A Crisis at the Border

Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church, Henderson.

A slightly different version preached at Salem Presbyterian Church can be heard here. The sermon audio begins at 11:18.


Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Proverbs 8:1-9

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to one who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.

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.


Have you ever been somewhere you weren’t supposed to be?

I think most of us have an instinct that lets us know what to do when we’ve crossed into new territory. Whether it’s trying to look less like a tourist when we step off the beaten path on vacation, double checking that our doors are locked when we drive through a rough part of town, or wishing that we’d worn nicer clothes when a restaurant turns out to be fancier than we’d expected, we all have ways of coping with being somewhere we shouldn’t be.

Because the thing is, being somewhere we shouldn’t be usually has something to do with being someone we shouldn’t be. We’re too American to be in that country; too white to be in that neighborhood or too black to be in that other one; we’re too poor to run in those circles or too rich to be safe in that area of town; we’re too young or too female or too vulnerable to be out alone after dark. We don’t belong there. 

This morning’s gospel reading is a study in not belonging. This story of Jesus healing a Gentile woman’s daughter is in two of our gospels, Mark and Matthew. What makes Matthew’s account different from Mark’s is that Matthew makes a big point of how much everybody in this story is treading on dangerous territory. When the story begins, Jesus and his disciples are on the run—Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer has just been beheaded by the local prince and Jesus himself has been butting heads with the Pharisees pretty badly. So Jesus finds himself pushed farther and farther out of his homeland, until he’s all the way up in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

For a bunch of Jewish guys from the Galilee, the region of Tyre and Sidon is definitely the wrong neighborhood. To begin with, Tyre and Sidon is gentile country, and, to add insult to injury, a pretty wealthy area as well. Moreover, the local rulers of Tyre and Sidon cooperated with the Roman empire. So here we have a gang of poor Jewish rebels in a nice Gentile neighborhood. Jesus and his disciples are definitely not where they’re supposed to be.

But it’s worse than just the usual distaste of Gentiles for Jews and Jews for Gentiles. Because as soon as Jesus and his disciples get to Tyre and Sidon, they’re caught out by a woman Matthew describes as a “Canaanite.”

This may not seem odd at first glance, but the thing is, by Jesus’ time, there simply weren’t Canaanites anymore. It’d be like us calling a guy from Scandinavia a Viking or a Mexican woman an Aztec. It’s an outdated term, but a loaded one. For much of their history, the Canaanites were the big enemies of the Israelite people. Most of the killing done in the Old Testament is between Canaanites and Israelites, as they wrestled over the same piece of land.

So when Matthew calls this woman a “Canaanite,” he’s marking her as an Enemy with a capital E, an idol-worshipping, Jew-killing outsider. And to make matters worse, she’s a woman! A woman out alone in public, running after strange men and shouting like a lunatic. She’s exactly the kind of person a Jewish preacher shouldn’t be talking to.

So, as far as Matthew’s audience is concerned, we’ve got a man who isn’t where he’s supposed to be and a woman who isn’t who she’s supposed to be.

What could possibly happen next?

Well, they don’t join hands and sing kumbayah. For those of us who like to think of Jesus as gentle, loving, and compassionate, this is an uncomfortable story. The woman begs Jesus to heal her suffering daughter; he ignores her. Won’t even recognize her presence. The disciples want to get rid of her. The woman persists, but when Jesus finally responds, it’s to call her and her people “dogs.”

“Lord, help me,”she says.

“It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he replies.

To call a person a dog was no nicer in Jesus’ time than it is now. In fact, it was an even uglier insult back then.

There’s been plenty of ink spilled by commentators trying to polish up this passage. After all, Jesus isn’t supposed to be mean, and certainly not racist! He’s not supposed to lose arguments either, like he does here. So some people make excuses for him—he’s just tired, burnt out, not thinking clearly. Another tack folks take is to say he’s just testing the woman, that his crack about dogs is a joke, or that he’s turning it into a teachable moment for the disciples. Of course Jesus meant to heal the woman’s daughter all along, these well-intentioned apologists say. He just looksarrogant and mean to show us all a lesson.

Well, if any of those explanations resonate with you, have at them. But I just can’t get past the feeling that something else is going on here, something deeper than a teacher’s sleight of hand, something that makes us a little uncomfortable.

I think Jesus learns from this “Canaanite” mother.

I know I’m in worrisome theological territory. Can Jesus learn? Can Jesus be ignorant? Can Jesus be wrong?

We don’t like to think so. We like to think of Jesus as perfect, God in human skin. Yet our early Christian fathers and mothers knew better. In a debate that tore apart the church, they affirmed that Jesus was not merely a god in mortal clothes. Yes, Jesus was fully God—but Jesus was also fully human.

And perhaps the best thing about humans is that we can learn. We can grow. We can throw out old prejudices and repent of past mistakes and learn to do what is right.

And that is what happens to Jesus here.

I don’t blame Jesus for what he does or says. Up until this point, Jesus has, whenever he’s encountered the sick, the desperate, the poor, been loving and compassionate. And hey, I like to think of myself as, generally speaking, loving and compassionate too. But there are places on this earth—Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond, the main suq in Hebron in the West Bank, Flint Hill in Henderson—where you bet I’m going to walk fast, avoid eye contact, and keep my mouth shut. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s what you do when you’re in a place you shouldn’t be.

So Jesus is on edge, and I don’t blame him. His disciples are even more on edge, not knowing why Jesus has dragged them here in the first place. And out comes this maniacal woman shrieking about demons and daughters and, of all things, mercy.

