Summit Presbyterian Church
August 20, 2017
Matthew 15: 21-31
Going Beyond the Assignment
“I was wrong.” You may have seen this headline in the Washington Post or the New York Times this week, quoting an opinion editor of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, student newspaper. Sophomore Brendan Novak had written a column before the rally that defended the decision of the City Council to grant a permit for the “alt-right” demonstration. He argued that it was both unconstitutional and immoral to withhold permits based on a value judgement on the message of a demonstration. He said it was better to let the demonstrators speak. They would lose in the marketplace of ideas and others could “watch as the rotting ideological foundation collapses under its own weight.”
After the rally, he wrote another column. In this column he argued that he had been naive, even foolish: that from the beginning the demonstrators had made clear their intention to harass and intimidate. They were - in his words — “brazen terrorists,” - and therefore didn’t qualify as a peaceful assembly or protected speech under the First Amendment. Now we could discuss, even argue, about when Novak was right or wrong (I like the second column but maybe that’s hindsight). We may have different ideas about how it all should have been handled. But I’m guessing we could agree with something else Novak told the Post: that “he hopes his piece will show students on campus, and readers beyond, that it’s okay to allow new information and circumstances to shape or alter existing beliefs.” (Washington Post, Samantha Schmidt, August 16, 2017).
That may have been a divine intention, or an intention of Matthew’s, in our scripture this morning. Jesus changes his mind after an encounter with a Canaanite woman. He had thought he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so he was silent when she asked for mercy, and told him her daughter was possessed by a demon. But when she asked again, and then outwitted him, or charmed him, or enlightened him in their exchange about dogs under the children’s table, Jesus came to a new understanding of his assignment. It wasn’t only to the house of Israel but was also to the Canaanites, or at least to this woman and her daughter. God desired their salvation and healing as well.
Now we must allow the encounter is disturbing. Jesus gave her the silent treatment when she first approached him, adding insult to injury. He then compares Canaanites to dogs. Now we love dogs and may consider that a compliment, but the woman wouldn’t have heard it that way. And although Jesus does change his mind, he never apologizes, or says, “I was wrong.” He misses an opportunity to make a ringing statement about the love of God for all peoples. But in his defense — as though Jesus needs me to defend him — he also doesn’t mansplain. He doesn’t rabbisplain. He doesn’t even Messiahsplain. He acknowledges her great faith, and then cedes the floor to her: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
So in Jesus we have a human as well as divine model for changing our minds, for perceiving things differently with new information, for deepening our understanding of God’s call. But he’s not the only model in our scripture. This story is also told in memory of her. She models faith in the divine love for all people, in God’s desire that all people be healed and saved. She models persistence in face of opposition from her betters - including those rather arrogant disciples. She insists that Canaanite lives matter. That girls lives matter. That her life matters. And she models courage in her willingness to push back against the Son of David. Gently, politely, on his terms - but push back nevertheless. She risked shame and derision for the sake of her daughter and for the sake of love.
A few weeks ago, when we read the parable about the man who sold everything for a pearl of great price, a parable about the Kingdom of God, I invited you to share what you longed for, what you would give anything for. People shared many wonderful things. One of the themes was a longing for truth, for clarity about what it means to be a Christian - given the different views among us - and for the ability to truly listen and be open to those who disagree, while holding on to what’s right with passion and conviction. A longing to be like Jesus in our story— listening, open to change — while also being like the Canaanite woman, great in faith, courage and persistence in speaking truth.
The need for both was clear this week. It was clear that we needed to speak truth and name the evil of Nazism and other expressions of white supremacy. The need was clear to point out that because Black lives matter, because all lives matter, statues honoring the confederacy have no place in public parks and town centers (that’s my opinion!) But it was also clear that listening and learning is also needed. Not necessarily to change sides or even change minds - although sometimes we need to do a 180 - but to better understand our call, our world, one another. Jesus didn’t change sides after listening to the Canaanite woman. Hi didn’t lose his identity as the Son of David. He still ministered to the lost sheep of Israel. But he grew in compassion for others and in the understanding of his mission.
As followers of Jesus, we, too, always need to grow in compassion and understanding of our mission. We need to study the teachings of Jesus and the Prophets, to ponder what it means to care for the least of these, to proclaim liberty to the captives and good news to the poor, while binding up the broken-hearted. We also need to learn our history, not just revise it to our liking. We need to develop an understanding of systemic racism that goes beyond identifying young men who carry Tikki torches, and our president, as the problem. Marching, writing and calling our leaders are absolutely necessary. But they aren’t the only necessary things. At the POWER led rally on Wednesday night, leader Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, speaking primarily to white people, said enough of being shocked and performative moral outrage. Start having those difficult conversations with your friends and neighbors and family. Conversations that will require us to listen and maybe change our hearts and minds, even as we speak truth firmly and persistently. Conversations that could lead to change.
Matthew says that after Jesus left that place, he went along the sea of Galilee and then up to a high mountain. He said that crowds followed him their, bringing those who were lame, blind and maimed, and placed them at his feet. He says that Jesus healed many people, possibly including Canaanites or Romans, as Matthew does not say where the crowd came from. And as the mute spoke and the hurt were made whole, they praised the God of Israel. After the crowd had been with him three days, Jesus again fed thousands with seven loaves and a few fish, after which the disciples gathered seven baskets of left-overs. As we study, speak, act and above all pray, this is the hope to keep before us: a world where all are healed; a world where all have enough to eat; a world where every person is recognized as a child of God and a full member of the beloved community. Please join me in prayer: