Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Subverting Parochialism: a sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
We don’t like to tell embarrassing stories. But, sometimes it does us good to do tell them anyway. They might reveal something about ourselves, our personal development, or our mission in life. I could tell any number of embarrassing stories from when I was a pastor. The one that I will tell is about a response I got from a church member after a sermon I preached.
The congregation had established the practice of having a time for open response to the sermon within the service. I was a little nervous about the practice, seeing that it was my first pastorate. But, what made me even more nervous was that within this small Baptist congregation was Jim McClendon, a well known theologian that taught at the Episcopal Divinity School in Berkeley, his wife, Nancey Murphy, who had two doctorates, one in science and the other in philosophy of religion and now teaches theology at Fuller Seminary, Alan Estes, a friend who could read the New Testament directly from the Greek text, and Ginny Burrus, a female doctoral student at Graduate Theological Union, who now teaches church history from a feminist perspective at Drew University. What a collection of people who could respond to my sermons! You can see why I was nervous during the time of sermon feedback.
I had just preached a sermon on a story from the book of 1 Kings. The story was about the poor widow of Zarephath, who was ready to die with her son from starvation, but gave her last small meal to the prophet Elijah. I twisted this widow into a pretzel figure to represent how we all should “give until it hurts.” After the sermon came the time for sermon feedback. My feminist friend, Ginny, stood up and challenged my sermon and interpretation of the Bible right there in front of God and every good Christian sitting in the pews! She said that my interpretation of the text was faulty, even dangerous, particularly for women. I was a bit embarrassed, but listened carefully without trying to be defensive. Her challenge to my patriarchal viewpoint was a moment of enlightenment for me. It broadened my perspective. From then on I studied intensely feminist biblical interpretation and changed my viewpoint about how I treated women in the Bible.
The gospel of Matthew tells an embarrassing and rather unflattering story of Jesus and his encounter with a Canaanite woman. There are two slightly different versions of the story in Matthew and Mark. It’s one of those stories that you could understand why it could easily have been left out of the gospels altogether, since it appears to shed a bad light on Jesus. But, the fact that it is an embarrassing story and still included in the gospels may lend more credibility to its authenticity and, possibly, a new way to look at Jesus and his evolving understanding of his mission.
The story goes like this. Jesus and his disciples journeyed to Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile territory, a space occupied by foreigners, outsiders, the unclean. All of a sudden a woman from the region approached Jesus. The gospel of Mark says she was a Phoenician from Syria. Matthew indicates that she was a Canaanite. This poor Canaanite woman was a member of a colonized people, dispossessed of their land, like Native Americans. She was probably without family support and cared for her daughter alone. Daughters in that culture were of less value than a son. And yet, for the sake of her child, she came to Jesus for her daughter’s healing. She wanted Jesus, the landlord, to evict the demon from her daughter.
I can almost see her reaching out her gnarled fingers and screaming with her twisted mouth, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” She had no funds to get her child back in her right mind. There was no universal healthcare. No medical insurance. No access to healers. Her cry was the one tool she had available to get the attention of Jesus.
Immediately Jesus heard her cry for help, had mercy, and went to heal her daughter. Well, that’s what we would like the story to say. But, the text says that Jesus did not answer her at all. Silence….. Deadly silence….Just the chirping of crickets in the background….. Doctor, my daughter has cancer. Can you do something for her?..... God, my child is suffering from deep depression. Can you please save her?.... Silence is a knife thrust into the heart.
Then, the disciples, who are Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to being compassionate, bring Jesus a bottle of “whine.” Jesus, can’t you send this nagging woman away. She keeps screaming in our ears…mercy, mercy, mercy. Sheez. Can’t she give it a rest? Don’t you just love the disciples’ attitude? Pastor, some homeless guy is in the back of the church. He’s been bugging me for a hand out. Let me send him away.
