August 17, 2014
10th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Title: “Who Signed Me Up for Math?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This past week I was chatting with Julie and Paul Robinson. We were catching me up on their granddaughters, when Julie started to tell me about their youngest granddaughter, Reagan. (Before anyone gets nervous, I got permission to use this story.) Anyway, she’s in middle school this year, and she gets a class schedule. So apparently she was looking excitedly at the class list: Science first hour - oh good! English second hour: good. Phy Ed. Lunch. Math. Math? Who signed me up for math?
I related to Reagan when I looked at the scripture passage for this morning. Matthew 15:21-28? Who stuck that into the lectionary lineup? This is not one of my favorite scripture passages, mostly because it seems so dog-gone hard to get my brain around. Maybe part of the reason is cultural, maybe historical, but whatever-ical, there are so many other passages that are easier and straight-forward. But if Reagan has to go to Math, then I figured I could do Matthew 15:21-28.
In doing my homework for today’s scripture, it’s important to set the scene. Jesus had had a communion meal with five loaves, two fish, 5,000 men, plus women and children. After dinner, he sent the disciples to go across the lake in a boat, sent the people home, and went up the mountain to pray. Maybe he had a nap, too. Early in the morning, Jesus came walking on the water, Peter got out of the boat and started to sink, and Jesus saved him. Some pharisees and teachers came from town, ready to pick a fight, flinging scripture passages at Jesus. Jesus told the crowds, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” After a little more banter, Jesus finally had enough.
Matthew 15:21-28 NIV
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Thank you, Myra. I’m sure that part of my struggle with this passage is between vs. 26 and 27. Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” And the woman says, “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
So - is she saying it “is” right to take bread from children and feed it to dogs? If only we could have some other indication: facial expression, tone of voice, I think we could get closer to what was really going on here. Maybe it’s clear as a bell for some of you, but not so much for me and my mental block. For many years, I’ve been reading the woman’s reply as a sort of meek or mild affirmation. Maybe there was there was more energy and heat in her voice.
After doing some homework, it’s interesting what people “see” going on. One of the many things that make Jesus unique is being the Son of God and the Son of Man - human and divine - at the same time - the only person in all of time. That used to be a really big deal, and not only were there a variety of religious affiliations that developed over time, but wars were fought over the nature of Jesus. I dare say that even some of our modern and current wars have threads that trail back to Jesus’ nature.
What’s interesting about our passage is that it sort of gives the impression that Jesus was not so much The Messiah, but more a racist or at the very least, a jerk. A lot of rationalization can be made for his “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He had just said something about that which comes out of one’s mouth having the potential to defile. So maybe he was still “learning” to be The Messiah. Maybe he’d not realized how big his mission was going to be, and he was overwhelmed, tired and even short-tempered. It’s just not like Jesus to treat a person like a nuisance dog, dismissing him or her. Sure, Jesus offended Pharisees and other religious types. But this woman isn’t standing on a self-righteous soapbox. If that is all there is to this passage, the sinless picture of Jesus would be pretty thin, old, wrinkled and faded.
Rumor has it that the “traditional” way of approaching this scripture is that Jesus was testing her. This exchange was a way of “bringing to harvest the faith that God had already planted in her.” as some have said. Seems to me that would be more like the drill sergeant to the new recruit, tearing her down in order to build her back up again. That’s not necessarily a great understanding of this passage either, except that Jesus did test other people, like the rich young man about the kingdom of God, to name just one.
One thing is for sure. If even Jesus underestimated the grace of God and had to be shaken into recognizing some people as loved by God, then you can bet your last dollar that no matter how broad minded some of us may be, none of us are yet beyond being shocked by who God is willing to love and welcome into the Kingdom!
Maybe our focus should be less about Jesus and more about the woman. She had a sick child and she was ready to do whatever it took to get her well - in a time when women and children were easily dismissed. I know there are some here who have had sick children and you’ve done some pretty hard things, digging in your heels, to get that child what they needed. You know what it’s like, to have to raise your voice and know your stuff in order to be the champion your child needed.
Somehow we’ve come to think that raising our voice to God is bad manners. If God made us, then pretending to hide our feelings and emotions is not only futile, but needless. Artist and writer, Jan Richardson’s husband died a year or two ago, and she put more flesh on what the mother might have said.
“Don’t tell me no. I have seen you feed the thousands, seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine, seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you and not one soul turned away. Don’t start with me.
I am saying you can close the door but I will keep knocking. You can go silent but I will keep shouting. You can tighten the circle but I will trace a bigger one around you, around the life of my child who will tell you no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness.
I am saying I know what you can do with crumbs and I am claiming mine, every morsel and scrap you have up your sleeve. Unclench your hand, your heart. Let the scraps fall like manna, like mercy for the life of my child, the life of the world. Don’t you tell me no.
Actually, she’s a pretty amazing woman. She was gutsy - not only challenging the social morays of her time, but the very Son of God himself. I think she must have been pretty bright, because she won that little theological debate with Jesus. I’m thinking she was pretty spiritually insightful, because even though she is a Gentile, somehow she sees Jesus as having come for her as well.
Some may see this passage as God withholding grace from us. It’s so easy for us to have that Santa-mentality about God. I don’t think God gave us the passions we have if we weren’t supposed to use them for that which God has promised; just as the woman did.
But not everyone gets their requests of God answered so simply or readily. I know millions of people have begged, pleaded, prayed their knees raw for a child or loved one to “get better,” and nothing happened. Sometimes that person became lost, and God didn’t seem to care.
So maybe the mother doesn’t have the big lesson for everyone. What was interesting in my homework this week was the absence about the absence of the daughter - the one demon possessed.
Whether you believe in demon possession or that it is another name for mental illness, isn’t a critical issue in regards to this passage, I don’t think. The girl was suffering, and while her mother had a clue about some of the suffering, no one really knew what she was feeling or dealing with. It was enough, tho, for the girl’s mother to raise her voice to high heaven to find relief for her.
We’ve come so far in our contemporary world, and we understand the best soils in which to plant our crops. We have powerful medications and technology that have given us a level of living way beyond imagining just a few years ago. But mental illness still eludes us. It’s still considered a no-talk subject. And it’s still robbing us of those we love.
If I’d have done more investigating, I could stand her longer with more theories about what this passage means. For that lack of time, some of you rejoice. But actually, we don’t have to look or work that hard, because here are the questions that matter. What does this passage mean to you - for today. Maybe you’ve already had the light glow bright over that thought or statement that seems as if it’s from God directly to you. If not, then that’s what prayer is for.
Gracious and Caring God, we know you are a God of love, not one that is mean or spiteful. We know you care about us and our well-being - all the time. We know, too, that while there are some things that we just aren’t meant to understand on this side of eternity, you have given us brains and hearts to learn and understand. So help us in discovering what we - each of us - needs to understand from this passage. Give us the mindfulness to come back to this passage often this coming week, that the lesson be deep and helpful. We pray, too, for those who are suffering - whether from demons or illness - that you give them your crumbs - and entire loaves - of healing and wellness. For the healing of us, the sick, and all your people, this part of your family says, Amen.