Jesus’ response—when he finally responds—seems harsh. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It seems harsh, but it is completely in line with most of what the Jewish scriptures have to say. Other than a few passages here and there about all the nations streaming to God’s holy mountain—we read one from Isaiah today—most of the Jewish scriptures anticipate a Jewish messiah—of the Jews, by the Jews, and, most importantly, for the Jews.

This is the world Jesus has grown up in. A world in which the Jews are struggling for survival against the hordes of powerful, wealthy Gentiles that surround and rule over them.

So when this Gentile woman comes, wanting the power of a Jewish healer for her Gentile daughter, Jesus’ response is unsurprising. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. Or, in other words, “I take care of my own. You’re a foreigner. You weren’t born Jewish. You haven’t gone through the right channels to become a part of the Jewish people. So what do you think gives you the right to ask for help from a Jewish messiah?”

But the woman doesn’t give up. She pleads her case. With persistence and a quick mind, she proves to Jesus that she and her daughter are worthy of his help, of his healing power.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

“Yes, Lord, but healing is not a finite resource. Compassion is not a controlled substance. Understanding doesn’t run out.”

The Canaanite mother, who’s the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, the wrong gender, the wrong everything, opens Jesus’ eyes to the idea that his mission as Messiah might be bigger and more encompassing than even he imagined.

Her wisdom is unexpected. It throws Jesus off his guard. It probably threw Matthew’s readers off their guards, too.

If I’m honest, it threw me too, as I studied the passage this week. Could this woman really be so pivotal—this nameless mother who speaks only a few dozen words and then disappears again? Shouldn’t the great wisdom of the Christian tradition—that God’s redemption is available to all, regardless, come from somebody a little more important to the story? From Peter, or Mary, or, y’know, Jesus?

But it got me thinking, thinking about wisdom and where it comes from. Too often it really does seem like true wisdom is found on the margins—not in Congress, not in the Ivy League classroom, not even, though I hate to admit it, in the pulpit—but in the ordinary women and men who have turned the heartaches of life into wisdom and grace.

After years of seeing his posts flash by my Facebook feed, I’ve finally been delving into the blog “the Humans of New York,” affectionately known as HONY. The man behind HONY, Brandon Stanton, started his project by taking pictures of ordinary New Yorkers—blue collar workers and kids at the park and homeless folks and office workers catching the subway. But it wasn’t until he began to talk with his subjects—talk about their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their tragedies and their loved ones—that his page really took off. It now has over 9 million fans. Brandon has a gift for getting people to share their wisdom, and it’s breathtaking. And on almost every post someone makes a comment to the effect of, “I would’ve walked right by that person. I never would have known they were so wise.” Right now Brandon’s traveling in the Middle East with a United Nations group, pushing further and further into the places nice American boys aren’t supposed to go in order to share the wisdom of those who live on the margins.

But while HONY may be a very modern concept, a product of the social media age, this idea of wisdom from the margins is nothing new. I was also reminded this week of a passage out of Proverbs, a book that gets relatively little airtime in our pulpits. Sherry read it for us earlier:

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out.

Here again is wisdom, personified in Proverbs as a woman, standing at the margins, at the gates, at the border, calling out to those who would listen. Some scholars call her Lady Wisdom, and I like to think that Lady Wisdom and the Canaanite mother would be friends. They each take their stand, crying out their wisdom to all who would listen: that righteousness doesn’t mean shutting people out but drawing them in, until all are reconciled, all are redeemed, all are healed.

This is the wisdom Jesus learns.

It’s a lot of weight to put on a chance encounter, I know.

But then again, I’m not so sure it was a chance encounter.

The Bible says that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and a woman from there came to meet him. It’s so unlikely as to be impossible, and I smell God.

Jesus is pushed to where he wouldn’t have gone, and forced to talk to a woman he wouldn’t have talked to, and the result is love, compassion, healing, grace. Yes. I definitely smell God.

And the key piece here is that Jesus learns because Jesus listens. He may start with his head held high and his eyes averted, but it doesn’t last. He listens to the woman. He talks to her. He considers her response.

There is a real conversation, one that opens Jesus’ eyes to the possibility that God might have far more flocks of lost sheep than he had ever imagined.

The woman’s faith—born of love for her daughter and a willingness to approach Jesus—who, in her eyes, is the wrong ethnicity, the wrong religion, the wrong everything—a willingness to come to Jesus on his own terms, to recognize him as “Lord, Son of David,” to fall on her knees before a stranger—this faith changes Jesus.

It is through the woman’s faith that Jesus learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had thought, that God’s compassion doesn’t do racial profiling, that his ministry is going to be more vast and more dangerous than anyone had dreamed. As the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “faith works like a lever on him, opening his arms wider and wider until there is room for the whole world in them, until he allows them to be nailed open on the cross.” (BBT, Seeds of Heaven, Crossing the Line, 65).

We follow a Christ who learned that love has no boundaries because he let himself be pushed to a border and listened to the woman who lived on the other side of it.

And if we do follow Jesus, then we follow him to the borders. We follow him to the wrong side of the tracks. We follow him to the atheist and the Muslim and the Buddhist. We follow him to the single mom and the autistic child and the immigrant. We follow him to the other side of the political aisle. We follow him to the prison and the hospital and the failing school. We follow him to the cross. We follow him to the empty tomb.

And, when all is done, and all have been listened to, and all have been healed, we follow him to the masters’ table, where all will feed of God’s abundant love.

Because there, at that divine table, is where we all belong.


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