Archive for August, 2015

“Our Human God” (Sermon, August 5th)

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just 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.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:21-28


This doesn’t start off well, does it? Jesus completely ignores this poor woman who needs help. Then when he does acknowledge her, he calls her a mean name and says, “I’m not for you.”

But she insists. She shames him with her wit, and this somehow demonstrates her faith. We never figure out how. Jesus just says her faith is “great.” She is the only person in this Gospel who earns that title.

But before that, Jesus acts like a jerk.

I said acts. He’s not a jerk. He just acts like one.

Did I just call God’s Son a jerk? The Psalmists believe that God ignores, curses unjustly, and turns away, but this does not stop them from wrestling with God, demanding to be heard.

Like this woman.

There’s so much irony to her story. While the religious authorities Jesus speaks to earlier demand further signs, this woman, having only heard about Jesus, is convinced that he is the Anointed One who heals. Her labelling him “Son of David” is evidence of her conviction.

It’s especially ironic because Canaanites were ancient enemies of Israel. On divine orders, as the Israelites moved into their promised land, they ritualistically slaughtered all of the Canaanites, and destroyed their possessions, in a sacred act called cherem, as they conquered the land they believed God had gifted to them.

This was a part of the sacred story cycles that nourished Jesus as he grew up, so we can understand where his attitude might have come from, and his behaviour would have been seen as appropriate. But before Jesus meets this woman, he is telling the Pharisees that they are too concerned with purity. “It is not what goes into a person (in that particular case, unwashed hands and impure food) that makes them unclean, but what comes out of the heart,” he tells them.

And the translation we read this morning tries to soften the way Jesus speaks to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food.”

No. Jesus actually says in Greek, “It is not good.”

Our God is an incarnate God. Jesus was born and lived in a backwater. He probably couldn’t read or write. He was raised among his own people, worked an unglamorous manual job, and he didn’t have airplanes or social media to give him a broader view.

He was insular – and somehow became wide-open to others in a way that’s uncommon even for today.

It took me until I was teenager to really notice the subtle differences between cultures. That is part of the privilege a white child inherits growing up in Canada. As I got older I went through the anti-American phase that most of my peers have gone through, and that never ends for some. I think it’s inevitable in a country so flooded with cultural exports from the United States that many Canadians cannot define their culture except as “other” than American.

For example, I believed as a teen that racism was not a part of my country anymore. It was easy for white kids like me to assume that racism was a name for over-the-top ridiculous behaviour that would never be difficult to see or quantify. I believed prejudice was always glaringly obvious and could be dealt with by scorn and well-bred polite contempt.

One day in a high school class, I learned this was not so.

Two girls had decided to do a presentation on racism against First Nations people in Canada. They spoke about the residential schools and the referendum on the Nisga’a Treaty. Their presentation was clear, sober, and well-executed.

My thoughts on the Nisga’a Treaty were, I assumed, typical. I had learned about the residential schools and the legacy of the Anglican Church in church (but never in school). I learned not only about the terrible abuse but the misguidedness of the whole idea in the first place, the deliberate erasure of cultural identity and the years of shame and self-medication that followed.

“We have stolen from these people,” we were told. “We must stand beside them and listen now, and should have from the beginning.”

I discovered that among the other teens in that class, my view was not typical.

I cannot tell you the exact content of the response those two girls received for their project. All I can say for certain is that it was so horrific that I had to leave the room. My belief that Canada was a shining beacon of progressive multiculturalism which treated all citizens equally was shattered.

Since that first discovery I have unfortunately had plenty of chances to reflect on the sin of racism: from the silence of my approved high school curriculum regarding Canada’s history among First Nations people, to the violence visited on Muslim citizens following 9/11, to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to the constant violence on citizens of colour by police, to the recent targeting for mass murder of citizens of colour in a Charleston church by a young man whom I will not name because I refuse to participate in the terribly weird culture of pseudo-celebrity that always accompanies such tragedy in North America.

That reflection is what is hanging over my head whenever I read this story about Jesus and the foreign woman.

Friends, I’m not trying to demonize my Lord and Saviour, your Lord and Saviour, our Teacher and Friend. This is the whole point: racism and xenophobia are not things perpetrated by inhuman demons. It is a part of being human – not a good part, but a part. We are a tribal animal. Perhaps the true sin of the Fall is the fact that we became afraid of the one we had once loved, which makes it far easier to be afraid of the one we do not know.

We inherit all kinds of things from our families, and while you may be happy to inherit Great-Grandma’s gold wedding ring, there are probably other things in your family that you are happy to consign to the dump, like Great-Grandpa’s newspaper collection, or Aunt Jane’s beliefs about immigrants, or Uncle John’s violent streak.

Jesus understood intellectually that purity does not come from inside – from blood-type or ethnicity – but from outside, from actions and words, and then it is proven to him experientially as well. After he meets this intriguing woman, who refuses to be silenced or ignored, he gets it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus feeds 5,000 people and has 12 baskets left over – a basket for every tribe of Israel. In the next chapter, he will feed 4,000 people and have seven baskets left over – a basket for each of the supposed nations of Gentiles.

This woman, with all the blessed insistence of a mother, teaches him something.

Writer Andrew Prior put it very well indeed, and I’ll paraphrase.

We say that Jesus was sinless, but perhaps this does not mean he never spoke in anger, or lashed out, or reverted to stereotypes. Perhaps what really made him sinless was that “when he sees how he has been fenced in, he does not shore up his defences. He lets the Spirit of God fill him with compassion. Jesus simply repents.”

Prior’s following question is also mine.

Can I do the same?

Can we?