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.



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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Help? Just what is… missional!?

What the heck is missional? Tony Jones wrote a post recently with an insightful point: who isn’t missional? Or he asks, would anyone say, “I’m not missional.” Now those are two different questions. Plenty of people are not missional.  But whether they would recognize it or say so is another thing altogether.

When missional seems so vague that everybody could say yes to it, then it’s very legitimate to ask what heck the terms means — at least in any useful way. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier post, if it doesn’t have some distinctive meaning it’s pretty much a useless designation.

Here are my two quick criteria for “missional” when I’m reading books, articles, or blogs:

  • One of the most concrete ways to nail down “missional” is to tie it to the folks who started the conversation: the Gospel and Our Culture Network, the Eerdmans books series that accompanies that, etc. Lots of people have aped the term, and very often conflated it with postmodern issues, generational issues, reaction to denominationalism, etc. (See below) For me, the questions, perspectives, and conversation partners of that original GOCN conversation is a key criterion for determining whether someone I’m reading or talking is referring to the same “missional” as I’m referring to. One quick way I check that is just by looking in the index of the book, or noticing the people that are referenced in the conversation.
  • A second key criterion, and the most important, is to look for a real connection to the missio Dei. That is, the mission of God — the Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, the Spirit sends the Church — is a fundamental and shaping force in a missional understanding of the church. The missio Dei is to redeem a fallen creation, a mission begun in the calling of Israel and accomplished decisively in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and being brought to completion by the work of the Spirit to the glory of God. The church is the community of people who tell of this good news, and bear witness to this new reality through their life together in the world. In practice, this means:
  1. That the church is not a static entity, but exists only as it participates in God’s mission. If a church is not participating in God’s mission of redeeming the world, then it’s not a church. A church is a mission outpost —  a place where God’s mission to the world becomes tangible and concrete in a community of people. A church that does not have an “out-there” awareness of the people whom God is seeking and for whom Christ died, is not a missional church. A church that simply comes to “get fed” or “be blessed” without a resulting sense of feeding and blessing others is not a missional church.
  2. Mission, participation in God’s redeeming work, is part of everything the church does. It’s not an activity of just one committee or a few folks. Mission is not just what is done at the Food Pantry, or on the summer mission trip, or by the mission committee, or by a few folks on the social witness team. Missional means that everything the church does is understood as mission. Everything participates in God’s redemption of the world. Worship is understood as participating in mission; fellowship as participating in mission; music ministry as participating in mission, etc. Even the in-house activities that never “hit the streets,” like finance committee meetings and personnel meetings, are understood in their relationship to the outward witness of the church. Everything the church does has an outward thrust. The church is for the world, and exists to participate with God in redeeming the world.

And here are two red flags that make me read much closer when something says “missional”:

  • Red flag number one is kingdom-of-God language. This may sound strange, because the kingdom of God is very much apart of missional theology. The life of the Christian community is a demonstration of the reign of God here and now, the reign that begins in Jesus Christ. That demonstration is imperfect, flawed, and partial — but it is a sign of God’s reign. However, a lot of what I see that is called “missional theology” is actually something like “kingdom theology.” It’s not much about God’s mission of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is a lot about the characteristics and qualities of God’s kingdom. The problem with this is that Jesus Christ becomes just a good example for kingdom living, setting the model for life under the reign of God. And the kingdom of God becomes the work of the community, to bring about through their actions in their neighborhoods. Now these statements are partially true, but they are dangerous reductions. Jesus Christ is far more than a good example of life under God’s reign; and life in the kingdom of God is far bigger than anything we can bring about. So when I see something labeled “missional” that talks a lot about the kingdom of God, I read very closely.
  • The second red flag is something I touched on very quickly up top. In many cases, missional has become the word that stands for lots of other change trends in the church. In the late 90’s and early 00’s we were talking about Gen X and Gen Y, and postmodern. A few years later it was “emergent.” Now it’s missional. These words all name different aspects of changes happening in the North America church, and particularly in the white evangelical North American church. But they are not all missional, or even close to missional — at least by the criteria I’ve listed. There are overlapping interests and questions, but they’re not the same thing. When an author uses postmodern, emergent, and missional interchangeably in the same book or post, I get skeptical and read very closely.

