A sermon based upon Matthew 15:21-31
Matthew introduces us to Jesus Christ back in Chapter 4 with these words: "He went about all Galilee, teaching n their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him; and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…"and so forth. (Matthew 4:23 –5:3)
We are familiar with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and just last Sunday we reviewed a "chosen dozen" of his teachings as "marching orders for the church" as we do our part to spread his Gospel to all the nations. I appreciate Jesus in his role as a teacher and I look to his life (as recorded in the Gospels)as a role model of what God expects from us human beings.
But, frankly, I can’t help but wonder about all these healing miracles that Jesus was able to perform… and which I cannot… nor do I expect them from any of you, Jesus’ followers in Alpena. (!) What do we do with that? Jesus drew crowds –throngs of people –not because of his challenging teachings, but because they knew that he was a powerful healer… a miracle worker!
For example, here we are this morning --eleven chapters further along in Jesus’ life-story as told by Matthew--and Patrick Labadie read for us an update on Jesus’ ministry:
Jesus [again] went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him[apparently not to hear another sermon, but] bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others; and they put them at his feet, and he healed them–so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing –and they glorified the God of Israel.
Look, I have no doubt that healing is possible through our faith in Jesus Christ. And we will look at one specific instance–the Canaanite woman’s daughter –in detail in a moment. But, first, let’s get real: this is the 21stCentury.Do we allow for the possibility of healing miracles? Or is that a thing of the past?
Talk of "miracles" has become merely a turn of phrase --it’s lost its meaning. We saw an example of that just this week when the President praised the police force in Las Vegas for shooting last Sunday’s sniper: twice he said it was "a miracle". Personally, I would have addressed the tragedy, grief, and shock of the mass-murder before I’d announce a "miracle" .And since it took the police 10 minutes to locate and eliminate the shooter, I (frankly) don’t see much of a miracle in that. But then, I’m a theologian, not a politician; a preacher, not a President. And I’m admitting right up front that I’m no miracle worker.
In my experience, the credibility of miracles is a stumbling block for many faithful Christians. We follow Jesus, yes! We take his words seriously, and we learn from his behavior new ways to relate, creating a new "more-compassionate" society. I’m all for that kind of Christianity!
We accept the challenge of discipleship… the cost and the joy of being a "Jesus follower " We’re on the Way (as best we can),asking ourselves "what would Jesus do?", and walking "in his steps" day by day. All well and good… but then we bump into the miracle stories, and we find them incredible.
Can a modern Christian who values intellectual integrity, and who knows something of the laws of physics and quantum mechanics and Chaos theory, accept them? For four full years I have preached in this pulpit and, until today, I have hardly ever mentioned Jesus’ healing miracles –and, so far as I can tell, nobody minded… apparently nobody missed them!
But today’s text --which lists " the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing"--makes me realize that healings are an integral part of the Gospel story of Jesus! Matthew tells us that the crowds "glorified the God of Israel" when they witnessed the healings.
Miraculous, life-changing events are intricately woven into the warp-and-woof of Jesus’ whole ministry, such that we cannot treat them as incidental, or accidental, or as some extrinsic frame that can be discarded. I think we must grant the possibility of miracles… not as intrusions from some super-natural realm into the other-wise orderly world of nature, but as part of our reality.
Let me say it this way: Because life is a dynamic process (an unfolding experience of interrelated phenomena), "miracles" are not so much interruptions & suspensions of ordinary existence as they are expressions of the universe itself coming into consciousness in our midst.
The President isn’t the only one who misunderstands the meaning of "miracle." In olden days, whenever events baffled popular understanding, it was deemed to be a "miracle."
Even today, the word is used primarily for things that science has yet to find a verifiable and feasible explanation. The remission of a cancer that had been assumed terminal and inoperable, we call a miracle cure. Someone awakening from a long-term coma beyond the reach of medical science: a miracle.
I think it is time to admit that there is more to life than just the observable, provable, scientifically demonstrable things that surround us --things that are subject to the laws of materialism and motion and relativity and thermo-dynamics. There is all that, yes, but there is also (I believe) a spiritual world --cosmic energies from the beginning of time that run through all physical reality --that is just as real! In fact, eternally real, not just ephemeral passing phenomena.
In other words, "miracles" (such as the ones listed in today’s Gospel text) are not so much an interruption of the natural world by some "super-natural" power coming in from the outside, as it is an experience of God’s presence and involvement in the world; an occasion for us to glorify the God of Israel.
