SERMON NOTES — August 16, 2020
What is Jesus thinking??!
- Women of color are saying this week, “I feel seen. I feel heard.” This is their reaction to the news of Kamala Harris be chosen to run for Vice President. In these days of Black Lives Matter, can we begin to understand this reaction? How people of color often feel invisible. That their lives are valued less, so people don’t see them or hear them as much as those in power.
- This is very similar to the experience of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel Reading. She is desperate to help her sick daughter, but she knows it’s going to be difficult as a marginalized person to be seen and heard. Along comes this Jewish rabbi with a reputation as a healer. Dare she speak up and say something? Dare she cross those invisible boundaries that keep her in place as someone of an oppressed ethnicity and gender? For the sake of her daughter she does dare. She is desperate with a mother’s love to plead for help.
- But the encounter begins just as might be expected, given the divisions between Jew and Gentile. This Jewish rabbi ignores her. He seemingly pretends that she is invisible to him. His disciples finally react and ask this rabbi to send her away. In his answer to his disciples, he predictably mentions the ethnic barrier — that he was sent for the sake of his own Jewish people.
- The Canaanite woman persists, however, in her ask. This time he doesn’t ignore her. He insults her, insinuating that she’s a dog! Her life is of lesser value! Wow, she hadn’t necessarily thought it would come down to even enduring insults! But her daughter is sick. She persists again, still kneeling before him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
- Now, at last, comes the unexpected: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly. She at last has been seen and heard! She has prevailed!
- But what do we, this rabbi’s disciples, make of this encounter? Why did Jesus behave in such a callous and insulting manner, demeaning and devaluing this desperate woman’s life? Even if it was the predictable response for an encounter across ethnic and gender boundaries? And then what do we make of his sudden about-face? Was he converted? Just what was Jesus thinking??!
- I propose that this baffling, troubling encounter is an acted-out parable. Last month we had the spoken parables about wheat and weeds, mustard seed and yeast, nets and pearls of great price. Jesus taught the crowds and his disciples through stories and metaphors designed to subvert normal thinking. Since Matthew 13, though, I think what we’ve had are acted-out parables, a mixture of spontaneous encounter and staged drama — keeping in mind that with Jesus’s insight into human behavior, he can anticipate what might seem spontaneous.
- Two weeks ago: the acted-out parable of feeding people in the desert — reminiscent of Moses delivering manna and quail — teaching them to trust in abundance rather than fearing scarcity.
- Last week: walking on the water as acting out the people of Israel walking through perilous waters — once with Moses through the Red Sea and then again with Joshua through the River Jordan into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. The second one is especially important for this week since this acted-out parable begins with a Canaanite woman.
- In the verses in between last week and this week, Jesus has an encounter with the Pharisees — the ‘white male’ people in power of his day — the opposite of this devalued Canaanite woman. Jesus insults the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites; the disciples voice concern that he offended them. But this also sets up Jesus the next story in which Jesus again insults someone, this Canaanite woman. In short, Jesus insults the folks in power and, sure enough, they react with offense. He then insults a marginalized foreign woman and she responds with “great faith.” Is this a parabolic teaching moment? Who are the disciples supposed to model?
The Acted-Out Parable of Joshua (Jesus) Conquering Canaan — in Mercy
- But I think there’s an even deeper lesson here for Jesus’s disciples, as he parabolically acts out what the other Joshua did more than a thousand years before. (Key note about names: Joshua is an English rendering of a Hebrew name. Jesus is an English rendering of the Greek rendering of the same Hebrew name! In other words, Jesus and Joshua are the same name in Hebrew.)
- Here were the ‘marching orders’ that the first Joshua carried out bringing the people of Israel through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land of Canaan: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you — the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you — and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (Deut. 7:1-2) In short, God commanded them to carry out a genocide. Is that who God is?
- I believe that Matthew 15 is an acted-out parable that is basically a redo of Joshua (Jesus) ‘conquering’ Canaan — but this time showing who God truly is: a God of great mercy.
- Clue #1: Matthew changes the correct designation of the woman’s ethnicity from “Syro-Phoenician” (Mark 7:26) to “Canaanite” (Matt 15:22). It’s anachronistic, like calling a Norwegian person a Viking. “Canaanite” was correct for the first Joshua, 1200 years earlier.
- Clue #2: The rest of the stories in Matthew 15 are in that foreign region of the “seven nations” of the first Joshua’s time — and Jesus repeats there in Gentile country his earlier ministry among the “house of Israel,” healing Gentiles and performing a second miraculous feeding of 4000.
- Clue #3: Number symbols. When Jesus feeds the Jewish crowd, they gather up 12 baskets of leftovers — the number of the tribes of Israel. When Jesus feeds the crowd in Gentile territory, they gather up 7 baskets — the number of nations the first Joshua conquered.
- Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman is the beginning of Jesus among the ancient peoples of the Promised Land but showing them mercy — healing and feeding. The “great faith” of this woman, persisting to receive mercy for her sick daughter, is a parabolic acting out of conversion from a God who shows mercy only to his own people — no mercy to others — to a God who shows mercy to all the human family. It is an amazing and crucial redo of a genocide.
The Black Lives Matter Movement — Opportunity for a Redo of Genocide?
- We might call Matthew 15, “Canaanite Lives Matter.” Jesus begins by devaluing the life of a Canaanite woman, letting her reveal the value of her life. He then goes on to treat Gentiles as equals, healing and feeding them. And all of this is a reversal of the “no mercy” shown by Joshua a thousand years before. It is essentially a precise model for the Black Lives Matter movement that challenges us in our historical moment.
- A first goal of BLM is that we begin to be more honest about our history as Americans: we began with a horrific enslavement of African peoples and a genocide of Native peoples — thinking that that was our God-given destiny, our Manifest Destiny.
- And that beginning has a continuing legacy until we admit it and begin to move forward. It is the opportunity, I believe, for a redo, inspired both by a God of mercy and by brothers and sisters of color who have shown a persisting, great faith.
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Racine, WI — August 16, 2020