Ordinary 20A; Proper 15
Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Emotions reverberate through both the Old and New Testament readings for this week.
“Joseph could no longer control himself.” Or, “he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” The Canaanite woman shouts, croaks, squawks and cries out in desperation. The disciples are irritated, anxious to have her sent away. Jesus appears indifferent at best, uncaring at worst. We’ve got grief, anger, relief, frustration, love, fear – the roiling gamut of human feelings are woven into these stories, and I find this messy display a relief. No earthy response to life’s circumstances is considered unclean or unwelcome in the realm of the holy. God utilizes our whole selves, our whole lives, all our complex feelings and relationships to make manifest divine truth and will. Alleluia.
Further, even Jesus has compassion fatigue, capitulates to cultural stereotypes and must be prodded into a transformation of the heart. Is this reality reassuring or jarring? For some, the idea that Jesus changes his mind is heresy. Jesus is God, all knowing. Jesus is sinless. Jesus is, well, Jesus! But here in this story, Jesus comes across as not just unresponsive, but dismissive of a woman with a real and present need. Jesus appears tired in this text. He’s hit the wall. He’s running on fumes. He’s got nothing, at least not for this Gentile woman and her tormented daughter. How can this be? He is Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, divine, Jesus!
But he’s fully human too, remember? Without sin, but fully human, and being fully human encompasses grief, frustration, desperation, fatigue, love, compassion and indifference. And I find this messy display of Jesus’ complex discernment a relief. If Jesus has these feelings they are not only allowed, but sanctified and holy. It is also a relief to know that our circumstances today, no matter how dire or seemingly intractable, are not destined to be our circumstances forever. God is, after all, always doing a new thing, and Jesus in this story proves that truth.
The temptation when reading this story is to skip to the end of the book, so to speak. We all know that Gentiles are engrafted into the tree, adopted into the family, made heirs of the kingdom, included in the covenant. For God so loved the world, right? And let’s not forget that promise to Abraham that all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. All. But what if we didn’t know what came before these verses and what comes after? What if this was the one fragment of the gospel available to us – how would we read it then?
Our understanding of Jesus would be different. We wouldn’t know he’d walked on water, calmed the storm, fed thousands and healed many more. We would, based on this one pericope, learn that Jesus was sent to gather up the lost sheep of Israel. (It is good to have a clear, well- defined mission. That’s what all the business books say.) We would learn that he’s clear about his boundaries. (That’s a mantra we hear a lot too.) We would discover that Jesus’ mission is so important that he will risk being popular and disliked for the sake of it. (That’s the price of leadership.) We would also learn that the Lord, the Son of David, the one who has the power to heal, also has the capacity to be moved by the plight and plea of those on the margins of the margins. If a Canaanite woman, a double outsider with no power other than tenacity and persistence, can expand the vision for Jesus’ mission, then our prayers and groans, shouts and screams aren’t in vain.
God is always doing a new thing and, grace upon grace, sometimes our heart-felt cries for help and justice shape and influence that new thing God is doing. Sometimes our horrendous, jealous impulses are co-opted for God’s life-giving purposes. Always the love for our fathers and our daughters and our brothers is inexplicably wrapped up in God’s love for the whole wide world. What’s that quote from Mother Teresa? “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
God worked on behalf of all the nations through Joseph’s love for the brothers who betrayed him and the father who never forgotten him. Jesus’ expanded mission to the Gentiles got a kick-start through the Canaanite woman’s relentless love for her daughter. Who knows? Maybe right now through your love of your family and chosen family of friends, God is reaching out in love to the entire human family. Therefore, don’t be afraid to kiss and weep, screech and beg, show some righteous anger. You can count on being tired and frustrated, you may be tempted to run away or send others away, know you will endure ridicule and must swallow your pride, but never imagine that Jesus won’t be moved, even if his disciples aren’t, by your pleas on behalf of those who are hurting.
I am convinced that God uses our raw emotions, our deepest ties, our unquenchable passion for those we love, to create new and strong bonds with others, especially those on the margins of the margins. Why? Because God promised Abraham and the prophets and Jesus was sent to save the world and we are told to go to all nations and to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That’s a huge mission, clear, well defined, unbounded, but nothing is impossible for God.
I have a friend whose nephew has autism. When he was very young there were few services and little support for him and his family. Motivated by love for this little boy, his mother refused for him to go without appropriate education, therapy and care. She and another mother of a son with autism started the Project Hope Foundation to provide lifespan services for children and families in their community facing an autism diagnosis. That was 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, they have impacted thousands. Their relentless love for their own children, their drive to help their own sons, lead to an exponential growth in compassion and care for countless other children and their families. How many times have you heard similar stories? God uses our gut-churning desires to help those we love – even if we can only do it in their memories, after they are gone – to help all those whom God loves.
Our cries for crumbs for those we cherish do not go unheard or unheeded by God. Blessed, broken and shared, those holy leftovers nourish thousands across time and space. In the eating of that bread, eyes are opened and we recognize not just Jesus, but the humanity of those who for far too long haven’t had a seat at the table or enough to eat. Grace upon grace, God is always doing a new thing, and sometimes we are given the gift of shaping, influencing, growing that divine, holy, boundary-exploding thing. No matter how difficult, debilitating, long-standing or painful current circumstances may be, they aren’t for nothing, they aren’t forever, they aren’t irredeemable. A new holy thing is coming and it’s OK to get emotional, to shout or whoop or even scream about it.
- Do you notice the ties to the feeding of the 5,000 that came a chapter before this story in Matthew? What are those ties and how do they enrich your understanding of both texts?
- What is the role of the disciples in this week’s Gospel lesson? Compare Matthew’s version of this story to Mark’s (Mark 7:24-30). What is the significance of the differences between the two versions of this story?
- Does it bother you that Jesus appears to change his mind? Are you troubled by his indifference to the woman’s pleas? What other texts show this less than warm and fuzzy side of Jesus and why are they important in Jesus’ mission?
- What is it about the woman’s third statement that motivates Jesus’ proclamation of her faith and his willingness to heal her daughter? Why weren’t the first two pleas enough?
- Family ties are important in both the Genesis and Matthew texts appointed for this week. How do you see God working through families in other biblical stories? In historic or contemporary families? In your own?
- Both the Genesis and Matthew texts lend themselves well to the practice of lectio divina. As part of your devotions this week use lectio divina with each of them.
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