Nevertheless, She Persisted – August 20, 2017
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. AMEN.
Earlier this year two prominent senators got into a disagreement on the Senate floor. One was giving a speech against a cabinet appointee of President Trump. The other told her to stop. The speaker continued speaking. He tried to interrupt her, and when she wouldn’t stop, he invoked an arcane Senate rule and shut her down. When challenged for doing so, he justified his action saying “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted. ”
I thought of that exchange as I read today’s Gospel. Because this is exactly what the Canaanite woman did. Persist. Persevere. Hang in. Keep after Jesus. Even after Jesus treats her abominably. When she begs him for mercy, for justice, for her daughter, he ignores her, remaining silent in the face of her pleas. He then seems to give in to the pressure of his disciples urging him to send her away. When she refuses to be ignored and pleads her case once more, he insults her by calling her a dog. It all feels, quite frankly, rather awful and not at all like the welcoming, inclusive Jesus we expect.1 He’s acting so unchristian! Some scholars say Jesus was caught with his compassion down.2
His encounter with her takes place outside Jewish Galilee, in the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Enter, as if on cue, “a Canaanite woman from that vicinity.” As a Canaanite she is the textbook other. As a Canaanite and a woman, she is meant to be kept at arm’s length by faithful Jews. She begs Jesus for healing for her ailing child.
As I read the text I wondered if Jesus had read this morning’s passage from Isaiah; did he forget that Isaiah’s understanding of God was inclusive and welcoming of all? Was he absent from Hebrew School when this and other passages from Isaiah were taught, those that point to God’s embrace of the stranger and non-Jew?
The God we worship doesn’t erect boundaries between peoples and nations. We are the community that asserts “there is no longer Jew or Greek… no longer slave or free… no longer male and female; for all… are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28-9) That all foreigners, all peoples are welcome. This is our stock in trade. We practice that well here at St. Paul’s. God’s house is for all peoples as Isaiah says. God loves everyone, including persons with hateful opinions.
There are various theories about why Jesus disrespected this woman: some, in trying to make Jesus look less bad suggest that Jesus really wasn’t being mean, he was just testing the woman; if this was the case I think she got an A. Others suggest that he didn’t really mean that she was less than human, it was all a misunderstanding, or even that there was more to this story that didn’t make it into the Gospels. My theory is that Jesus changed his mind.
There are many persons who have trouble with this notion, that Jesus can change his mind, can learn. Because one of the tenets of our faith is that Jesus is divine, God, we’re inclined to think that Jesus was unchangeable and unchanging. Like God. Yet Jesus was fully human too, and as part of that humanity, he had to embrace all the things that we humans do: taking first steps, learning to talk a few words at a time, growing from childhood into adulthood, and ultimately even changing his mind.
The Gospels record that Jesus got hungry and ate, got tired and needed time to rest and relax. We know that he expressed emotion: anger at the Pharisees and in the Temple, grief at Lazarus’ death and his own situation in the Garden, joy over children. Today is an occasion when we see him learn something new and, as a result, become someone different. As recorded by Mark as well as Matthew, Jesus is brought up short by an unexpected truth, that his mission is for all people. Not only does he change his mind, but does so in a 180-degree turn. Most astonishing of all, it is a pagan woman who makes him do it.
With this painful yet persistent plea, the Canaanite woman asks to be seen and heard, recognized as another child of God. Through her person and her plea, the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus something about himself and his mission that is crucial for him to learn. Some may feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus “learning,” but I can’t think of another term that better captures Jesus’ expanded sense of mission at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel that ends with the commission to take the good news to the whole world.3
How providential that we get these lessons today. After the week that we’ve experienced, from the tragic events of Charlottesville and their fallout, to the persistent anti-immigrant, anti-outsider environment we’re living in, we get the story of an outsider speaking truth to power, to all who would listen.
The Canaanite woman is speaking to us today. She is calling us to do justice for her, for all marginalized people, and speak the truth that white supremacy in all its forms is evil and sinful. That anti-Semitism is evil. That homophobia is evil. That any put down of another is evil. That we need to be alert to and recognize these subtle, insidious sins in the wider culture, perhaps even in our own lives. And speak and work against them.
White supremacy and racism are alive and well here in CT, whether we acknowledge it or not; we see its evidence in private conversation and on bumper stickers. Many of us are the beneficiaries of white privilege; it is part of the fabric of American culture, and the Church has been complicit in it. Our heroine today is calling to us to stand for justice, to work for racial reconciliation, to maintain and live from the truth that Jesus learned from her, that all persons are equally beloved of God.
It is difficult work. It is the work of healing, of unlearning old ways and re-learning new ones, of listening more and talking less, letting our minds and hearts be changed. It is the work of a lifetime. It requires persistence and perseverance. And it is the work to which we are called as followers of the One who gave his life for all persons.
As Fr. Lang said last week “If we really believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, the very face of God, and want to be his disciples, then we know that greatness of a people, a nation, a society, of any community and of a church is measured by its commitment to compassion, social justice, respect for the dignity of every human being, restoration, reconciliation, and the work of building the kingdom of God here and now. That’s the only authentic brand of Christianity.”4
1 David Lose, The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson, Dear Partner in Preaching, August 20, 2017.
2 Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Locations 11960-11963)
3 David Lose.
4 Nicholas Lang, sermon August 13, 2017.