Lent 3

“Nevertheless, She Persisted,” Susan Ryder

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.

Donald Trump in his Inaugural Speech, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”

Mick Mulvaney, White House Budget Director, about Trump’s new budget proposal. “We had an America First candidate, we now have an America First president, and now we have an America First budget.”

Matthew 20:16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Polly Berends “Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.”

As we continue our journey with Jesus during this Lenten season, a lot has happened since we left off last week with the calling of the first disciples. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus and his new companions “went throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness among the people. His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:23-25) The next several chapters of Matthew include the Sermon on the Mount, where he blesses the poor and meek, and challenges us to turn the other cheek. From there he continues his travels, healing many people along the way. He also found time to calm a storm, gather a few more disciples, heal more people, teach, preach, and soothe John the Baptist’s followers (and John) of their doubt about whether he was the real deal.

In Chapter 12 he has his first run in with the Pharisees, who chastise Jesus for allowing his disciples to gather grain on the Sabbath day. Jesus’ reply was to challenge their authority and remind them that the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around. From there he tells a series of parables, is rejected in Nazareth, finds out John the Baptist has been killed, feeds thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and some fish, walks on water, and heals some more people. His next encounter with the Pharisees, who brought some Scribes along with them this time, once again involves criticism of the disciples. In this instance it is for not washing their hands before eating, as is commanded. Jesus tells them that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out the mouth. Of course this offends the church leaders, but when the disciples nervously warn him of this, Jesus doubles down and accuses the Pharisees and Scribes of evil hearts and intentions.

It is on the heels of this interaction we find the story of the Canaanite woman who calls out to Jesus, demanding his help because her daughter is afflicted and she wants Jesus to heal her. His initial response is to ignore her, which, in light of what we understand about the kind of person Jesus was, seems uncharacteristic. But given the culture to which they both belonged, it’s not really surprising that he didn’t respond. Because first of all, it was considered inappropriate for women to address men in public. In fact, women were to stay at least two arms’ lengths distance from men. And secondly, Matthew took great pains to paint Jesus as the Messiah who came in fulfillment of the Jewish law and prophets – Jesus was Israel’s hope and consolation, and he has his own Jewish sheep to attend to. Additionally, if Jesus responded to the woman he would have put her on equal footing with himself, something a Jewish man would not do. Some scholars speculate that if Jesus answered someone who so blatantly broke the cultural mores, it would draw attention to him – and this inappropriate exchange would spread like wildfire, to the discredit of Jesus and his reputation. So it’s understandable that at first he did not respond, given all the implications that would come with it, at least in the portrait Matthew was painting of Jesus up to that point.

This Canaanite woman who, like so many women in the Bible is nameless, is the archetype of “other” – she is not a member of the house of Israel, and just as bad, or worse, she is a woman. She is akin to the undocumented immigrant, the Syrian refugee, the trans person, the poor child in need of a school lunch, the Appalachian family without healthcare. In essence, this woman does not have a place in Jesus’ “Israel First!” policy.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

This woman is crafty, and she is relentless. She is a mother with a child in desperate need, and she’s willing to do and say anything to get Jesus to help her. So she begins the exchange by referring to him as the Son of David – which by extension means she is honoring him as the true king of Israel. By doing this she is either giving Jesus the respect he is due, or trying to pass herself off as a Jew, or both. After Jesus ignores her, the woman persists and the disciples beg Jesus to shoo her away because she is still shouting at them and calling unwanted attention upon them. So Jesus reminds her that he was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, making it clear that even if he is a king, she is not his subject. As I revisited this passage in the past few days, Jesus’ words had a familiar ring to them. “From this day forward, it’s going to be Israel First! Israel First! Let the Canaanites worry about the Canaanites!” I can imagine Simon Peter chiming in “We now have an Israel First Messiah!”

