The 11th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 15A (8/20/2017)

Lessons:
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67 (3)
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
St. Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Semicontinuous Series:
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133 (1)

Prayer of the Day:
God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Lesson:

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

St. Matthew 15:21-28. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Disturbing, Confusing Grace

This weekend’s Gospel lesson is arguably one of the most confusing stories we have about Jesus. At the same time, it makes one of the most profound affirmations of God’s grace that we find in the New Testament. It features a conversation between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. A strange aspect of this story is that by the first century there really are not people commonly referred to as Canaanites; they ceased to exist about 1,150 years before the birth of Jesus. They were indigenous people in the land once conquered by ancient Israel, who never had a presence in the lands were Jesus taught, preached and healed. Matthew seems to use this word, and the image of that long extinct people, as a depiction of one who has no place within the people of God.

So as the story begins, we know two things about this woman. First: she is not Jewish, and would have been excluded by the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples in the tenth chapter (“Go nowhere among the Gentiles…”). And second: her daughter is tormented by a demon, making her a pariah in her community. You could also make the case, as any parent knows, that when a child is tormented, the child’s parents are tormented as well.

So we have a woman here who would be considered an outcast and ritually unclean by any good, practicing Jewish believer in the first century. This is no surprise. Jesus bumped into many like her along the way. The surprise is that Jesus names this reality. In fact, at first he seems to support it: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” and, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” His response to her is offensive at almost every level.

Yet her response to him is as surprising as his is offensive. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And hearing this response, Jesus moves in an entirely new direction. He commends her faith. He frees her daughter from her bondage. He demonstrates a grace that will know no boundaries. Not even his own.

Clever arguments have been created over the centuries to explain Jesus’ first response, all of which attempt to excuse his behavior, and none of which, finally, are satisfying. We are left, perhaps along with this woman, to wonder about the change that takes place in Jesus that day. But we are also left, with this woman, to stand in awe at this display of power, healing and grace.

It is, indeed, one of the most confusing of all the stories we have about Jesus. Yet it invites us into the messy business of breaking down barriers we ourselves have created, and extending healing and grace to those formerly left outside. Lord knows, in our day there are ample opportunities for this faithful practice on international, national, and local scales.

Regardless our own convictions, perhaps we too, like Jesus, are challenged to explore just how committed we are to God’s grace  And just how far we are willing to go in our efforts to practice it.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why does Jesus first reject the Samaritan woman’s request that he heal her daughter?
  2. What is it about her response that seems so compelling?
  3. What must the disciples have thought when Jesus healed the daughter?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Who typically lies outside my own limits of love and compassion?
  2. When have I been challenged to expand my own boundaries?
  3. What does this story tell me about the nature of God?

The author would love to hear what you think about this post.