As John Dominic Crossan put it in one of his books:
"The super-natural(or divine)is not something that periodically or temporarily breaks through the normal surface of the natural world. The supernatural is more like the permanently hidden but perpetually beating heart of the natural. It is always there for those with spirit to see or faith to hear.
"And if, every now & then, somebody sees an in-breaking presence here or there, I do not mock that claim," writes Crossan,"because I understand those experiences as subjectively-read signs of that abiding presence…every-where present over, under, around, and through that natural order… Miracles are places where individuals or groups see God at work."
In the many stories of Jesus’ healings, we see God at work. I get that. So, even though I am unable to replicate that part of Jesus’ ministry –and I don’t expect it from any of you–I have no doubt that Jesus could do it. According to the Gospel record, Jesus’ reputation as a "healer" was a significant part of who he was–a concrete, living example of God’s compassion and life-giving power. (Thank you, Jesus!)
Having said all that, it struck me as odd that Jesus (in the first part of today’s reading) did not appear prepared (or willing) to help the Canaanite woman’s demon-possessed daughter. (!)
Here’s how Matthew tells it: Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
This means that Jesus had crossed the borders to the North of Israel into the region of Tyre and Sidon –a province of Greater Syria which the Romans called "Phoenicia" and which we nowadays refer to as Southern Lebanon. In other words, Jesus and his disciples have left Israel behind; he is no longer in Judea. He has moved into foreign territory. There he meets a Canaanite woman –a Syro-Phoenician Palestinian! A non-Jew.
Jesus is a stranger –out of place –and yet this Canaanite woman comes to meet him crying: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely possessed by a demon."
At first, Jesus appears to ignore her… which is quite uncharacteristic of him. He did not answer her a word!
His disciples came and begged him, saying: "Send her away, for she is crying after us. " You’ll notice, they did not beg Jesus to help the woman; they only wanted him to send her away. But Jesus answered them: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" … words which probably strike us as awfully narrow and exclusive.(Right?)
There is something very peculiar about this story! His words run counter to the otherwise inclusive &compassionate Jesus we meet elsewhere in the Gospels. And so the question naturally arises: "What’s his problem!?"
Is this (perhaps) the real Jesus of Nazareth peeking through, in all his human limitations? Must all the other dozen chapters of his life --in their glorious, golden, all-embracing grace --crumble under the weight of Jesus’ apparent refusal to cure this woman’s daughter? Is this an example of Jesus’ "hard-ness of heart"? Have we caught our Lord in a moment of narrow-mindedness; sexism against this woman, maybe racism?
Isn’t that the kind of thing our vulture-like "talk-show" media would pounce upon, if Jesus were running for office in our day? A "gotcha" sound-byte, that can be replayed ad infinitum. Let there be even one moment of dissonance, of perceived weakness –let there be one flippant or offensive remark –and the public cries: "Aha! We knew it all along! You, too, have feet of clay. You’re just as bad as the rest of us."
Isn’t that the cynical, pessimistic, doubting mood of our day!? We do it to our public officials; we do it to our celebrities, to our candidates for office… even to some of the finest figures of our past, and the most hopeful heroes of our time… We subject them to a terrible 24 hour/7 days a week scrutiny, looking for any single instance of weakness by which we can pull them down to the level of our own hard hearts. (So quick we are to judge others!)
Those who choose to interpret this story in such a way –that is, prejudicial to the pagan woman, and portraying Jesus as a narrow-minded nationalist unwilling to help this foreigner’s family (an unwilling healer who chooses to withhold his medical care from this poor girl) –have given in to the mood of our day in all its political rancor, not the Good News of the Gospel.
But then Jesus seems to make it even worse… When the woman herself came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me", Jesus answered: "It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." If this is interpreted as an allegory–in which Bible-believing Jews & Christians are the "children" and pagan foreigners are the "dogs" –this text would be pure racism.
Yes, I know my biblical history. I know that faithful Jewish men in Jesus’ day looked down their patriarchal noses at women in general, and they especially had no use for Gentiles(pagan Goyim). It was common for Jews in Jesus’ days to refer to Gentile foreigners as "dogs." But Jesus is not doing so! It is an error of interpretation –neither good exegesis nor Christian in spirit –to presume that Jesus shared the opinion of the narrow-minded racist nationalists of his day. He is not calling the woman a "dog"!(He knows she is a child of God, struggling.)
