If Jesus Can Change His Mind...
Matthew 15:21-31, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, August 17, 2014
There aren’t many stories in the gospels that make Jesus look bad, but this is one—arguably the only one. Because good boys and girls have learned in Sunday School that Jesus can never be wrong, when they grow up they make up explanations of why Jesus can’t be saying what it seems that he is saying to this foreign woman. He can’t be telling her that his mission is only for Jews. He can’t be calling her a dog.
But none of this is really a problem if we assume that Jesus was fully human. If Jesus was as much a human being as he was a revealing of God, then of course he learned things as he went along. He even learned about his own mission and purpose. He got stretched by people who came into his life. And here’s the scary thing about this story—not the idea that Jesus didn’t always know everything, but the idea that if Jesus can change his mind about who he supposed to care about, then maybe we can too. If Jesus needed to listen to an outsider to have his sense of his mission stretched, maybe we do too.
Matthew chapter 15 starts with Jesus arguing with the Pharisees about traditions versus what God really wants, and about how it’s not what you eat that defiles you but what you say. The Pharisees are offended. The disciples are confused. The next thing we know Jesus leaves that place and goes to the area of Tyre and Sidon, in what we know as southern Lebanon. Why did he go there? I think he needed a vacation. He’d had enough controversy for a while. He wanted to get away from religion, and go to a place where everybody didn’t know his name. He was ready to be off-duty for a while.
No such luck. The Jewish disciples of Jesus must have felt that this was a strange detour into Paganland. They had been taught not to eat with these people or go into their houses. What were they supposed to do here? They found out pretty quickly that they were supposed to do what they did back home. One of the local women comes up shouting at Jesus. Even in a foreign country, this woman knows who Jesus is. Yesterday a stranger walked into the Fellowship Hall to help a group that was borrowing the kitchen. I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Steve Hollaway, the pastor.” “Oh,” he chuckled, everybody knows who you are!” Jesus was already famous, even across the border. Everybody knew who he was.
Listen to what the woman says. “Have mercy on me, Lord,” or in Greek Kyrie eleison. She calls Jesus the Son of David, the King of Israel. And she says that her daughter is tormented by a demon. This is a mother’s desperation we see. I don’t doubt that there are some people oppressed by evil spirits, but I have noticed that in the gospels sometimes people they say have a demon apparently have epilepsy or schizophrenia. So this week, as we are still thinking about Robin Williams, maybe it’s worth thinking of this mother as shouting out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy! My daughter has a mental illness! There is no one who can help me but you.”
But Jesus didn’t answer her at all. He just kept walking. I’m off duty. This is not my turf. His disciples want him not just to ignore her, but to send her away, because the woman was continuing to follow them and shouting out for Jesus. Jesus does not send her away—and I wonder if that gives the woman hope—but he clarifies his mission to his disciples: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That might startle us, since almost all of us here are non-Jews, outside the house of Israel. What if that was really Jesus’ mission? We are barking up the wrong tree.
I don’t think that Matthew, the author of the gospel, thought Jesus came only for Jews. He’s laid a trail of clues. Among Jesus’ ancestors in his genealogy are three Gentile women, two of them “Canaanite.” The three magi are Gentiles coming to worship the child Jesus. A Roman centurion is said to have greater faith than Jesus has found in Israel. And of course Matthew concludes his gospel with the Great Commission to teach people of all ethnic groups. If that’s true, what can Matthew mean by reporting that Jesus limited his ministry—at first—to the house of Israel? I think we have to take the story at face value. Matthew is saying that Jesus changed his mind and came to a deeper understanding of the range of his ministry, just as the Jewish-Christian readers of the gospel needed to change their minds.
