Title: Strange Encounters
Texts: Isa 56.1, 6-8; Matt 15.21-28
Date: August 14, 2011
Author: Nathan Rauh
One of the things I’ve come to realize this summer is how much this community has been working on me, teaching me to sit in the tension with difficult texts and let them work on me. Catherine exemplified that last week by not letting us get away with overlooking disturbing texts found in 1 Kings. And so, given some courage by her example, I will be preaching from the gospel text we heard just now. First, pray with me.
Encounter in the Text.
About midway through Matthew’s gospel, we are let in on a episode which takes us off-guard, which we find confusing, strange, even disturbing.
To this point in Matthew’s story, we have been on tour with Jesus, watching his public ministry unfold. Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus’ ministry has drawn great crowds and featured a lot of healing and exorcisms and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are onlookers at the blurry edges of each scene, moving with him to the next site of ministry, and curious as to what will happen next. And when we don’t quite expect it, the very vision statement of Jesus’ ministry is called into question by a certain encounter. Or, rather, by a certain someone who encounters him, confronts him.
We don’t know much about her. We don’t know what she knows about Jesus, or how she knows about him. We don’t know what her experience has been of Israel’s God and worship life. We don’t know why she comes on such an urgent errand unaccompanied by her daughter’s father.
But we know enough. We know enough to feel the strangeness of this encounter, to feel the nearly palpable sense of risk involved.
We know that Jesus and his band are in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, knowledge that raises our eyebrows if we are Israelites: they’ve gone there, into paganland.[i] Demons are known to be thick over there. Folks from those parts are undevout, not to mention economic oppressors, city-dwellers who consume the food grown by the region’s backcountry Jewish peasants.[ii] The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus described inhabitants of this region as “our bitterest enemies.”[iii]
We know that this person is a Canaanite. “To readers of the Hebrew Scriptures… Canaanite [was shorthand for] everything dangerous to the faith of Israel.”[iv] So this person is also a religious threat.
We also know, and cannot ignore the fact, that the Canaanite is a woman, a shouting woman. It would be easy to hold onto a patronizing view of her, as the timeless marginalized mother who helplessly begs for her child. Except that here, she’s neither passive nor powerless, and if anyone is marginal in this scene, it is the disciples. This woman knows what she wants, and goes directly to Jesus to get it. Nor is this the first time in the Bible that a persistent outsider woman helps open up for people new understandings of God’s plan of salvation. But the riskiness is still there, for here she is confronting men; and not only men, but men her society could ostracize her for speaking to, men of Israel; and not only men of Israel, but a Rabbi.[v] This woman, a Gentile by race and culturally Hellenized, is confronting the Rabbi Jesus.
We know, if we have been following the story, that her dogged request directly challenges, calls into question, tests the limits of Jesus’ mission he laid out in 10.5-6: go only to the lost sheep of Israel.
And so we know this exchange in Matthew 15 is charged with tensions, crisscrossed with boundaries. In ethnicity and class and culture and religion and sex– that is, in most important ways – she is Other to Jesus. Their encounter is an encounter of social worlds. We know, we feel the vulnerability of this unexpected collision, the riskiness hanging in the air here, this interruption.
The disciples respond to this riskiness, to this interruption, in the most natural, human way, the way many of us do by default: “Send her away.” As human beings, they want this needy person to leave them alone, to stop inconveniencing them. And as Israelites, they ask Jesus to do the exact opposite of Isaiah’s vision, where foreigners are gathered in to Israel’s life, drawn by Israel’s light. She fits all too well into their pre-arranged categories of seeing the world: ‘one of them,’ an annoying needy person; and ‘one of them,’ a Gentile.
The Canaanite woman, however, is undeterred by the riskiness. She keeps pressing into the risky space, asking Jesus to be who she has come to believe he is: the Son of David, Mercy. The disciples do not even address Jesus by a title, but this pagan woman names Jesus the Messiah in the language of both Jewish and Gentile worlds; she names him ‘Lord’ three times, and “Son of David.” The Canaanite woman speaks Israel’s language more faithfully than the disciples do.
Jesus’ first response to her bold vulnerability is silence, followed by clipped, withholding statements: “I was sent only to the house of Israel.” “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus’ initial responses disturb us; at least, they disturb me.
Does he not know our texts from Isaiah 56, or Psalm 67, or so much of the Hebrew Bible – where Israel is to be a blessing to the nations? Does he not remember that his foremother was Ruth, similarly a Gentile woman who entrusts herself to Israel’s God in her time of desperation? – I want to ask, indignantly, anxiously.
But yes, this is the same Jesus who at the end of this same gospel will send these same, flawed, unheroic disciples on mission among all the nations of the earth (the Great Commission). And yes, this is the same Jesus whose body, we see in the book of Acts, has opened up space in Israel’s life for the in-grafting of the nations.
It seems that Jesus has focused on Israel, the Nation which will make salvation known. It seems he thinks that the way to go wide later is to go deep now. But is Jesus yet convinced that mission to the Gentiles will come about through him?
The Canaanite woman argues back, pushes him and his sense of timing out of comfort zone. From Jesus’s exclamatory response, it seems that she, the Canaanite, has bested him, the Rabbi, in the debate. She has messed with his timing, shown him something he hasn’t quite seen before. A person has challenged a mission. This marginal woman opens up room for, she foreshadows the Great Commission, the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). God has used her on the road to bringing each one of us sitting here into God’s family.
