Jesus, Racism, and the Canaanite Woman

This story in Matthew 15:21-28 is unique in the gospels and timely for us. Jesus is wrestling with his own  prejudices and a blinkered view of his mission as he encounters a woman who will not let him off the hook because she is fighting for the life of her child. She challenges the Son of David to shake off his prejudice and expand his sense of his mission to include her and her child.

It’s surprising that this kind of story was even retained in scripture because it’s not flattering to Jesus – he’s no hero here. But the gospel writers are not telling the story of a hero; they are telling the story of a human one who wrestles with his own faithfulness, and in that wrestling proves he is also divine. The fact that the author of Matthew records this unlikely story, which is only in Matthew, makes it all the more credible and important for us to hear.

Our own lives and context are full of learned prejudice and pinched views of human life and society. As a nation and individuals we are today wrestling painfully with these prejudices and trying to purge and heal them. Reading this story in that light, a few things are helpful to highlight. First it’s important to understand the “coded context” of this story. Jesus has traveled into the country of “Tyre and Sidon,” which were Phoenician cities north of Israel. So geographically they were in a foreign land, but more importantly these cities are biblical code words for “pagan.”

While he was there, a “Canaanite woman” comes to meet him and cries for mercy. It’s important to know that Canaanite is one of the most commonly used ethnic terms in scripture, and it’s basically a catch-all word used to describe the various indigenous peoples who were living in the land where the Hebrews settled/conquered after the Exodus. Like most catch-all ethnic words, it’s not value neutral. It carries overtones of people, culture, and religion that are threatening to Israel. It biblical terminology, it’s practically a slur.

So Jesus is in a foreign land that he has been taught to see as pagan, and he is approached by a woman whom he has been taught represents all that is dangerous to the faith of Israel: worship of false idols, inferior culture and law, and a claim on land that belongs to Israel. She is begging him for mercy.

The second thing that is important to highlight in reading this story is that Jesus wrestles with her request. Some commentators, in an effort to protect the divinity of Jesus, suggest that Jesus might have playing “hard to get” for the benefit of others. He was going to show mercy all along, but he needed to make a point to the disciples or draw out the strength of the woman’s faith. But to me that stretches too hard to protect the divinity of Jesus. The far simpler interpretation is that Jesus is really wrestling.

He is unbelievably silent before her cry for mercy, even as the disciples are asking him to get rid of her. And when he does speak, it’s not clear to whom he is speaking. Perhaps to the disciples, perhaps to her, perhaps to himself. I think he’s speaking to himself and describing out loud his inherited prejudices and beliefs about what it means for him to be a messiah. What he says is essentially, “I’m not here for you. You’re not my people — you’re not a Hebrew.” Wrong race, wrong religion, wrong address. He even describes her as a “house dog.” He means to say, you may live in my house (the land), but you’re not my child.

Jesus is giving voice to an attitude that if we encountered it anywhere besides in scripture we would say is racist, nationalist, prejudiced, and even cruel. She is asking him to save her daughter, and he is wrestling because she is the wrong ethnicity!

The good news in this text is that Jesus gets there, thank God, but how he gets there is interesting. The Canaanite woman has more faith in Jesus than he has in himself. She has a more keen sense of God’s compassionate mercy toward those who cry out (a theme that runs from Exodus on), than Jesus has. She turns his words against him and says, “even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the Master’s table.” And that’s when Jesus gets there, and he calls her faith terrific and her daughter was healed.

You might say that Jesus has his own “come to Jesus” moment. He’s converted to a deeper understanding of God’s compassionate love, and to a wider sense of his own mission in the world, by a Canaanite woman.

Perhaps that’s why this story was kept by Matthew. By the time Matthew wrote (~70 AD), the gospel had gone out to Jew and Gentile, and the Spirit had been poured onto Hebrew and pagan alike. The kingdom of God, dawning in Jesus, was wide and diverse, drawing people from North, South, East and West, to sit at table. The emerging church was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community, a place where old prejudices were being thrown away and the grace of God was making a new family.

Thanks be to God for the determined faith of a Canaanite woman! May her witness challenge us as it challenged Jesus, to deepen our compassion for the other and expand our vision of the kingdom of God.



Colossians Sermon Series

Hi friends! It’s been a while since I’ve posted much to this blog. In the last several months, our family has moved and I’ve started a new call/job at First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC. So there’s been a lot of settling in, finding out, and getting up to speed. All of that has put blog posting on the back burner.

But things are settling down and finding a rhythm, and it’s time to post again. This summer I am preaching through the letter to the Colossians. Perhaps not the easiest summer preaching agenda, but I had an urge to do it – and I try to follow those urges.

Preaching through a book of the Bible is an ancient preaching practice called lectio continua, a practice the Protestant Reformers also took up. The Reformers’ purpose was to to recover the biblical and theological literacy, and to move away from what had become fashionable in Renaissance preaching, which was to preach topically on a virtue or subject of interest.

Preaching lectio continua takes us into texts we would not otherwise have encountered, and allows us to go deeper into one theological and biblical vein than we ordinarily do. To the preacher and the hearer, that is both challenging and rewarding!

So Send I You

The gospel lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter is John 20:19-31, which immediately follows John’s account of Easter morning. Not many preachers save their best material for the Sunday after Easter, and some churches don’t have a sermon at all on this day. After Holy Week and Easter, we’re just spent. But there is so much in this text for the preacher, and if you’re preaching on this Sunday — relish it!

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Mark’s Resurrection Story Reflections and Preaching Directions

The lectionary text for this week is Mark 16:1-8, a resurrection account that many preachers would rather not use on Easter Sunday. It’s so short — only 8 verses. The characters and the narrative is so much more limited. Peter doesn’t show up, nor the disciple whom Jesus loved, nor Jesus himself. There’s no race to the tomb, no encounter in the garden. It’s Mary, Mary, Salome, and a young man dressed in white. Like so much of Mark’s gospel, the story is stripped to bare essentials. And then, of course, there is the ending. “For they were afraid.” In generations past, the debate raged about whether Mark really intended to end with verse 8, or perhaps a mouse ate the scroll or something. Scholars are now agreed that indeed Mark intended this strange ending — even concluding the whole gospel with a preposition (literally “…they were afraid for…”)! It’s an ending that leave the readers “holding the bag,” to now sort out for ourselves what all this means.

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Palm Sunday Sermon

This is the sermon I preached a few days ago, Palm Sunday 2015. It’s rare that I preach a narrative sermon, and this sermon is narrative in the sense that it is an extended narrated story. (As opposed to a sermon that has a narrative structure but is not itself a story.) As I explain in the beginning of the sermon, the idea is to treat the Triumphal Entry as an enacted parable, complete with the “surprise ending” that usually accompanies a parable — and in which the most likely meaning is found!

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There’s Something Missing

Here’s a copy of the sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago on 3/1/2015. Because it was a “first Sunday of the month,” the worship included communion, and for the last few months I’ve been preaching the sermon  as part of the Lord’s Supper liturgy. Instead of placing the offering between the sermon and Lord’s Supper, the offering  precedes the sermon. That way we can move from the sermon right into the Invitation to the Table and the Meal. I preach from behind the Lord’s Table on these Sundays, and I try to end the sermon in a way that draws us into communion. So far, I love the format and it works really well. It deepens the meaning of both the sermon and communion on those Sundays, and connects the two. The sermon is the Word heard, the meal is the Word made visible. Theologically they should be together, and in this format they are!

There’s Something Missing – Psalm 85