Thursday, August 11, 2005

Compassion for the outsider

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:22-28, NIV)

By a fluke of blessing, I'll be preaching on this text in a little church in Danforth, IL this weekend. (You can start prayin' for 'em now...) It's a challenging text, as it reads. In the past, I've heard so few satisfactory explanations of Jesus' reactions, but I've got an idea...

In the passage immediately before this, Jesus is talking about the fact that food and dietary purity (something the Jews were really good at) wasn't going to make them pure. Then this woman comes and says, "Help me!"

Frankly, I don't like the explanations of this text that says Jesus was teasing or jesting with the woman, nor do I like the image of God-with-us saying, "Hey, here's a little test - a little hoop to jump through. Let's see if you can convince me before I save your daughter." That just doesn't sit well with my understandings of Christ as sacrifice to the whole world.

I'd suggest that Jesus believed that the Jews needed to get this message more than anyone else. After all, in those days they relied so heavily on this kind of works righteousness, even though the practical upshot of their actions was to cause all kinds of hurt in Yahweh's name. The story of the Bible in the "first testament" is the story of God's relationship with the people of Israel - so why wouldn't Jesus be sent to them, first? How would miracles for an outsider advance his case with the Jews?

I can easily fall in love with the idea of God-with-us that can be spoken with, and pleaded with, and a Savior whose eternal mind can be changed. Once again, Jesus breaks every social barrier - Jew speaking to Canaanite, rabbi/teacher speaking to (and listening to) a woman, the One with power acting to benefit one without any power at all. The example that God-come-to-earth gives us is breaking comfort-zones and trampling social barriers to share love and compassion with those with whom the "church society" of the day would not even bother themselves.

Who are the groups that today's church would shun, and not want to serve, in this day and age? To whom would the disciples of this age say, "Send them away?" Who are the Canaanites among us today who need miracles of compassion? I'd be interested to hear your lists...

God of power and love, let the church that claims to follow your Son stop deciding who is going to Hell in Your name, and let them reach across every social and moral barrier to share Your kingdom here on earth. Amen.


Coastal Confusion said...

For me, the coolest thing about this passage is that, at least on the surface, Jesus is kinda being a jerk. I mean, who'd a-thunk Jesus would pull that elitist crap, right?

But she fights for her right to be considered worthy. She gets right back up in his face.

As much as the passage teaches us that we're not to exclude, it teaches us that we're not to put up with being excluded.

Deanne said...

I really think...if my mind doesn't fail me...that I've recently read some comments on this passage. Let me dig through some stuff at home. I do know that the comments I read gave an interesting explanation (although I can't remember the details!) that did not involve Jesus being a jerk or playing hard-to-get. ;-)

Michael said...

Who do the churches want to shun? Don't get me started...
Abortion advocates
Euthanasia advocates
Gays, lesians, transgendered, bisexuals and any of their offspring, natural or adopted
Unwed mothers (except to preach to them about abortion)

You get the idea...

As for Jesus being a jerk -- well, is being a jerk a sin? Scripture says he was like us in all things but that.

Coastal Confusion said...

Um, I said "on the surface" - his behavior is startling - Jesus never rejected anyone.

There's a lesson there.

I mean, this woman had heard about him and, knowing she's on the B-list (or C-list, or D-list, or whatever) she approaches him anyway and holds him to the message he's been preaching. That's an awesome thing.

I'm not saying Jesus wouldn't have healed her daugher had she not pulled the not-so-fast-dude routine. But he wanted people to see what radical faith in the face of all opposition could accomplish.

For all that everyone goes on about how radical Jesus was for his time, think about how much more radical it was to follow him - these people (especially the women) risked their lives, risked abandonment by their families, risked everything on sheer faith - on a tiny little seed of recognition of the truth in their hearts - and they did it without the guarantee that they'd be resurrected on the third day or that they'd shoot straight up to the right hand of God after their deaths.

Jesus didn't come here to show us how radical he could be - of course he could be radical - he has the ultimate safety net.

He came here to show us how radical we need to be.

Dale said...

Damien's list covers it pretty clear. Maybe the queston should be: Who dosn't the church shun? I think that is the smaller list.

Michael said...

The late Kenneth Untner, Catholic bishop of Saginaw, once said that the church avoiding sinners (or even the different) was like Weight Watchers turning away the obese because it would make WW look bad. The churches shun those who are other when Jesus was by the incarnation the very end of OTHERNESS. Far from going out to the highways and byways to bring the formerly uninvited into the feast, we Christians too often place outselves as guards at the door -- not even letting in the invited unless we like the way they look. We are religious versions of those bulky bouncers at the clubs, deciding who is good enough to make the cut and get into the party.

Not so much what God has in mind, I'm thinking.

hazelorbs said...

i've found that the church tends to exclude those who need "church" the most. the wounded, the hurting, the smelly, the poor, the weak, the disabled and so on. i'm a pastor's daughter and even i have faced the firing range for things in my life...because i didn't "measure up" to the "perfection" the church expected of me. especially being who i am. instead, the church battered me and my family. and i've seen it numerous times...the battering of those who are already wounded. those who are outcast should feel welcome and loved by a church, not rejected and judged. it's sad that jesus' love has become a "righteous judge" of who is worthy or not worthy to walk His hallowed halls.

Poor Mad Peter said...

This one of several passages in the Bible that startle (hopefully) the readers (us). My take is that Jesus didn't emerge from the womb ready to start his ministry, but rather grew in his ministry, evolved his thinking, learned, made mistakes and changed. This passage represents one of his times of growth and learning. I can almost see the enlightenment dawning in his face as he speaks with the woman.

But even more startling, if you want to have a look at it, is the entire book of Ruth. A non-Israelite woman displays incredible loyalty and courage and winds up becoming a heroine of Israel and progenitrice of some very important people.

Don't forget Job, the man who challenged God. That one sticks out in the Bible like a sore thumb.

I love the idea that even our canon isn't a straight-line purist account of God's work, but like the humans who wrote it, a meandering, mistake-making, messy account of humans struggling to understand the immensity of God.

I think these humans struggled with some of these passages, and to their credit, included them anyway in the canon when it was fixed at around 100 BCE (Hebrew Bible) and 200 CE (Greek Testament).

Keith Brenton said...

Jesus had the advantage on us ... He could know that woman's thoughts before she said anything, could he not? (Matthew 9:4; 12:25; Luke 9:47; 11:17) And could know that her desperation was real and her courage was great ... greater, perhaps, than that of the folks who thought "cleanliness is next to godliness" meant washing their hands before they eat. He also knew they needed to see what cleanliness of heart and humility meant, and this woman would be willing to show them.