Even after Jesus says that his mission is limited to Israel, this foreign woman does not give up. She comes right up to Jesus and keeps bowing down before him as a king. She’s down on all fours in front of him. Jesus says—and I know you want to explain this away as some kind of clever use of a proverb, or testing the woman’s faith, but it sounds pretty bigoted to me—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. Jesus sees this poor woman on all fours and makes fun of her as a dog. My word and my healing power are intended for Jews, God’s children. I can’t waste any of it on you Gentile dogs. Dog was a pretty common slur to use toward Gentiles. Some scholars try to soften this by noting that Jesus uses a diminutive form of the word for dog, so it can be translated “puppies.” Does that make it better? “I’m not going to take food intended for humans and give it to you puppies.” I don’t think so. Besides, people didn’t think of dogs as pets in that culture. They weren’t seen as cute. Dogs were tolerated, but they were basically scavengers hanging around the edges of human society looking for food—even, as Jesus says elsewhere, licking sores and returning to their own vomit. It was not nice to call someone a dog.
But this woman, desperate for help for her daughter, is not going to let an insult turn away. This is too important. Her sense of pride has already gone out the window. But her sense of humor has not. “All right, Lord, so I’m a dog. Even a dog has the right to hang around the table and catch the scraps that fall from the plates of the children. That’s all I’m asking for: not equality, just the crumbs, just what the children do not want. I’m asking you to share with me a little of your power that your own people didn’t want.”
Let me read a new poem by Jan Richardson in the voice of this woman called “Stubborn Blessing” [http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/08/11/stubborn-blessing/#.U_AB4bwiiUE, line breaks removed]: Don’t tell me no. I have seen you feed the thousands, seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine, seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you and not one soul turned away. Don’t start with me. I am saying you can close the door but I will keep knocking. You can go silent but I will keep shouting. You can tighten the circle but I will trace a bigger one around you, around the life of my child who will tell you no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness. I am saying I know what you can do with crumbs and I am claiming mine, every morsel and scrap you have up your sleeve. Unclench your hand, your heart. Let the scraps fall like manna, like mercy for the life of my child, the life of the world. Don’t you tell me no.
In the face of this woman’s persistence, in the face of her belief in Jesus even when he told her no, Jesus says, “Woman, you have incredible faith! I’ll do what you want.” And, Matthew adds, her daughter was healed instantly. I don’t know how you read that to mean anything except that faced with the faith of a desperate Gentile woman, Jesus put the needs of the person in front of him ahead of his ideological convictions. Everything in his tradition has told him not to do this, not to help those outside the nation, not to mix with them or touch them. But this is Jesus’ Huck Finn moment, like the scene on the raft when Huck has written a letter turning in the runaway slave Jim as his traditional morality has told him to. Huck looks at Jim and thinks of him as a person and then says to himself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell!” Jesus has said that he is only to serve the house of Israel, but looking into the face of this woman and seeing her faith in him, he tears up that letter and says, in effect, “I don’t care what the Pharisees think. I don’t care what the disciples think. I care about this woman. If it’s sinful to show mercy, I’ll be sinful.”
Twice in Matthew Jesus has quoted his heavenly Father, the God of Israel, as saying “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and he told the Pharisees to go figure that out. Now this encounter with a pagan woman is teaching Jesus the meaning of his own teaching about mercy. Jesus was not just reminded of something, though. Jesus learned something. He changed his mind. He thought his ministry was limited to this kind of people, and he learned that his ministry included that kind of people.
Matthew makes a lot of changes in this story when he adapts it from Mark. The most significant, which I bet you overlooked, is that he calls this woman a Canaanite [See paper by Grant LeMarquand, “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus” http://www.tsm.edu/sites/default/files/Faculty%20Writings/LeMarquand%20-%20The%20Canaanite%20Conquest%20of%20Jesus.pdf]. Mark calls her a “Syro-Phoenician.” You know what? There weren’t any Canaanites in the first century. That’s an anachronistic term, like me calling my Danish friend Jan a Viking instead of a Dane. Yes, Canaanites once lived in that part of the land to the west of Galilee, but they were conquered almost two thousand years ago. The Canaanites weren’t just foreigners; they were the enemy of Israel. Like the Palestinians, they were the ones who had to be displaced to make room for the people of Israel in the land. So why would Matthew choose to call this woman a Canaanite?
