory of what we hold as sacred about Jesus. Because here it seems as if Jesus says something to this woman who’s only seeking help for her sick daughter, that’s at best insensitive and at worst outright offensive.
And interpreters have struggled to massage these words from Jesus and say that he was either making a
playful or witty joke about giving food to the family pet. Or that he was just “baiting” her, in a way—he knew he was going to help her but just wanted to string it out a little bit to make a point for the disciples—even as I say these things to you they feel like a stretch. Let’s just be honest with ourselves here, and trust that Jesus can take it. At the very least, Jesus seems to be making a jab comparing her and her ethnic group as “dogs,” and at worst, it’s possible he was even employing a common racial slur. In those days, “Gentile dog” was a common epithet.
Now, in a sense, this story does give us a possible way of understanding what the church confesses to be true, which is that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. This seems to be one of those especially human moments. Now, historically the church has taken this to mean that while Jesus was fully human, living a human life, even dying a human death, he did so “without sin.” This comes from the writings of Paul in 2 Corinthians where he describes the cross by saying, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [meaning Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul claimed Jesus was without sin and the church has historically made this claim, but it’s interesting, the Gospels never say this. They never say Jesus never did anything wrong. Never made a mistake or did something he would later regret. They don’t say this.
And I’ve got to tell you, there’s a part of me that finds the idea that Jesus could have fallen short—even just once—very powerful. I suppose there’s something comfortable in the idea that Jesus lived a completely blameless life, but when I think of my own life, and how much of it is spent dealing with things like regret, things like shame, how much time I spend rerunning situations and conversations over and over in my head, hoping they’ll some how turn out different—when I think of this, I wonder if Jesus could really be the savior I need him to be, if he could really know me how I want him to know me, if he could really understand me the way I need him to understand me, if he never felt that pit in his stomach or knew what it meant to want so desperately to take something back. Of all the times I’ve read this story, I never wondered until I read it this week whether or not the disciples laughed when he said it. And I wondered if that’s when he knew.
Or was it when this remarkable woman, her face burning after having endured this treatment, says back to him, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall to them.
What faith. What faith.
So empowered, so courageous, so disarming, and Jesus sees it immediately. He sees it immediately and says, How great is your faith. Let it be as you asked.
Depending on how you look at it, it’s either comforting or disheartening to know that we’re still dealing with some of the same things that Jesus dealt with. That we’re still dealing with the borders we live within, how we separate each other in as many ways as is possible, and debate whose side of the border God is on. We so clearly still fail terribly at this, as a people. As the church. And so perhaps the Good News of this story, is that Jesus models for us the transformation we all want to believe is possible: in ourselves and in others.
Jesus seems to be modeling here that people can change. They can learn and can grow—there’s a part of me that so wants to believe that Jesus might have still been learning here. That he was still learning, as we are, just how far the love of God reaches. That he was still learning about the lengths he would be asked to go to show it—that he came for the whole world and not just part of it, and how beautiful that sounds when you say it but how difficult it is to put into practice.
It’s so difficult, that even Jesus had to have it shown to him, painfully, powerfully. It helps me to believe that Jesus, too, was still learning that the borders as we know them weren’t put there by God—no matter how old they are or how natural they seem to be. It seems to shock even Jesus that so much of what he came to do was show just how much these borders need to be moved.
Jesus meets this woman out there on the border, the border of his land and her land, of male and female, of Jew and Gentile, between the old ways, and God's way. And it’s out there on the border, which turns out to be nothing other than the border of the Kingdom of God, that transformation happens. In that moment of regret that becomes a moment of compassion, the border disappears. It disappears so fast, it’s almost as if it wasn’t ever really there in the first place. Amen.
 Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, from the Belief commentary series, 200-203
 Ibid, 200
 Ibid, 201
 Ibid, 201
 Ibid, 202
 Ibid, 202