The Core Meaning of Missional – Part 3

It’s been about two weeks since I wrote part 2 of this series on the core meaning of missional. As a pastor, I am constantly surprised at how short the weeks are and by how much can happen in the few days between Sundays! To get back up to speed, in the previous posts I suggested two things: 1) for the future of missional theology and practice, we need to have a stable sense of what “missional” means. If the meaning is too vague or generally applicable, it will naturally and rightly fall out of use as a term. 2) The core meaning of missional should begin with God. This is to say, first, that it should not begin with the church as so often is the case. Second, that it is also to say (IMO) that it should begin with the specific God who is revealed to us in the history of Israel, in the church, and chiefly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Following on that thought, I think the second aspect of a core meaning of missional relates to what God is up to in the world. This touches on the specfic sense of the missio Dei, the mission of God, which is the font and origin of missional theology. Succinctly, I think the mission of God is the new creation. If one wanted to sketch the broad outlines of that mission, as chapter headings in a story, it would be creation, redemption, and final transformation. To put it into the “missional” language of sending, the Father sends the Son into the world to accomplish the redemption of fallen creation and begin a new creation, and the Father and Son send the Spirit to continue and complete the work begun in the Son, transforming the old creation into new creation. This work of transformation happens now as the Spirit leads people to realize their redemption in Christ and live in the power of the Spirit according to ways and patterns of the new creation. And this work of transformation happens later, in the “last day” when the Spirit brings to completion the work that has been begun.

In a sense, what I have labeled here at “part 3” could also be called “part 2b.” That’s because to say that we must begin with God and to say we must attend to what God is up to in the world is to say, in a sense, the same thing. In so far as it is revealed to us to know, God is what God does. To attend to God is to attend to God’s work of creation, redemption, and transformation. I think being missional means, at its very root, being constantly formed and shaped by an awareness of this God, the God who is accomplishing this purpose in and through history. It is through this lens and in this awareness that we approach the church, our lives as individual Christians, and indeed the fundamental identity of the human person and the nature and destiny of the whole created order.

Nine times out of ten, when someone says missional, we think immediately the church, of a way of looking at the church, of a way of being the church and of being a Christian. But much deeper than that, missional is a way of understanding God and God’s work in the world. It must mean that long before it means anything for the church or for Christians individually.

p.s. If you haven’t noticed yet, I am a Reformed theologian of a Barthian stripe! Others will certainly characterize these things differently!

Is the word “missional” still useful?

This week, I’m going to write about the question, “Is the word missional still useful?” Now I’ll say first that I think it is, but I have some concerns. One of the primary concerns is that when I tell someone something is missional, I often feel that it doesn’t tell them anything specific.

First, a bit about words… A word must be useful, and to be useful a word must denote a specific thing within the context it is used. A specific thing within a context. For example, if I go to my local hardware store and tell Gene I need a “tool,” he has no idea what I need. That’s not because the word “tool” is a bad word, rather it is simply too broad to be useful in a hardware store.  In a hardware store that is filled with tools, Gene needs a more specific word to understand what I’m thinking. If I say, “Gene, I need an 8 inch adjustable wrench,” then we’re in business.

Today we have an ecclesiastical conversation filled with “missionals”: missional books, missional events, missional iniatives, missional theories, missional interpretations.  What does it mean to enter an ecclesiastical conversation and talk about a missional understanding of preaching? Before the conversation gets very far, you have to ask, “Now what do you mean by missional?” This effect is only heightened by denominational offices and publishers who describe anything and everything as “missional”, even if it has no relation to the Gospel in Our Culture Network or Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.

In their recent book The Missional Church in Perspective, Gelder and Zeischle put the problem like this and offer their opinion on it:

“Some argue today, as noted above, that the word “missional” has become vacuous and has thus lost its definitional value. We are proposing a different argument in this book, namely, that “missional” displays an inherent elasticity that allows it to be understood in a variety of ways.” (p. 3) By this they mean that there are various biblical and theological interpretations and emphases that arise from a variety of traditions, and these traditions use the common word “missional” but intend its meaning from within their own tradition and perspective.

Indeed, there is an inherent elasticity in “missional” which has helped to create common space to engage in a very lively and diverse conversation.  This is no-doubt a great strength of the missional conversation today, that it has a wide range of participants. My concern is that if the term does not continue to have a core and relatively stable meaning, it will eventually become useless and unused.

No one goes into a hardware store and asks for a tool–for very good reason.

More on the core and relatively stable meaning tomorrow…

Missional Preaching

Welcome! This is a new blog dedicated to fostering a conversation about preaching for the formation of the missional church. So why another blog, you ask?

There has been lots of conversation in recent years about all things “missional” but there has been very little conversation about preaching as a missional practice. Missional literature consistently talks about missional leadership, and occasionally reference is made to preaching, but as a distinct practice preaching has gotten little attention in the missional conversation. There are a couple of recent books on missional preaching, which are listed on the Books page. There is now an Academy of Missional Preaching organized and hosted by the PC (USA). There are a smattering of papers and articles related to missional preaching. This blog is an effort to add to and foster this growing conversation.

The ministry of preaching–which is the regular proclamation of the gospel as it arises from reflection on scripture and experience–is one of the primary ways that a local congregation is formed. If we are going to form missional congregations, we need to think deeply about preaching as a missional practice.

So happy reading, and thanks for being a part of the conversation!