Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Canaanite Conquers the Israelite...

I made abundant use of many sources of information in the writing of this sermon. Foremost was the work of Paul J. Nuechterlein, Grant LeMarquand, and "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary." You will notice that I also blatantly borrowed ideas from Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton and Marilyn Salmon, and picked the closing prayer whole from Rev. Gene Anderson's excellent blog.

Genesis 45:1-15
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there: since there are five more years of famine to come — so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
... for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15:10-28
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

This is the Word of the Lord.

And it is the Word of the Lord, even when that Word makes us uncomfortable. And I have to confess to you, few passages of Scripture make me more uncomfortable than this account of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman. It’s as if someone has stolen my Bible and replaced it with one where the part of Jesus is played by Archie Bunker! Honestly, calling someone a dog? To their face? This would be a good week to preach on the Old Testament reading instead, wouldn’t it?

I’m not alone in my discomfort, it seems. Over the centuries, commentators and preachers have come up with a lot of explanations about the way that Jesus acts here.

Some say that this is all an acted out parable. That Jesus was just saying what he knew his followers thought and he wanted them to see how bad it sounded so he could then correct it. We can call this the “He didn't really mean it” explanation.

Some say that this is an inauthentic saying, words put into his mouth by the early church and the Gospel writer. For these folks, the key to understanding this passage is to decide why the early church would tell such a story of Jesus. This would be the “He didn't really say it” explanation.

Still others say Jesus was not referring to her as a dog but was simply using an old saying or a village proverb, like saying “The early bird gets the worm.” No one gets their feelings hurt over metaphor or clich├ęs, right? This is the “We don't really get it” explanation.

So… what’s really going on?

I don’t know. I’m sorry, I know I should be able to package this whole thing up in a neat, digestible package for you, say the prayer, take the offering, don’t forget to dance, see you next Sunday, but I cannot simply hide behind an easy explanation for a difficult passage.

One of the most difficult readings I have heard was the suggestion that Jesus was absolutely serious when he said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There was no twinkle in his eye, no softening of his voice, nothing to suggest he was playing around, bringing out the depth of this woman’s faith.

This reading of the passage suggests that, in his interaction with the Canaanite woman, it is Jesus who is changed, Jesus who is, in a manner of speaking, converted, Jesus who goes from seeing himself as the Savior of the Jewish people only to truly the Savior of the world.

That is a tough pill to swallow. There is a principle of Biblical translation and interpretation that says the most difficult reading is usually the correct one. And this idea of Jesus being changed by his interaction with the Canaanite woman has a lot of merit. After all, as we too often forget, Jesus, though completely divine, utterly God, was completely human as well. We can comfortably assume that Jesus had to learn how to walk, had to be potty trained, had to learn to talk, had to learn how to feed himself, had to learn how to read, had to learn how to dress himself, and on and on and on.

Is it too great a logical leap to say that Jesus may have discovered the scope and direction of God’s plan for him, the breadth and depth of his earthly mission, in part while he was in the midst of his earthly mission?

The Canaanite woman certainly comes out of this account as the one with the upper hand. It is she, and not Jesus, who models the most admirable human behavior. She shows willingness to be vulnerable by seeking help from a longstanding foe whom she knows despises her because of national and racial divisions. She asks for help for her daughter, not for herself. She is persistent in the face of insults and rejection, for her daughter's sake. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in the story, especially her last one. "Call me dog," she says, "but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table." She is the clear underdog (pun intended) who wins the prize of highest value for any mother, Jew or despised Canaanite – her child's health and well-being.

And Jesus appears to go from, frankly, acting like a jerk – a staunch nationalist, a good Jew who won’t have anything to do with unclean Gentiles – to one who is amazed at the faithfulness of someone from outside the Jewish faith, and convinced that God is indeed actively pursuing, constantly calling every human being, no matter their nationality or original belief system, into relationship and into the Kingdom of God.

Or… could there be something else at work here?

Why on earth is Matthew insisting on calling this woman a Canaanite? No one in the first century used that word to describe anyone. It would be like calling New York “New Amsterdam,” or describing a trip to Haleyville as a visit to the “Free State of Winston.”

And besides, what in the world is Jesus doing in Tyre and Sidon anyway, if he’s “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” like he says? He’s in Gentile country, for cryin’ out loud! Guess what, Jesus, the house of Israel is back the way you came, bro!

