Reading: Matthew 15:10-28
Do you know what it is like to be an “other”? Not just an “other,” but an “other” that is hated; thought of as not worthy of basic things like fair housing, a job, or even safety. To be someone that it is OK to assault and leave to die. To be thought of as an “enemy” because you are “other.” To be afraid of your “otherness” to the point where you are totally alone?
I am an “other.” I know what it is to be an “other.” And like the woman in today’s scripture reading, I too know what it is like to have the religious establishment ignore me, claim there is no room for me, and insult my very being. Finding you, I have also learned about the expanding kingdom of God. Growing up gay in the Roman Catholic Church I learned that I was “objectionable disordered” and was not worthy to be a part of the Kingdom of God. And like the Canaanite woman in today’s scripture reading I remained persistent with God; knowing in my heart of hearts that He did not intend for even one of His children to be left out. I persisted and prayed and here I am, now called to serve as a minister to God’s people. What an amazing journey it has been. We don’t know much about the woman in today’s reading. We never learn her name, let alone any other part of her story. We can guess some things just from the context of 1st century Palestine.
The woman is called a “Canaanite.” We could consider that a reference to not only her ethnic heritage, but also to the geographic area. Jesus moved into this particular geographic area to get away from the Jewish authorities who were starting to question his teachings. He was attending to his own safety. As a woman, her presenting herself in public without a male escort was unheard of. And yet, this pagan woman, this woman whose way of life was very foreign to Jesus and his disciples, comes to Jesus. She is not one of Jesus’ people. Actually she is considered an enemy of Jesus’ people. And yet, she knows something of him. He seems quite annoyed at her approaching him. I find this a difficult story to read. Jesus is so harsh. This is not the kind and gentle Jesus that we teach our children songs about. This is an annoyed, perhaps a tired Jesus. Even his disciples urge him to send her away. At first Jesus ignores her. Maybe she’ll go away on her own. The disciples want her to go away. It is a curious thing, as just a few passages ago, Jesus and his disciples fed 5000. I do not remember reading that they check ID’s before they allowed people to join them. They fed everyone; and there were leftovers. Jesus tells her she is not welcome: “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Ouch.
But this woman persisted. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.” She persisted in the language of a Jewish prayer. You acknowledge God, you state your prayer plainly. “Lord, help me.” Jesus then insults her by referring to her as a dog. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Wow. Who is this Jesus? I have been aghast at this exchange for years. But this woman is persistent. Perhaps she was there when the 5000 were fed, and not only had her fill, but noticed the baskets of leftovers. She replies to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” What happens next is a most amazing thing that provides hope for all of us. When Jesus says he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, he is also saying he was not sent to the gentiles. You are either of the house of Israel, or you are a gentile. My friends, we are gentiles. What we are witnessing at this point in Jesus’ ministry is Jesus being converted to a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. I am going to say that again because it is so very important: Jesus is converted to a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the voice and in the face of this unnamed Canaanite woman. This is simply a wonder to behold. Let’s sit with this for a moment. We have just witnessed Jesus coming to a larger understanding of
himself. There are almost no words to describe the immensity of this realization. It means that we too are included in the commonwealth of God. Elbow to elbow around the master’s table, we receive even a meager morsel, a few crumbs, by God’s mercy they become for us the gift of finest wheat, a saving Word of hope and renewal and life. There is a story that tells of heaven and hell; both being like a banquet. In hell the guests around the table are unhappy because the forks at the place settings are too long to feed themselves. Heaven is the same banquet, with the same place setting. Except in Heaven everyone is joyous, because the guests have learned how to feed their neighbor across the table. The kingdom of God will be a place and a time when being “other” does not make you wrong, or an enemy or unworthy. Rather it means that by your presence the Kingdom of God grows and expands to include all of God’s children. It is a reminder to us all. We come to understand a larger vision of our communities when we can recognize the “other” for what they truly are: another beautiful part of creation; another citizen in the commonwealth of God.