"So Much Better Than That" – 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.
So, Jesus and the disciples are cruising along just fine. They’re spreading the Word, their working miracles, their feeding, healing and teaching. I’m sure they’re still talking about that time Peter walked on water, which we heard about last week, even if it was just for a moment. And then along comes this woman – a Canaanite woman; a Gentile woman in the land of Gentiles; and she wants to talk to Jesus. She wants his mercy and his blessing and his healing for her sick daughter and she has the nerve to ask him for it.
I say “nerve” because she was a Gentile, a Canaanite. She was not a Jew, like Jesus and his disciples. She was not one of the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” as Jesus puts it. And because of that, she wasn’t on his agenda, she wasn’t part of his base. People like her weren’t on his list of priorities. Even though they were in her neck of the woods – the region of Tyre and Sidon – Jesus and the disciples didn’t want anything to do with her.
“Send her away,” the disciples say, “she keeps shouting after us.” “Let’s lose this lady before she makes a scene.” And Jesus tries to brush her off by explaining her away. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “I’m only here for the Jews. Not for Gentiles. Not for Canaanites. Not for you.”
But she doesn’t give up. She keeps after him. Nevertheless, she persisted, like any good mother would, if she really wanted help for her sick child. Kneeling before Jesus, utterly humbling herself, she begs him simply, “Lord, help me.”
And it gets worse before it gets better. If there’s any doubt that Jesus didn’t want anything to do with this lady, consider what he says next. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes. It’s as bad as it sounds. What he’s saying is that the good news and blessings he has to share aren’t for her. And not only that, but he compares her to a dog; a dog – unworthy of receiving anything he has to offer.
This is hard to hear for some of us, I know. Either he means it, which can’t be good. Or he’s messing with her to test the fortitude of her faithfulness, which isn’t great, either. So this side of Jesus is not the stuff of Sunday school coloring pages and I understand that – so bear with me for a minute. To not see this side of the story is to miss something big.
What we get a glimpse of here – for my money anyway – is one of the greatest examples of Jesus’ humanity. Even Jesus had put up barriers. Even Jesus had erected boundaries. Even Jesus, it seems, had been influenced by the world he was living in – a world that said there were insiders and outsiders; a world that said some people were more worthy than others; a world that said some belong and some don’t, some are to be forgiven and some never will be, some are loved and some simply aren’t.
It’s not a picture of Jesus we like to consider. It’s not the gracious response we’ve come to expect from our Lord. It’s not the open arms and the open heart and the open mind that we’re used to. And if this is true for Jesus – shouldn’t every single one of us imagine… wonder… consider deeply – that it might also be true of us in more ways than we are always able to recognize or willing to admit?
And hard as it may be to see in Jesus or to acknowledge about ourselves, we must, especially these days in this country, because I believe what happens next for Jesus, is the point in all of this.
What happens when Jesus encounters this nameless Canaanite woman is that he learns something about her, about himself, and about the scope of ministry. This annoying, persistent, foreign, desperate woman – searching for her daughter’s cure – pushed Jesus and his ministry to a new level. What she showed Jesus and what she is now showing us is that we can open our minds and open our hearts and open our arms. We learn from Jesus that his ministry – and ours – is to be without boundary. It is for the outsider and the otherwise unworthy. It is for those who some would say are unforgivable. And it is for those who some find it impossible to love.
For me, the Good News in this morning’s Gospel is found in the humanity we’re allowed to see in Jesus. The even better Good News in this morning’s Gospel is that Jesus, in spite of his humanity, makes a change. And the best news of all in this morning’s Gospel is that it’s an invitation to see that change in ourselves.
I read a story this week about a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, skinhead who has changed his mind and changed his heart and changed his ways. In some small way he credits the words of a woman kind of like the one Jesus encountered in the region of Tyre and Sidon. This guy was in a McDonald’s, somewhere in Canada, I think, but...
Anyway, he was ordering his cheeseburger or his chicken McNuggets or his McCafe cappuccino, or whatever Canadian skinheads eat at McDonald’s, when the elderly African-American woman taking his order noticed the swastika tattooed on his hand. And instead of dropping his Big Mac or spilling his drink or sneezing on his French fries – all appropriate responses, one might think – this little old lady of color looked him in the eye and said, “Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
“Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
The seed of those gracious words took root and some time, but eventually – along with some therapy and some changing life-circumstances, this neo-Nazi started to believe them. And he started to believe that people like the woman who said them were better than he had believed her to be, too. And now he’s founded a non-profit organization called, “Life after Hate,” and he has dedicated himself to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist hate groups.
“Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
As far as I know there aren’t any neo-Nazi’s in the room, and I’m not suggesting Jesus played that role in this story. But, just because we don’t carry torches or have hooded sheets hanging in our closets or swastikas tattooed on our bodies, doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced – just like Jesus seems to have been – by the world and the culture and the systems that surround us. And it can be easy for us to dismiss or deny or just not see the sin of racism and bigotry in our midst and even in ourselves. Again, I say, if Jesus himself had a thing or two to learn about it, shouldn’t each of us at least imagine… at least wonder… at least consider that it might also be true of us in ways we can’t always identify?
But we are so much better than that.
Jesus, as a man of the world, was influenced by the world’s standards and systems and low expectations. Jesus, as a child of God, though, was transformed, changed his mind and offered salvation generously in spite of what the world would say. So the question becomes: How will we – as people of the world and as children of God – respond to the needs that are kneeling before us and begging for help these days in our country where race is concerned?
I think we’re being called to engage those who don’t look or live or believe like we do. And I think that means more than being nice to the people of color we work with and live near or sit by in class – though all of that is a great place to start. I think we’re being called to the districts of Tyre and Sidon, if you will, away from what we know; away from where we feel safe; away from what is comfortable and into the places where people like that Canaanite woman are hurting in ways we can’t possibly understand, because our paths simply haven’t crossed.
(Just so you know – and in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is; of practicing what I preach – I’m working right now to set up some ministry at the prison in Plainfield. And I’m in conversation with an inner-city school about getting involved in some tutoring and mentoring programs there. If you’re interested in joining me for any of that, please let me know.)
Because as followers of Jesus, we are called to more and better and different – and Jesus shows us that we can be changed when we do. Jesus shows us that we can be transformed. Jesus shows us that we can open our hearts and our minds and our lives by drawing close to those from whom the world would keep us separate. And Jesus shows us that we are so much better than that and that God’s grace can work change for us, change through us, and change within us for the sake of the world.