Nor is he calling the Jews "children" of God! In fact, his reference to "the house of Israel" points out that there are "many lost sheep" among them. (!) And it is about all he can do just to get through to them! His calling (as he sees it) is to seek and to save them–to get the stubborn Bible-believing Jews in his own homeland to come around; to get the religious and political leaders of his own country to repent and begin to work with God.
To begin teaching and healing among the pagan Greeks--Syro-Phoenician Gentiles--would be something altogether different… less biblically-focused and much broader in scope. His words should remind us of the fact that Jesus has already taken himself (and his disciples) outside the borders of Israel, beyond the traditional bounds of the Law of Moses.(remarkable)
It would not be until decades later that another Jewish believer would even consider bringing the Good News of the Jesus Messiah out of Israel and into the gentile world. (St. Paul)
The amazing fact that Jesus made the effort to bring himself and his ministry team beyond the confines and expectations of his Jewish world and into this woman’s home-land has been (pretty much) overlooked by preachers. So, too, the fact that his presence in a neighborhood, where –as a Jew, as a "Son of David" –he was not expected, nor would he be all that welcome, Jesus still drew people who were suffering.
In this case, it is a native woman (a Canaanite Palestinian) whose daughter was "hexed and vexed" (made ill) by an evil spirit (called "a demon" in Greek; in Hebrew "bad breathing"). Jesus makes it clear he does not intend to play the role of "Lord" in Syria –"I was not sent… in Greek, "I am no apostle"… except to the house of Israel". He claims no jurisdiction over her house. To Jesus, context matters! He claims no authority over this pagan woman and her family. His disciples need to know that the rules (and the roles) are different outside Israel & Torah Law.
In other words, I hope you realize that his first sentence was a teaching moment for his disciples. Jesus was chewing out his own men, not the woman. But she was listening in… She got the point about being a "foreigner" (not a Jew), and so she drops the "Son of David" title. She kneels and says simply: "Lord, help me." Jesus gained jurisdiction by her own choosing.
It is at this point that the talk of children, and bread, and dogs takes place. In Mark’s Gospel (the oldest version of this story, Mark 7:27), Jesus says: "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." In other words, "Go home, and feed your children… before the bread you have prepared for them goes bad and can only be used to feed the dogs."
Was it just a lucky guess on Jesus’ part that the woman had other children at home (in addition to her sick daughter), and was it merely a logical assumption that she was about to feed them bread?
Maybe… but how did Jesus know about the dogs? In fact, the word Jesus uses is not the one for a typical canine (a street dog, a wild dog, like the racial slur would intend); he uses the diminutive, which is better translated "puppies." This woman not only has children, she has puppies at home as well.
"Yes, Lord," says the woman in response to Jesus’ remark about the children’s bread and the dogs. "Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table."(!) Such a thing would be unthinkable in a kosher Jewish home –allowing the puppies under the family table during mealtime, eating crumbs dropped by the youngsters –but having pets in the family home was acceptable for this pagan woman. And Jesus knows it!
Unlike wild dogs who scavenge for meat, her puppies have an appetite for bread. They are "domestic." And since Jesus already knows this about her and her home, she realizes that he must know all about her, and accepts her… just like Jesus knew all about the Samaritan woman at the well, and accepted her.
Jesus’ next words to the woman sound more like the man we have come to know and expect: "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus didn’t move. He didn’t go to her house. He doesn’t even recite a prayer on her behalf. Without a gesture or vocal command, the power of God through Jesus Christ proves sufficient to cure the child. Here is an exorcism without ritual, without drama, without chanting or action… simply healed "by faith, through grace". No magic; no big show. Simply saved.
The sentence that should get our attention is Jesus’ affirmation of this pagan, foreign, non-Bible-believing, non-Jewish person, when he says: "O woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire." Such acclaim from the lips of Jesus to an otherwise anonymous person should serve to remind the sexist, racist, narrow-minded folks that Jesus is full of surprises as to who can be a good role model & who he considers great!10
May we be willing to cross boundaries and borders, like Jesus did, spreading God’s Kingdom to all people.
May we have the courage to confront prejudices and efforts to silence voices (such as the disciples displayed) with the graciousness like Jesus did.
And may we, like Jesus, publicly affirm people who speak up with faith, as this woman did.
Finally, may we also receive the help and healing that we need, even as we ask for these miracles in Jesus’ name.