Then, Jesus, full of compassion, listens to the poor woman’s cry. That’s what we wish the story would have said. Instead, Jesus tried to write her off with a quick flick of his verbal pen. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. Notice that God is drawn into the situation to justify this restriction on his ministry. I was sent. That means somebody else did the sending. Now, this may sound like Jesus wasn’t writing her off. He had a legitimate reason for ignoring her. His ministry was “parochial,” or should I say “limited,” or maybe “focused” is a better word. Jesus couldn’t minister to every Tom, Dick, and Jane, you know. He needed a target group. And his target group was his own group, special people, chosen people, people like him, with the same religion, same customs, same mindset. Birds of a feather.
This birds-of-a-feather principle has been justified by a pastor of one of the largest congregations in the U.S. I went to college with him. He was driven by a purpose even way back then. The method he uses for outreach to others is better known as “target group evangelism.” Basically, it recognizes that a church can’t reach everyone, so you go after those people who are like you. The outcome of this birds-of-a-feather approach is the formation of homogeneous congregations. Not only is this parochial form of evangelism celebrated, but it is justified by scripture, particularly those texts, like the one this morning, which limit Jesus’ ministry to “the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel.”
Back to the story. The poor woman ignored the silence, dodged the disciples’ sharp complaint, and took no mind that Jesus had limited his ministry to the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel. Her daughter was lost and wounded and needed healing. In spite of the odds against her and her daughter, she was not ashamed to kneel at Jesus’ feet and doggedly implored him, “Lord, help me!”
Finally, Jesus turned to her and said, “My daughter, there is enough bread for all of God’s children.” We wish he would have said something like that. Instead, Jesus said…. And now for a public announcement ….At this point of the sermon some of you more sensitive folk might want to turn your hearing aid down, start reading the bulletin, or hold your hands over your children’s ears. You have been warned.
Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, (and I swallow hard) “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yikes! What? Now, wait a minute. Jesus Christ, did you say what I think you said? Who let the dogs out? Did he call the woman, her daughter, and her people “dogs”? As my 4-year-old grandson would say, “We’re not supposed to call people…”and he proceeds to say the word. Dogs? That doesn’t sound nice at all.
Now’s the time the Greek scholar steps in and says, “A literal translation of the Greek word kunariois is not the abrasive word “dogs”, but rather a diminutive form and should be translated as ‘puppies’ or ‘small lap dogs.’” Sorry, Mr. Greek scholar, but that doesn’t solve the problem of Jesus’ rather harsh statement. Pardon my French, but who in their right mind thinks calling women “little bitches,” that is small female dogs, is less denigrating than calling them…uhhhh…the other word”?
“Excuse me,” says the traditional theologian, “but the problem can be solved if we simply recognize that since Jesus was God and had all knowledge and was without human flaw, he was really testing the woman.”
Maybe Jesus wanted to see if she would be persistent in the face of the odds against her. Maybe he was using what others in his culture believed about women and Canaanites to test her faith. Kind of like a psychiatrist who meets a crying mother in the halls of a mental hospital. Her daughter is emotionally disturbed. She pleads for the doctor’s help. He doesn’t say a single word. The nurses tell the doctor to call the orderlies and get rid of this nagging woman. Then, the psychiatrist tests the woman to see if she will be persistent and has real faith by saying something like, “I only treat patients with BlueCross who are from the tribe of white people.” And when she persists, he says, “It would be an injustice for a dog to take up one of the beds of our patients.” Sounds cruel, doesn’t it?
But, then again, maybe Jesus was only sent to the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel and the woman and her sick daughter were a diversion from his focused calling from God. Or maybe he was testing her faith. Maybe.
On the other hand, maybe Jesus did have a parochial view of his mission. Maybe he did share some of his culture’s views about outsiders. Maybe, as a human being, this was an opportunity for Jesus to grow and develop in his understanding of God and others and his own mission. Maybe.
If that interpretation is too troubling for you, then you might want to step outside after the service and consult with the Greek scholar and the traditional theologian. Maybe they can help you deal with the dilemma.
