Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
August 15, 1999
The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

NEWSFLASH! Jesus Challenged by Bold Canaanite Woman! (Do you have the courage to do the same?)
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Matthew 15: 21-28

The Gospel lesson appointed for this morning tells a fascinating and, I think, a somewhat puzzling story. So what I invite us to do during this sermon time is to play with it, to try to see what's really going on, and, hopefully, to discover how the dynamics of the story challenge each one of us, even now, to be more courageous in the ways we relate to Jesus.

So let's look first at the story as it is written. It opens with Jesus and some of his disciples leaving Jerusalem and walking along through the countryside in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Now this is Gentile country, a strange route for Jesus to choose, for Jews were not wanted and not welcomed there. So the group of them are foreigners passing through a hostile land.

Now, as they go along, a woman of that country sees them from afar. And she begins to call out to Jesus, astounding them all not just by her loud, even rude shouting, but by her complete disregard of the critical social taboo of the time, which says that a Gentile woman should never address a Jewish man. And to make matters worse, she's even asking Jesus to break this taboo as well. "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David," she says, for "my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." And Jesus responds to her by saying nothing and by doing nothing. Now, that's the first surprise of this story, that in the face of this woman's need, Jesus is totally silent. Why? I wonder. Is it out of respect for the customs of their two peoples, respect for the enmity that divides them? Or because he finds the woman abhorrent since she is a Gentile? It's interesting that the disciples with him urge him to send her away. But instead he turns to them and begins to explain to them why he has chosen not to respond at all. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he says, implying essentially, "I'm not here for the likes of her or her daughter or her people. I'm here only for the people of Israel." How totally uncharacteristic that sounds - Jesus refusing to respond to the desperate request of a person in need simply because she's of another race, another nationality! It makes you wonder what's going on.

But that woman has chutzpah. Now that she's at last gotten his attention, no matter how negative it is, she's not about to let it go. So what does she do next but throw herself at his feet and plead with him, "Lord, help me!" And in response, Jesus does another puzzling and uncharacteristic thing: he explains to her the reason for his refusal. "It's not fair," he says, "to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Now, what kind of a pastoral statement is that? "It's not fair for me, a Jewish rabbi, to be merciful to you, a Canaanite woman, when my mercy is intended only for the children of the house of Israel." This surely does not sound like the Jesus we know and love. So there must be more to his actions - or perhaps more to the Gospel's telling of them - than meets the eye. But then this bold woman takes their interaction even one step further. "Yes, Lord," she says, you're right. "Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."...."Yes, Lord, but even my daughter, a foreigner to you and a Gentile, can be helped by any crumbs of mercy that you might let drop within her reach." And suddenly, with that statement, there is nothing separating the two of them any more. It's at this point that Jesus turns to her, that Jesus finally reaches out to her and says, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter is instantly healed.

Now something of profound significance has happened here. Two people, strangers to each other and separated by a tradition of hostility, two people have dared to engage each other in provocative, honest dialogue. And each of them - both Jesus and this nameless Canaanite woman -- each has been significantly changed and enlarged by their encounter. And herein lies the challenge that this story puts before us this morning. Do you -- and do I -- have the courage to engage with Jesus in such a way that we are changed? and that Jesus is changed too? That might sound like a scandalous question, but I think it's worth pursuing.

But, leave it there for a moment, and let me tell you a short story that might clarify what I'm getting at. It's a story I once heard about the parish priest in a lovely, small, stone church in the center of a quaint New England town. He'd been rector there for many years and was beloved by the people of both town and congregation alike. But one day he received a call to leave that place and assume the leadership of a large, pivotal church in a neighboring diocese. Well, he didn't know what to do. The challenge and the possibilities of the offer were thrilling to him. But on the other hand, he felt such deep bonds of friendship and purpose there where he was. So he debated within himself for days and simply couldn't reach any decision until finally, in desperation, he decided what he would do: He would go into the church on Sunday evening after all the day's responsibilities were cared for, and he would pray and seek God's guidance. And he would stay there until it was absolutely clear to him where God wanted him to be. So that's what he did. He sat in a pew and prayed all night long; he prayed fervently, until finally it was dawn and the sun was beginning to come up and he was exhausted. So finally in desperation he just cried out loud, "Please, God, please, just tell me what you want me to do." And then, into the silence, he heard a voice respond, "I really don't give a darn what you do! Just get up off your knees and go do it!"

That faithful, well-meaning man just wasn't really engaging with Jesus in the same way that the Canaanite woman had. For, you see, he wasn't really doing his part; he was asking God to do it all for him. Whereas Jesus and the Canaanite woman were partners, if you will, equal partners in a challenging, progressive dialogue. At times they seemed to be almost wrestling with each other, to be cajoling and urging each other on into places where neither one of them could easily go alone. It's as if neither one of them was willing to let the other be less than whole. In fact, I believe that the pivotal truth of this remarkable encounter is this: that the Canaanite woman and Jesus each dared to challenge the other to plunge into the depths of their own integrity -- and to stretch as well to the very heights of their potential. On the one hand, the woman needed the power of Jesus in her life in order to attain the wholeness that she sought -- not only for her daughter but for herself as well. And the urgency of this need had made her bold, just like a sudden fright causes a surge of adrenaline. But then, on the other hand, the surprising thing is that Jesus needed this saucy, courageous woman as well. In fact, it was in response to her bold assertions and demands of him that he was able to clarify the nature and extent of his mission in the face of the powerful prevailing customs of the time. So each of them was able to grow, each of them was able to become more whole, because of this significant interaction with each other.

So I ask you then this question: Do you have this kind of relationship with Jesus? Do I? Do we dare to challenge him, to wrestle with him until each of us brings out the best in each other? Do we have the courage, the chutzpah, to forge such radical, demanding communication with Jesus for the sake of someone or something that we love? For the sake of justice ... or for the sake of compassion ... are we willing to challenge our traditional or habitual understanding of who Jesus is, and of how we are related, and how we can best communicate and care for each other? Is our relationship with the living Lord as vital and urgent and mutually demanding as was the relationship of the Canaanite woman? Or is it something that's frozen in words and rules, in habits and customs? Let's let this surprising story be a challenge to us. Let's let it revitalize our way of praying, our way of reading scripture, our way of relating to Christ. Let's let it challenge our ways of relating to others, our biases, our pride, our fear. Let's let it open our hearts and minds and take us deeper into all that it means to be a courageous, committed Christian who's not afraid to engage with Christ.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church.

Gospel: Matthew 15: 21-28
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. (NRSV)

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