Even still, when I as a bystander watch this exchange unfold, I am puzzled, disturbed, surprised. Jesus’ hesitation is an affront to our modern sensibilities of inclusiveness. We can channel all our anxieties over this passage into: what is this saying about Jesus?
I want to sit in the strangeness of this. It makes me wonder:
…if Jesus had to unlearn what seems like his own ethnocentrism, even prejudice, can he save us from ours?
…are we comfortable with a Jesus who learns from a woman/outsider?
…are we uncomfortable with a Lord who is still learning what his mission is to be about?
…are we disturbed by a Jesus who allows his previous boundaries to be transgressed?
But maybe this fixation on what is going on with Jesus can distract us from asking: what is this passage saying about us? Where are we in this passage? Are we mere sideliners, or bystanders: or is our collective fate in this scene?
Maybe we must move from bystander to being in the scene. Maybe it would be helpful to read this passage and think about the Ignatian method for meditating on Scripture. It is a devotional technique in which you read the text over and over while placing yourself in the shoes of a character and experiencing the scene as that character, from the vantage point of that character.
In this strange encounter, who do we see ourselves as? From whose perspective? From what vantage point? I know I find myself wanting to align myself, in most cases, with the disciples. Of course, I don’t want to see myself in the disciples’ rejection of outsiders, in their unwillingness to be inconvenienced, in the way they turn off would-be followers from Jesus.
But on the whole, we prefer to place ourselves as the insiders, the disciples. We are part of a believers’ tradition, after all. Whether on basis of identity, ethics, belief, ethnicity, etc., we can know we are in the inner circle, the group that tours with Jesus on his true mission. On the basis of faithfulness or identity or baptism, we can claim a get-out-of-being-Gentile pass for ourselves.
But the disciples fade into the background of this text, and we are forced to see a woman who recognizes her place as an outsider and turns her back on her identity because of her faith in Jesus. Here, she is our teacher, out example. In saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table,” she places herself in the position of vulnerability… if she is a dog, she still wants to be a dog in his house. Her posture is one of desperate dependence on Jesus. She believes that Jesus of Nazareth has something that she will risk social death, her identity, to attain: this is her great faith. Her vulnerability, her desperate dependence, is to be ours… because, for we who are Gentile by birth, it already is.
I think she reminds us what we should never have forgotten: that we are Gentile, that we stand in her line.[vi] We are not the entitled bearers of ‘in-group’ status. We are those foreigners gathered in worship of Israel’s God, those foreigners that today’s passage from Isaiah 56 talks about.
And so, I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus and the woman argue about the nature of Jesus’ mission using the metaphors of food and a table and who belongs there. Our faith is this: God has invited us – we who are other – into God’s hospitable life. Christ who has welcomed us, Gentiles, into Israel’s house, and to their table. How, then, do we approach the table? The temptation is that we forget the strangeness of being foreigners invited to God’s table, and to fight for our place there, or to grasp it as an entitlement. Or, with the desperate dependence of this outsider, to boldly, vulnerably, cling to Jesus as the way to the table.
The lectionary reading ends the passage with verse 28. But listen to what happens if we read on, to immediately after this encounter, in vv.28-31:
“After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up on the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.”
They praised the God of Israel. It seems that the unnamed Canaanite woman – not the disciples – has been used to bring other outsiders into an encounter the God of Israel.[vii] She has been used of God to open up space for other misfits to come and find healing in Jesus. We are in those crowds as well. We are the foreigners and the misfits who come to praise the God of Israel because of the healing Jesus has extended to us who once were outsiders, in fact, were enemies (Rom. 5).
From this passage, it would seem that strange encounters open up space for the will of God to come on earth as in heaven. From this passage, it would seem that God the Holy Spirit shows up in the strange, vulnerable, risky encounters – the ones we view as interruptions, and offers new revelation on who we are, and who God would have us be with.
CHMF is the kind of community which makes each of us – including the preacher – take Scripture really seriously; especially risky texts like this. Here we have the space to sit in the strangeness, and to work out together, through dialogue and friendship, what it means to live within the difficulties of the Christian life. This is a gift I can name after this summer. And so, as always, and especially with a text like this, I am thankful that the final word on what the Spirit is saying to us belongs to everyone gathered here.
[i] Bruner: “code for paganland,” Matthew: The Churchbook, 97.
[ii] Judy Volf-Gundry, “Spirit, Mercy, and the Other,” Theology Today (51:4): 1995.
[iii] Ap 1.13.
[iv] Bruner, 97.
[v] One feminist interpretation of the scene is as such: “the Canaanite is an aggressive single parent who here defies cultural taboos and acts to free Jesus from his sexism and racism by catching him in a bad mood or with his compassion down, besting him in an argument and herself becoming the vehicle of his liberation and the deliverance of her daughter.” Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, 1985.
[vi] This reading of the Canaanite woman, and what she means for Gentile followers of Jesus, comes from Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.
[vii] This last statement identifies the crowds as Gentiles. Further, the Sea of Galilee is associated with Gentiles in 4:13-18.