- Pentecost 11.17 “Under The Table Savior” Matt. 15:21-28
We see a side of Jesus in this Gospel reading that makes most people uncomfortable. It’s a side of Jesus that we’re not used to seeing, that doesn’t get a lot of attention in our day and age. Jesus is supposed to be gentle, meek, and mild. Above all, Jesus is supposed to be nice. He isn’t supposed to care about racial, ethnic, cultural, gendered, or religious identities imposed on us from without. He’s supposed to be about putting His arms around everyone with a great, big inclusive bear hug, helping us to be the people we want to be. He’s supposed to be about seeing the good in everyone, or at least so we’ve usually heard…
This story from Matthew 15 seems like a perfect set-up to display all these admirable qualities in Jesus, to make us all like Him better, help us all to see Him as Someone we can all turn to in these turbulent times when identities of race, gender, religion, culture, ideology have become once again so fraught that people are literally fighting and dying in the streets over it as in Charlottesville last weekend.
Here’s a great opportunity for us to see Jesus as the great uniter and healer of rifts, the One who transcends all these labels we want to put on each other, to help us all to become our best and most inclusive selves now (and no, I didn’t select these readings for this Sunday! They are the ones appointed long ago by the church for this Sunday of the church year, with a strong suggestion that the Gospel is the one you need to preach on. Isn’t it strange though how timely these readings often are, huh?)!
And, at first, it appears a perfect Gospel for a message of radical inclusion. Jesus is traveling in the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenicia, not Israelite territory. And a Canaanite woman from the area comes up to Him and cries out to Him: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” We talked about that a little bit in our Tuesday morning lectionary study and wondered about the qualifier “severely”. Did anyone ever come to Jesus and say: “I’m demon-possessed; but it’s a mild case”? It seemed to most of us that even a little bit of demon-possession would be pretty severe. Being in the grip of supernatural evil and totally in thrall to the old beast-master does not sound like a state that would be anything less than extremely severe! Anyway, it shows how little we all know about demon-possession because it doesn’t present itself in quite the overt ways it did in Jesus’ day, it would seem…
Anyway. Where were we? Oh, yes. Jesus is passing through a foreign land and a Canaanite woman begs Him for a favor to heal her severely demon-possessed daughter. Now, Canaanites, as you may recall from the Old Testament, were natural enemies of Israel. They had done terrible things to Israelites over the centuries, including enslaving them for significant periods of times, especially in the days of the Judges. And they were notoriously hostile to Israel’s worship of God, and infamous for their paganism. Not nice people, the Canaanites. God had told the Israelites to have nothing to do with Canaanites, with any who hate the God of Israel. They were supposed to drive them utterly from the land of Israel, and if they wouldn’t leave willingly, to use deadly force…
But Jesus is past all the old enmities and labels and boundaries, right? He’s the Savior of all people as we heard in our Old Testament reading. He’s ready to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, to let bygones be bygones. So you’d expect this will be a wonderful opportunity for the Gospel writers to show us this kind, gentle, and all-inclusive Jesus who is wonderfully easy-going about our past and our beliefs and religious commitments.
But, uh, not exactly, right? The woman is in distress. Her daughter is severely demon-possessed. She’s at her wits end and is asking very nicely, calling Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David”. She calls for help, begs for mercy. You’d expect Jesus to go, “Sure, no problem, I’m here to help anyone and everyone and to set an example of universal love, tolerance, and brotherhood for all humanity…”
But, no. Jesus answers her not a word. He gives the poor, distraught (though very polite!) lady the silent treatment. Seriously!? C’mon, Jesus! You can’t even acknowledge her existence?! How rude can You be? How heartless and mean? Even the disciples (not noted throughout the Gospels for being super nice and inclusive) are appalled. “Send her away, for she cries out after us…” they implore Jesus. Which is to say “This is embarrassing, Jesus! You can easily grant her request, so do it, because this looks bad. I mean, if people hear that You treat women and foreigners like this, they will probably start tearing down Your statues—should any be erected, at some future date…”
But Jesus answers His own disciples: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Whoa! “So You aren’t the Lord of all, the Savior of all? You only are sent to Israel, to that little lost flock? So, where did we get the idea that You are more inclusive than that, Jesus?” The woman won’t let go of Him though. She is not appalled, you will notice. She does not respond with protests, threats, or violence. She responds by worshiping the very One who ignores her! Prostrates herself, crying only: “Lord, help me!”
When you’re in trouble, call for help. I picked up this wise counsel from a TV show (the Church Council hinted—totally tongue in cheek—that I might consider watching more television because I’m a little overspent on my book allowance, and “there’s nothing in books you can’t get faster and cheaper on TV” 🙂 But the Canaanite woman’s call for help is met with “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” See what Jesus did there? Canaanite, canine-ite woman? Little dogs? Get it? Really adding insult to injury here, Jesus… (!)
But she doesn’t mind one bit. Call her a dog, and she’ll sit up and beg for a biscuit. Ruff! “Yes, Lord; yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Ah-whoo! I like this lady. She’s one of the best characters in this whole Story. See what she did there? Even Jesus is bowled over with joy at it. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” Her daughter was healed from that very hour.
What did she do? Nothing! The Word of Jesus determines her identity and status—alone! And that, my friends, is Faith. This is what it looks like, how it molds and shapes us in Jesus’ Image. If Jesus ignores us, we’ll worship Him. If He sends us to hell, we’d praise Him even from there and confess we deserved it. If He calls us a dog, we’ll beg for a biscuit. If He says His food is only for the children, we’ll point out that little children often keep little dogs as pets and feed them under the table…
To whom is Jesus sent? To canine-ites, to sinners, to strangers, lost sheep—to beggars, after all! As long as we insist that we are good, righteous, holy, politically correct, He isn’t for us, this Jesus. If we have our theology all straight and are saved by this pure doctrine we’ve mastered, Jesus is not for us. Jesus is an Under the Table Savior—off the books, behind the authorities’ backs, with a delicious air of illicitness to IT all. He saves the one who knows she isn’t worth saving. And, in such Faith, is Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.