Well, Canaan had a history with Israel, you see. Back in Joshua’s time, when they were crossing the Jordan to take the Promised Land, God specifically instructed the Israelites, in no uncertain terms, to utterly destroy the Canaanites – if you will, to commit genocide on the entire race. Here it is, from Deuteronomy, the seventh chapter, verses one through four:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

The Canaanites were not just pagans. Not just Gentiles. They were the God-ordained enemies of Jewish people everywhere!

So why is Jesus there? Remember, a couple of weeks back, we read about Jesus’ Feeding of the Five Thousand. That was smack-dab in Jewish territory, and everyone who as fed was, presumably, of the Jewish faith. There were enough leftovers, you will remember, to fill twelve baskets. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the connection to the Twelve Tribes of Israel in that gathering, does it?

Immediately following our reading today, Jesus travels along the Sea of Galilee for a bit, climbs a mountain, heals everyone who is brought to him, and feeds four thousand people with seven loaves and some fishes. There is enough left over to fill seven baskets this time… and is it much of a stretch to connect those seven baskets to the seven nations that God commanded Joshua and the Children of Israel to annihilate roughly fourteen centuries before?

I want to suggest to you that we do not have to choose between a Jesus who is playing games with the Canaanite woman, or a Jesus who is taught a lesson by the Canaanite woman. There is a third way, one that does not force us to see Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered!

The third option is to see him as both: Jesus is first and foremost a conqueror by purposefully letting himself be 'conquered'. By this way of thinking, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman's faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith, the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.

The point is this: In Deuteronomy, God commands that the Canaanites, and the six other nations mentioned there, receive no mercy, be granted no covenant. What does the Canaanite woman ask for, on behalf of her daughter? Mercy. What, ultimately, does Jesus give the Canaanite woman? Mercy, and healing.

I do not believe it is an accident that the breaking of the bread there in the Gentile lands, like the breaking of the bread in the Jewish land, seems to foreshadow the breaking of the bread at the Lord’s Supper. If the bread and the cup symbolize for us the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, how much more does the breaking of the bread and the feeding of the four thousand symbolize a covenant with a people whom God had commanded, some fourteen hundred years before, there be no covenant made?

Instead of a God who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua (and, in fact, the name “Joshua” and the name “Jesus” are exactly the same in Hebrew!), who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death -- namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.

Like the walls of Jericho, the wall between Jew and Gentile have fallen. And the walls are still fallen! Look around you in this place, and look around you, really look around you, when you leave this place today. Look around you everywhere, all week, all the time. We will not, at any point, in any context, in any place, find any person who is too different or too bad or too wrong or too anything to be out of reach of the love and mercy and forgiveness and reconciling grace of God!

Oh, this is not to say that we won’t see people that we are not comfortable imagining being loved by God. We have our own walls – walls of prejudice, walls of sexism, walls of class pride and class envy, walls of privilege and walls built by pain and injury. “For out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” Out of the heart comes racism, out of the heart comes jealousy, out of the heart comes pride. “These are what defile a person…” and it is high time we call these things what they are, and begin the hard work of setting them aside.

We can choose to be like the disciples who complained about all the noise the needy Canaanite woman was making, or we can choose to be like the disciples who eagerly distributed the broken loaves and fishes to the hungry Gentile crowd. The difference is this: are we willing to see the walls come down?

Let us pray:

Lord, grant us the wisdom of the Canaanite woman,
To know our need,
To acknowledge your power,
And to share your love with others.
Open our ears and our hearts to the real needs
Of all your children
For Jesus’ sake…


  1. Thank you John for this sermon. I didn't intend to wake up at 4 am to read a sermon, but I'm glad I did. Your reading of the text & observations are challenging to hear/ read & will give my next sermon on this passage a new observation point from which to stand. Mighty fine sermon.

  2. Very good,very good.

    I, personally have no problem with Jesus learning as I am more of a process thinker and think that God, while His nature doesn't change, He does grow in response to us as we respond to Him. But life in the tension while foreign to the Modern Western mind might not have been all that difficult for the first century Jewish mind.

    I really like how Matthew really taps into the prejudices of his predominantly Jewish audience by his use of "Canaanite". How much more inflammatory could he have been when the tables ore turned and the woman's daughter is healed and it becomes obvious that God desires all?

  3. In my heart, I could never accept that Jesus words to this woman were intentionally harsh, though I never heard an explanation that satisfied. This makes sense to me, and I love when I can see it 'fitting together' like an extremely complex puzzle. So many pieces have been in the wrong place...thank you for doing some rearranging.