Out of our comfort zone?
Tenth Sunday after Trinity Isaiah 56: 1. 6-9 Matthew 15:[10-20]. 21 – 28
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew makes for uncomfortable reading. If we don’t find it uncomfortable, we have missed the point. Where is the Jesus we know, Jesus who is healing the sick, sitting little children on his knee?; the Jesus we are confronted with is not very likeable; this Jesus seems to be ignoring a woman in desperate need; this Jesus is speaking about a woman in derogatory terms; this a Jesus who seems to take a racist attitude in his dealings with this woman, for she was a Gentile and a Canaanite. Where is the Jesus who has compassion and love for those who come to him in need?
The reaction from the disciples also makes for uncomfortable reading. Here we are confronted with disciples showing a distinct lack of compassion; disciples who think they are better than everyone else, disciples who are annoyed by the presence of others outside their group and display racist tendencies.
At this point it would be easier to write a sermon that explains away the discomfort we might be feeling, but I will try and unpack the account and hopefully we can learn from it.
Jesus knew that he was coming to the end of his public ministry. Verse 21 “Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon” where he would not be under any pressure to perform. This was Gentile territory - Bandit country, the disciples were probably feeling nervous being in strange surroundings. But Jesus and the disciples were not going to get the rest they needed, for “A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting” This was an uncomfortable situation. They are in a foreign region, and a woman comes after them, pleading for help. Not a Jew, but a Gentile. Not a man, but a woman, and no self-respecting woman would talk to a man the way she was talking to Jesus, let alone a Gentile woman who had the audacity to speak to a Jewish man before being spoken to. All the social rules broken and everyone probably feeling very uncomfortable.
What is Jesus’ response? Nothing – absolutely nothing. Verse 23: “But he did not answer her at all”.
How could Jesus appear so indifferent to the genuine anguish of this woman? I could try to come up with all sorts of theologies that justify Jesus response but the text doesn’t give any reason why Jesus said nothing. Then the disciples misunderstand the situation and they display annoyance at the woman. In verse 23 “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us’.” They didn’t want anything to do with this woman who was outside of their religion and outside of their little clique and it seems they assume that Jesus has the same opinion too. Jesus doesn’t help the situation when he replies “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. But Jesus is not agreeing with the disciples. If he had he would have done what they asked and sent the Gentile woman away. But he begins to talk with the woman in such a way that will encourage her to engage with him. The woman responds; “She came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’, she has no more words to say. We would like to read that Jesus responded with compassion and immediately granted her request.
But he doesn’t seem to do that. Instead, it seems like he humiliates her further in front of his disciples saying ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’.”
What on face value is a seemingly cruel response, it was humiliating, insinuated that she is no better than a dog searching for scraps from the table. This doesn’t appear to be Jesus at his most compassionate. But the woman is feisty and determined, she throws Jesus’ words right back at him. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’.” She is saying, surely there is enough to go round?
This story comes very soon after Jesus had fed the 5000 and Matthew doesn’t place the story here by accident. There is a clear message here about the abundance of God that transcends all racial boundaries and gender issues, there is more than enough to go round. When Jesus fed the 5000 there were 12 baskets of crumbs left over, this wouldn’t have been lost on the disciples whens the woman said that even the dogs, outsiders, can eat the crumbs. At last here is the Jesus we know as he responds: “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” I could end here and we would all be happy but there is also controversial teaching in this story. The woman had not come to faith in Jesus in the sense that she wanted to be his follower or that she was prepared to forsake her Gentile heritage and come within the boundaries of the Jewish religion. She asked Jesus to reach out into her cultural setting and heal her daughter. Jesus is challenged to reach out to a Gentile, enlarging the boundaries of his mission, to encompass the outsider. This is the radical message from this passage and gives us a sense of challenge today. in the Old Testament reading Isaiah has the same thread. Thus says the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
I would suggest there is a temptation for us to expect others to come and join us. We want new people in church, we want people to become Christians and we will offer the hand of friendship and welcome to them. But do we want them to join us and become one of us and to play by our rules? That is our challenge and if we look at the history of the Christian church we can see the pattern. You are welcome to join us, but here are the rules of belief, and the rules of behaviour. Sadly some churches have become like a club with membership rules and operate like a clique where people are expected to conform in order to belong. But that is the exact opposite of what Jesus is doing in this story.
In this story, Jesus reaches out and meets the woman in her culture. He doesn’t ask her to join the club. He doesn’t set any provisos for the welcome. He just accepts her as she is, shows compassion and grace, and allows her to continue in her own cultural way of being. Perhaps this is the mentality of a truly Mission-Shaped Church; rather than expecting others to join us exclusively on our terms, instead, we are prepared to learn from others and enlarge our own vision of mission and ministry as a result of engagement with others who are different from ourselves or have different expectations of what church should be. A Mission-Shaped Church is prepared to dismantle boundaries, to get rid of the idea of ‘Us and Them’, and proactively choose to learn from others with different ideas so that we can grow together as the people of God; with all our differences, with all our different expectations of God and Church. As someone said ‘people pray to many different Gods but only one God answers.’
I said at the beginning that this is an uncomfortable passage - It is uncomfortable because we see the arrogance of the disciples, an unexpected response from Jesus, and we are confronted with the idea that an ‘outsider’ should engage with Jesus to get an answer to her need. It is uncomfortable because we are confronted with the reality that we have a great deal to learn from those we might think are outsiders, and that, if we want to be truly Christlike we have to embrace ‘outsiders’ not so that they can become like us but so that we can learn about God from them.
It we want to be a Mission-Shaped Church we will need to be brave, to be willing to change and to grow in ways that we never thought possible before. Maybe we don’t want this at all, we want to stay in our comfort zone, to stay in our club, but this will spell the death knell for the church, we will slowly become more introvert and eventually die. The bottom line is there really is no alternative if we want to mirror the ministry of Christ, if we believe in the prayer we say so often ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.
This might have been an uncomfortable start but what an amazing finish.