And yet … it IS significant that he stops and addresses her at all – for by responding to her, even to rebuke her or disagree, Jesus has now made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd, no matter what his final rejoinder may be.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

The woman kneels at Jesus’ feet, the traditional position of a supplicant, and begs. Jesus’ response to her is appalling – we see Jesus at his very worst in the exchange. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She is already on her knees before him, and now he calls her a dog. By all rights she should have been floored by his response and crawled off in shame, like a whipped dog. But, writes Peter Hawkins, a kneeling woman does not have much further to fall – so she parries with Jesus “as if she were Portia or some other Shakespearian heroine who gets her man by using her wits.” He regards Canaanites as dogs, fine, she can accept this. She does not presume to be invited to dine at his table – but she asks him if she can gather some of the scraps from underneath. And Jesus finally responds as we have come to expect, with compassion, by saying, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

In essence, Jesus loses the argument with the Canaanite woman. She persists, and as a result Jesus commends her faith and heals her daughter. He chooses to listen to someone whom others dismissed as unworthy, and to act with compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on, even though choosing to listen to this foreign woman and heal her daughter would cost him respect in the sight of others. He was clearly changed by this encounter. It cannot go unnoticed where this story is placed in Matthew’s narrative – just after Jesus had chided the Pharisees for being so concerned about his disciples not washing their hands before eating, telling all who would listen that what comes out of someone’s mouth is more important than what goes in. Then Jesus spews out of his mouth some pretty awful words directed at this woman, and in the process of their exchange, is convicted by his own argument. This passage becomes pivotal Matthew’s in gospel as the obvious starting point where Jesus began to adapt his ministry and message to include the Gentiles, not just the Jews. No longer Israel First! Now it’s People First!

So what can we learn from this story for our own journeys? Well a couple of things stand out for me. On the one hand it reminds us to be open to learning new things, changing our minds, and listening to others. One of the readings I shared earlier from Polly Berends said, “Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” Jesus certainly did in this moment – it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. It’s never easy to give up firmly held beliefs and consider another perspective. But Jesus is a great model for that – he allowed himself to be open to hearing a different viewpoint, to sit at the feet of his own life and be taught by it – and it changed his entire ministry. He went from “Israel First!” to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” He went from “Jews only!” to his final words – “go and make disciples of ALL nations.”

And on the other hand this story inspires us to be persistent when confronted with injustice – even and maybe especially when the injustice is coming from a respected teacher or political leader. In this woman’s case she was clearly advocating for her daughter – but it went beyond that. Essentially in that moment she was advocating for everyone who was not Jewish, who was not male, who was not part of the inner circle. And her persistence paid off – she got the help she was seeking, even if it meant dropping to her knees and begging.

On Thursday Bob and I participated in a press conference with community activists and faith leaders, organized by Illinois People’s Action, calling on Bloomington and Normal to pass “Welcoming City” ordinances. The ordinances proposed for Bloomington and Normal would declare each city to be a “welcoming city,” which would reaffirm to immigrants that the cities value them, AND strengthen the relationship between the immigrant community and the police by ensuring that police and city officials will not participate in federal immigration enforcement efforts. Welcoming Cities do not protect residents from being deported – ICE can still conduct enforcement operations such as knocking on doors or conducting raids. But a Welcoming City ordinance would prevent city resources from being used to help those operations. It does not violate any federal immigration laws – it just says that local officials will not participate in voluntary programs designed to make local police do the job of ICE.

Representatives from IPA met with city officials earlier this year and received mixed reactions to the ordinance – one mayor is supportive it but is concerned that it might not pass the city council (it would need 5 votes to pass). The other mayor did not commit one-way or the other. Nevertheless, IPA persisted. They gathered information from other Welcoming City ordinances and drafted language. The legal department of one of the cities replied that the document was not well written and wouldn’t pass if presented as is. Nevertheless, they persisted. They invited community officials from both cities to sit down with them and work on language to improve the ordinance. That request has yet to be answered. Nevertheless, we persisted. At the press conference, speakers shared information about what being a Welcoming City would mean, and encouraged citizens to lobby their city council members to vote for the ordinance. IPA called on faith leaders and congregations to support the ordinances. So our Steering Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to add their name – as the Steering Committee of New Covenant Community – to the list of supporters, and next month we will be asking this congregation as a whole to consider supporting it. We will share information with you about the ordinance next month, and will hold an informational meeting on April 30 in advance of a May 7 vote. Nevertheless, we persist.

As we continue on these final legs of our journey to Jerusalem, may we be inspired both by the Canaanite woman and Jesus. May we persist in seeking justice for those who need it the most, and may we be willing to learn new things by sitting at the feet of our own lives along the way. The task ahead may seem daunting, overwhelming and insurmountable at times – but if we persist like the Canaanite women, we must have faith that we will prevail.