Whatever the case may be, the Canaanite woman called Jesus’ bluff. She turned the table on him. Or dare we say, she “bested” him in an argument; the only time this ever happens in the New Testament. In her response to Jesus the woman acknowledged the choice place of the Jews at God’s table, which did not always seem fair to others. She respectfully said, “Yes, Lord, yet…O that wonderful word “yet”…yet even the dogs eat the crumb’s that fall from the master’s table.” Touche! What a brilliant comeback, even though it seems to keep the dogs under the table. What a witty, creative riposte.
For the sake of her daughter, she was not going to be dissuaded by the silence. She was not going give up in the face of the whining disciples. She was not going to be refused healing because of Jesus’ parochial ministry to the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel, even if that was God’s plan. She was not going to be left out of the blessings of God’s table, even if it meant only getting some falling crumbs.
After her great comeback, Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was instantly healed. Her faith was not so much in her compassion for her daughter or her dogged persistence against all odds. Her faith was inscribed in her words, her wit, and her wisdom. It was a faith that called upon the grace of God to heal the wounded, even if an outsider, to include the excluded, to expand the borderlands of compassion, to welcome the marginalized; all those things that would come to define the mission of Jesus.
I believe the Canaanite woman’s witty retort was the catalyst for a moment of enlightenment or transformation within Jesus himself. I believe she subverted Jesus’ parochial view of his mission and opened a door not simply for her daughter’s healing, but more profoundly for ministry to Gentiles. In Jesus’ affirmation of the woman’s subversive rhetoric, he conceded the full humanity of the Gentiles. They were God’s children too, who deserved a place at the table of God’s blessings.
This poor woman, with no formal schooling or theological training, taught Jesus something significant and broadened his understanding of God’s mission. The woman caught Jesus with his compassion down. She became the vehicle for God’s healing grace, even when Jesus was putting on the brakes. She became the wisdom teacher to Jesus of a wider, less parochial worldview. She offered Jesus the gift of the poor, marginalized perspective. He offered her the gift of healing. Or maybe, God offered a gift to both of them. Maybe.
Whatever the case, there is definitely a need for healing of our narrowmindedness, our tunnel vision, our practices of exclusion. And it may require some creative, witty, insightful subversion of our own culture’s narrow beliefs, parochial attitudes, stale traditions, and exclusive mindsets.
These subversive acts may be as magnificent as publicly challenging the worldview that believes that our nation and people alone are chosen by God for a special mission to the world. Or as mundane as creating a bumper sticker that reads: God bless all nations, no exceptions. It could be that some may boldly proclaim, like the prophet Isaiah, that faithful eunuchs, those disenfranchised and marginalized because of their sexual difference, have a place at God’s table, even better than the sons and daughters. While others may simply place a welcome sign on their church door that says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” and really, really mean it. While the church says by its actions and priorities that its mission is to “gather the outcasts of Israel,” those like us, the God who subverts parochialism says, “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered”…. (Isaiah 56:8)
I wonder how different the world might be if the Canaanite woman had not creatively subverted Jesus’ parochial viewpoint? Would Jesus have said at the end of the gospel of Matthew, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations (and the Greek scholar chimes in …nations literally which means ‘Gentiles’…”? Would the Jesus movement have remained just another attempt at reforming Judaism and faded from history? Would Paul have become a missionary to the Gentiles? Would the church have spread to the far reaches of the earth? I wonder.
How different would our world be if Martin Luther King Jr., and his beloved community, had not subverted our parochial and racist views about society, education, economics, politics, and international relations? How different would our world be if Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women suffrage workers, had not undermined the common belief that only men should be able to vote. How different would our world be if Sojourner Truth had not challenged, with great wit and wisdom, not only the patriarchalism of men, but the parochialism of white women, by asking, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
How different could our world be if we creatively subverted parochialism? How different could our world be if we left our places of exclusivism, nationalism, and tribalism. How different could our world be if we made a place at the table, if we opened the borders of our spirits, if we shared our bread with all of God’s children. How different could our world be if we journeyed to a different landscape, if we left those narrow places of the heart and mind for a wide, open country.
Jesus left that place.... and went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came to him....and made a world of difference.