By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.