Sometimes we just need to be reminded . . .
. . . even Jesus.
It has been said that God uses many things and people to get a point across to the faithful . . . to teach a lesson. All of us can probably vouch for that statement. So then . . . why wouldn’t God do the same for Jesus?
In this church we believe and embrace Jesus’ call to be welcoming to all . . . to be inclusive. We believe that Jesus came to save the whole world . . . to re-establish God’s Kingdom for all of God’s children. Thus it is that each week we issue the invitation to all to come and take their rightful place at the table . . . not at our beck and call, but at Jesus’. All are welcome.
If that is true, then what do we do with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman? Canaanites are not one of Jesus’ people; no, they are an enemy. She is not considered “clean”. Yet, she has the gumption to approach Jesus and demand that he “have mercy on” her as her “daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
Jesus’ first response is to ignore the woman. But she is persistent . . . persistent to the point that his disciples implore him to send her away. Having his chain jerked from both directions he finally responds . . . responds in words that might have hinted at some frustration on the part of Jesus. He tells the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
I imagine that every person who heard those words, including the Canaanite woman, understood their implication. In that brief outburst Jesus let it be known that this woman was not welcomed to the table . . . she was not wanted . . . she was not a part of the “in” crowd.
But, the woman is persistent. She challenges Jesus . . . “Lord, help me!” To which Jesus tells her that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Again, a reference to the “us” and “them” argument. The woman is argumentative and throws a trump card on Jesus’ response . . . “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Unfortunately the writer of Matthew’s gospel does not go into much detail about how those gathered reacted to the woman’s challenge of Jesus. No, we are not given any clues at all. We are not told if Jesus was taken aback . . . we are not told if the room fell into silence . . . if there was hesitation and tension. We are told nothing more than Jesus telling the woman, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And, we are told that within the hour the woman’s daughter was healed.
Sometimes we need to be reminded.
In this story, Jesus is reminded.
What happens in this story takes place in the shadow of the story that preceded it in this reading. In that story Jesus is explaining that it is not what goes in the mouth that makes one unclean, but what comes out. Jesus explains that it is what is in the heart that really matters, and when one speaks it reveals what is in the person’s heart. It has often been said that words reveal intentions. In the shadow of this knowledge Jesus is confronted with what is in his heart and what his words are portraying . . . there is an incongruence here.
Which brings us back to that original question I posed earlier: what do we do with this passage in light of what we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . that all are welcome?
Well, I guess we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus saw the light and responded by granting the woman her request . . . he healed his daughter. He healed the daughter of his people’s enemy . . . the daughter of an “unclean” person. In this way, Jesus welcomed all. We could do this and let it be, or we could look at the bigger issue . . . that Jesus needed to be reminded. Jesus needed to be reminded of his call to bring “all” the children of God back home . . . reminded that he was to restore God’s creation . . . to re-establish the Kingdom of God. That kingdom included all of God’s creation . . . all of humanity . . . after all, everyone is created in the image of God as God’s children.
So it is that we see Jesus is reminded in this encounter with the Canaanite woman. We see him reminded in her challenge as the words of his previous conversation of clean/unclean echoed in his ears. What was coming out of his mouth . . . his actions . . . we not consistent with his message and intentions as given to him by God. In this terse conversation we see the shift in Jesus . . . we witness the cleansing of his words . . . we see him move from the exclusive to the inclusive.
Yes, Jesus gets reminded.
The truth of the matter is that we all need to be reminded from time to time. We all need to be reminded of the words that we speak at the Lord’s table . . . that all are welcome. Reminded that our actions often speak louder than our words . . . and, that sometimes our actions and words are not congruent. Yeah, sometimes we need to be reminded of who we represent and follow.
Our actions and words reveal our hearts . . . Jesus said so.
Right now, in the world in which we exist, those actions and words that we are witnessing should be scaring us to death. In the words and actions being witnessed in our nation and in the world, we are not seeing much that correlates to what one might consider to be a “clean” heart. No, what we are witnessing is great hatred, violence, civil unrest, protesting, separation, and ugliness. What we are witnessing is far from the peaceful kingdom portrayed in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the messiah’s vision for God’ creation.
These are scary times that we are witnessing and living in . . . a lot of brokenness and division. In the presence of this brokenness and division, how are we to respond as the followers of Jesus who believe that all are welcome? How are we going to deal with the uncomfortableness of this moment of brokenness and division? This is our moment of confrontation with our Canaanite woman . . . our moment of pondering whether the words of our mouths are “clean” or “unclean” . . . our moment of stepping up and living that which we proclaim. What are we going to do?
It is a scary proposition.
I don’t know what happened in Jesus between the moment where he was denying the woman and that moment he changed his mind to heal the woman’s daughter. All I know is that something happened that suddenly made Jesus congruent once again . . . that made his actions fit the words he truly believed in his heart. In his willingness to heal the woman’s daughter . . . this outsider’s child . . . Jesus revealed a willingness to not only heal, but to also walk with those who have been healed and need to be healed. From a closed table to an open table . . . Jesus welcomed. Jesus welcomed even though it went against his religion, the mores of his culture, and the opinions of those who were closest to him. In the end, Jesus did what God had sent him to do.
Because of that, we are in a scary time considering a scary proposition. How are we to live our faith in the light of what we are witnessing in the world in which we live. How are we to respond to the division and brokenness of our world as those who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.
In this time we are being reminded.
We are being reminded that we are a broken and divided people. We are reminded that God desires a close intimate relationship with all of God’s children . . . a restoration of the kingdom. We are being reminded that we are to follow in the footsteps and witness of Jesus’ words, but more importantly his actions. And, we are being reminded that this uncomfortableness is a push for us to examine our faith . . . to examine our words and our actions, whether or not they are congruent. We are being reminded to examine our hearts . . . we are being reminded to love.
Sometimes love takes the harder, more difficult way. But it is that effort that makes one stronger. Sometimes love has to go through a lot of dirt to become what it is meant to be. As the followers of Jesus we are called upon to do the “right thing” . . . and, sometimes we need to be reminded as to what the “right thing” is. If we are going to be a people who believe and proclaim that all are welcome . . . then we need to pay attention to this reminder we face today.
May the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands be acceptable in the eyes and heart of God. Amen.