Sermon Notes — August 11 & 14, 2011
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matt. 13:44)
Sometimes one needs to undertake a treasure hunt to find the treasure in the Gospel story. Where is the good news in a story where Jesus basically calls a woman a “dog”? Let’s go on a treasure hunt. For this passage has transformed for me from one of the most puzzling passages in Scripture to one of the most important and compelling. Here are the clues.
Clue #1: In Mark’s version of this story, this woman’s ethnic heritage is called “Syrophoenician” (Mark 7:26). In Matthew, she is called “Canaanite,” which is out of the time frame. It’s like calling a modern Norwegian person a Viking.
- Why Canaanite? What time would that go back to? Answer the time of Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land, the land of Canaan.
- And keep in mind two things:
- “Joshua” and “Jesus” are the same name in the Hebrew;
- that conquest we might call today a “genocide” — one of the more uneasy places for us in the Bible.
- So is Matthew trying to bring us back to that time of conquest with this new Joshua (Jesus)?
Clue #2: In the remainder of Matthew 15, Jesus (Joshua) heals people and miraculously feeds another crowd (the first feeding was in Matthew 14). In Matthew 15:31, Matthew comments, “And they praised the God of Israel.” Does this mean that Jesus (Joshua) is now in Gentile country? Why else would he specify “God of Israel” if it wasn’t foreigners praising another people’s God?
Clue #3: Playing the numbers game is a common way to leave clues or ciphers. In the first feeding of the five thousand, Jesus (Joshua) takes five loaves and two fish and twelve baskets are left over. In the second feeding, of four thousand this time (Matthew 15:29-39), Jesus takes seven loaves and a few fish and seven loaves are left over. Seven has become the significant number. Why seven? Twelve is significant for the twelve tribes of Israel. Why is seven significant? Let’s go back to the time of conquest (genocide) of Canaan. Moses is speaking to the twelve tribes of Israel as Joshua is about to lead them into the Promised Land, and says:
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)
We’ve found the treasure! Haven’t we? Jesus, the second Joshua, has come into the land of Canaanites to again conquer, but this time with mercy. He heals and feeds.
Think of all the images and experiences of God which are more like the first Joshua. We Americans used to embrace a passage like Deut. 7, where all the peoples who occupied the land were conquered. Manifest Destiny, we used to call it. So the genocidal God of Deut 7 suited us just fine. But since the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis we have been questioning that God. We have been repenting our own genocide of native peoples in this land.
We have been confronting some of these images of God in a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, images of a punishing God who sends souls to hell for eternal damnation. How many of us grew up fearing such a God who does not show mercy?
Brothers and sisters, this is where an anthropology, an understanding of who we are as human beings, becomes so vital. We can begin to understand that the images and experiences of a merciless God are a false god that we human beings needed to create. It is a false god that goes way back to our beginnings as a species. As we needed to justify our punishment of those we deemed evil, as we needed to justify our slaughters of peoples in conquests, we created these false gods. So the true God of mercy who lovingly created us was buried behind those false gods. There was for centuries and aeons a huge gulf between the true God of love and our made up images of gods of conquest and blood sacrifice.
For the true God to be able to bridge that vast gulf was going to take centuries, beginning with a covenant of love made to someone, Abraham and Sarah. And even among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, there was a bridge-building process that didn’t become complete until their descendant, Joshua/Jesus of Nazareth, helped us to know the God of unconditional love in the flesh. He did things like go into the territory of the first Joshua, not only showing mercy through feeding and healing, but also letting himself be conquered by a Canaanite woman of great faith. Finally, he let himself, as the Messiah, be conquered by those conquering powers of the day, the Roman Empire. But it was all so that we might finally divorce ourselves from those false gods of conquest to know the true God of Creative Love.
After 2000 years of Christianity, many or most of those years lapsing back into our addiction to the false gods of conquest, we Christians might now be in the situation of the Jews in St. Paul’s time. In our epistle reading, Paul laments that it was apparently the role of God’s chosen people to become disobedient so that God might show forth the divine mercy to all. We Christians have now been the disobedient ones.
Are we ready through prayer and worship and loving service to hear God say to each of us, as he said to Jesus of Nazareth, “You are my beloved son/daughter. In you I am well pleased”? Are we ready yet to embrace the true God of love so that we might unambiguously show forth the God of mercy?