Aug. 16, 2020

Matthew 15:10-28


This gospel passage today is the subject of an ongoing dispute between preachers.  I experienced it again at my lectionary group on Tuesday mornings.  Half the group felt one way; the other half was summed up by a colleague who said, “Oh, I would never go there.”  He was referring to the argument that says that ultimately this story about a desperate Canaanite woman and her possessed child hinges upon and reveals Christ’s full humanity.  If he’s really human then he’s really subject to prejudices and character flaws, which means that even Jesus had some things to learn along the way.  The Good News here is that he did!  He learned!  He changed!  He modeled change for us so that we could muster the courage to do it too.  We can change our thinking and our acting; we can change ourselves, our church, our world.  Transformation (even salvation!) is possible, and that is Good News for everybody – ourselves and the world we seek to create.

The other side of this homiletical dispute is the side that says that the “incarnate Word of God,” the embodied expression of the Eternal One’s love and goodness, is not suddenly hampered by prejudice, cruelty, and small thinking.  Nowhere else in the gospels is his full humanity expressed this way.  Something else has to be happening here.

In the past I’ve argued that the first part of the gospel passage and the second are related in this way: In the first part Jesus suggests that you can follow the law, follow all of the rules, and still be heartless, hurtful, and defiled.  In the second part, he shows it.  Peter asks him to explain what he means and instead Jesus shows him.  He shows him the cruelty of the expected, accepted way, that would have him treat the Canaanite woman as he’s done, and then in contrast he proclaims the way of God: “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Christ’s initial words to the woman show what defilement looks like.  His final words show God’s alternative of grace, which ignores the limitations and boundaries that the ways of his culture would have him impose.

In reading up on this disputed passage I came across the following little reflection, which I really like because it is short, to the point, and in a refreshing move – because honestly who needs another thing to argue about right now – he doesn’t even try to resolve the issue.  Here’s what a Lutheran colleague writes, “Interruptions happen. How many times do our plans for the day never work out? Some days we can’t even look at our list of things to do because we are pulled in a different direction, or two, or five. But Jesus’ harsh response to the Canaanite woman seems unkind. Jesus here does not sound like the Prince of Peace. It is disturbing that Jesus sounds like me when I am frustrated with an interruption.

What are we to do with this Jesus story? Here are three thoughts. Look to the Canaanite woman as an example of persistence when asking what you need. Give thanks that Jesus is interruptible. Praise God the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed.”[1]

The woman’s persistence is what stood out for me too this time around with the passage.  Sometimes I think that people of faith need reminders like the one she’s given us.  Certainly, I do.  We want God; we want religious experiences; we want assurances of the beautiful “more” of which we are a part, but do we really avail ourselves to these things?  Do we worship with intent and humility?  Are we serious about finding God through a shared community of Christian practice?  Do we invest in our prayer lives?  Honestly, and I hope you won’t hold this confession against me, there are times when I’ve invested more in my golf swing, which is doubly stupid because I’m not even sure God can help me with that.  But, be honest with yourself: how invested are you in finding God (or in being found by God)?  How do you invest?

The Canaanite woman’s persistence is expressed beautifully in this poem I came across by Jan Richardson.  In “Stubborn Blessing” she writes,


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.[2]


That’s some determination and some spunk.  She knows the good things God has to offer.  She knows God’s promises, and she’s not about to miss out.

Good thing for her, and good thing for us all, Jesus is interruptible, which means that’s exactly how God is – interruptible for each of us and interruptible for all.  God’s availability is not limited by the limits we might impose for ourselves or for others, which is Good News to us all, but also a challenge for us to be interruptible as well.  When the cries of our neighbors tell us how uninvited to the table they have felt, we have to ask, are we willing to be interrupted?  Are we willing to be a part of God’s response?

And finally, keeping to the thoughts of our Lutheran friend, we can “praise God that the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed.”  Praise God that God is to be found.  Praise God that healing happens (often in unexpected and surprising ways – but it does happen.)  Praise God that God acts, that we are not on our own, that the ministry that we are a part of is ultimately the ministry of a living God.