One clue is in what she says. She says, “Lord, have mercy.” If you go back to Deuteronomy 7, you find the law laid out concerning the conquest of Canaan. It’s horrible stuff to us. The people understand Yahweh to be telling them to kill every man, woman, and child. He says, “Show them no mercy” (7:2). And now Jesus goes into Canaan (you remember that everyone would have called Jesus “Joshua,” named after the one who led the conquest of Canaan)—and he carried with him at first the sense that God’s purpose is for Israel and not this people. But instead of following the old way of showing no mercy, Jesus decides to show mercy. Or better put, Jesus discerns that it is the Father’s will that mercy be extended to those beyond his own ethnic group.
Right after this episode, Jesus feed the 4,000. You might wonder why there should be another feeding story one chapter after the feeding of the 5,000 (which Calli preached on two weeks ago). Well, this feeding takes place beside the Sea of Galilee, which is even today surrounded on one side by Jews and on the other side by Arabs. Matthew has already referred to the area as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” In verse 31, after Jesus heals people, Matthew says the crowd praises “the God of Israel.” Huh? Why wouldn’t he just say they praised God? Probably because these were people from outside of Israel, Gentiles. So then the feeding of the 4,000 becomes not an editorial mistake or duplicate of the 5,000 story, but a story about how Jesus fed a crowd of non-Jews, Canaanites, if you will. Right after the people praise the God of Israel, Jesus says, “I have compassion on the crowd.” I can’t guarantee that Jesus fed Gentiles here, but it fits with the story of the Canaanite woman as evidence that Jesus changed his mind and broadened his ministry.
We’re taking a world mission offering today, and perhaps it’s no accident that the lectionary gospel reading is about people of other nations. There are people in American churches who ask “Why should we spend money to help those people over there when we have so many people in need in America?” Maybe that’s the kind of question Jesus would have asked before he met the Canaanite woman, but a real encounter with a foreigner in need stretched his understanding of his personal mission. Some of us have had that kind of stretching experience this summer as we’ve gotten to know some of the international student workers and learned compassion for them.
I’d guess some of you are skeptical about world missions because like the Calvinists of the 18th century you feel that if God wanted those people to be Christians he could have accomplished that himself. The progressive version of that is to say that we have no right to teach the message and person of Jesus to people who already have another faith within their own culture. I understand that you are trying to be tolerant. But that sounds a lot like “our mission is limited to the house of Israel.” You’re saying that our Christian mission should be restricted to the sheep already in the church. Jesus learned better than that and commissioned us to teach all nations to obey what he taught us, not just to teach those who did not have their own religion—which would be virtually no one at all.
But I’ve been thinking more about the mission of our church here on the island—and your personal mission wherever you live. If even Jesus can learn that his sense of mission needs to be stretched, can’t we learn that too? Most churches understand their main mission to be ministry to church people. But whenever we step outside our own group, whenever we venture out into Tyre and Sidon, we encounter people who have needs. “My child has mental illness,” one says. “My employer is treating me badly,” another says. “I know I’m drinking too much,” another says. Or as someone said to me this week, “I’ve just got this empty spot right here in the middle of my self.”
We can’t say to those people “Just come to church at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday because that’s all we have.” Some will come to worship and find help. But God has been saying to us: “Invite people who would not come to worship to hear music and have conversation at a coffeehouse. Do something about the problems of the mentally ill and the stigma they are under, and use the church to provide services for them. Welcome all these foreigners here in the summer and give them a home base and a listening ear, and do something about the injustice they experience. Open my house to the Hispanics living among us, and find out what their needs are. Make friends with poets and pantheists and bridge players and gay people. Reach out to those dealing with addiction and do something to get the community to face the problem of substance abuse.” Some people will say, “That’s not our mission. Church is for worship and for taking care of one another; a few of us can study the Bible and pray for the others, and a few can take care of the building and raise money.” But that’s not what God is saying. God is saying, “You thought your mission was A, but it’s really A+B+C+D…there’s no telling where it will lead.” You can hear God if you just look at the people right in front of you and hear them crying out “Have mercy on me.”
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Block Island, RI 02807