The Word Made Flesh
I want to talk mostly about the second half of our gospel reading for today, because I think it's really hard. It's not that the first part, about what defiles us is any less important or serious, but it doesn't tie me in knots like the Canaanite woman situation--and I suspect I might not be alone in that. It makes sense to me that what comes out of us, the stuff of our hearts that goes into the world, out of our mouths, is of more serious consequence, in terms of what God is about in and around us, than what we eat or how we eat it.
Of course, I know that at that point Jesus is really challenging the social and religious order of things, that he's turning sacred traditions on their heads, and that that's worth paying attention to. We ought to ask ourselves what sorts of things we have given priority to, which may be masking our own hear-sickness, our own failures to be people of love, righteousness, and justice. We ought to take seriously the potentially uncomfortable reality that what comes out of our mouths is indicative of what's going on in our hearts.
So, here's a challenge: listen to yourself over the next week. Pay attention to the words, the sentiments and tones, the beliefs that come out of your mouth. Do they sound like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control? Take them seriously. Pray for forgiveness for what needs to be forgiven, and ask God to increase what seems good. (Note: This is not a challenge to listen to everyone else, and diagnose the mess of their hearts; let's deal with the planks in our own eyes...) Spend some of your personal devotional time meditating on verses 10-20, and ask God to show you your own blind spots, as well as the places where light is shining through.
And then, perhaps, you might join me in meditating more on the next part of the passage. Because it's difficult. Karl Barth apparently said that the thing a preacher should feel most when they step into the pulpit to preach the Word of God is insufficiency. Today I'm particularly inclined to believe that he was right. Every time I think I've got a handle on this story it shifts. Every time I feel like I've wrestled it into submission, it's me who ends up on my back. This may be a good reminder that the gospel is not easily handled; it's not as prescriptive and straightforward as a good self-help book; it's serious about the messiness of life. This may be a good reminder that the gospel doesn't bend and twist according to our will. In fact, anyone who chooses to wrestle with the gospel is as likely as not, like Jacob wrestling the angel, to come away both blessed and limping into the light of a new day.
Let's pray our way into this: Lord thank you for the wonder of your word, which calls us beyond ourselves and into your will and way. Open our hearts and minds this morning, to your stirring. Convict, compel and comfort, by the power and presence of your Spirit. Help us here and now to know you more, that we might make you more fully known. For the sake of your love, made known in Christ. Amen
I think it's fair to say that this is an especially difficult passage to deal with today, given the distressing political and social events and currents of recent weeks and months. In the wake of the stomach-churning displays of hatred and ignorance and fear in Charlottesville last week, and even yesterday in our own city, it's hard not to be rather stunned by both the disciples' and Jesus' dismissal of this woman, apparently because of her race. We might expect as much from the disciples--at one point at least two of them actually asked if they could rain down fire and fury on their enemies (Jesus said no, incidentally)--but Jesus should know better.
And the truth is: I don't really know what to do with this. I read several more commentaries than I usually do this week, trying to figure out what is going on here, and it was not perfectly comforting to know that I'm not alone in my confusion. I was really hoping that I just missed something, and someone was going to make it all clear. But most people who study this passage seem to stumble over more or less the whole thing, too.
The consistent thing among them seems to be that there's a ton of contextual stuff going on here. Jesus and his disciples are in fairly hostile territory--the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon--surrounded by folks who couldn't be more different, at least where their religious and political commitments are concerned. Evidently, Jesus has gone a ways outside the pasture to seek out the lost sheep of Israel.
On top of that a Canaanite woman starts yelling at them, which is an issue for all sorts of reasons: it's considered, then as now, downright rude for someone to start shouting at a stranger, randomly, on the street; women aren't supposed to approach men in public; Canaanites and Jews don't mix well at the best of times; apparently this woman's daughter is demon-possessed, which, culturally speaking, comes back on her. What is likely true is that Jesus ignoring her is about the most gracious thing anyone would have expected, under the circumstances. Under the circumstances, the disciples' response is even somewhat tempered, if entirely uncompassionate.
I think there's more tension as a result of a couple of unexpected things: this Gentile woman, with all her cultural baggage and expected animosity, calls Jesus Lord (which may be like sir, not necessarily a confession of his Lordship in a Christian sense) and Son of David (which, in Matthew's gospel, definitely is a title for the Messiah, the saviour of Israel). If she had yelled obscenities at them, that might have been par for the course. Instead, she bursts through all of these cultural boundaries, of gender, race, religion, to fall on her knees at the feet of the one she thinks can save her daughter, because word has gotten out that folks think he might be the one to save YHWH's chosen nation--a vocation which Jesus himself affirms: "I am sent to the lost sheep of Israel's house." This woman bursts through all of these cultural barriers to claim Jesus as he is--the Saviour of Israel, and, if Israel's own prophets are right, of the whole world (even Canaanites).
Which I think is why I find it so shocking to see Jesus not bursting through cultural barriers to meet this desperate woman--which we've seen him do before: the Samaritan woman, the Centurion's slave, the Gerasene demoniac, the story we just finished! Instead, he seems to stay behind those cultural barriers; to put them up, even as she knocks them down.
As you might imagine, the experts have any number of explanations for his response: "It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." The explanations range from playfulness (the Greek word "dogs" is diminutive, like "doggies"--more like pets, not wild animals, which some say takes the edge off a bit; and if true, maybe the woman's response becomes a kind of folk humor), to irony or a test of her faith, or the intensity of his vocation--his sense of calling to do nothing but what he was sent to do; the Messiah has to be the Messiah for Israel, if he'll be the Saviour of the world (as on commentator puts it, "sometimes you have to say no to the good, in order to do the great")--or even that this underlines the truth that Jesus is not simply a travelling miracle worker, but that he's about something bigger than temporary fixes.
There are things I like about most of those explanations, but they don't quite satisfy. They don't take away the discomfort of the scene. It's just a hard moment. It's hard to see Jesus, in this moment, not transcending, not breaking down and bursting through barriers, like we're used to. It's hard to see him, even momentarily, hindered by the cultural brokenness around him. In other words, it's hard (at least for me) to see Jesus being fully human.
And yet, as I pray and wrestle and struggle with this Scripture, that may be where the good news, the gospel really starts to break through. Because it certainly magnifies the intensity of the incarnation--that the eternal God entered the finite world, uniquely, in Jesus. Is it paradoxically good news that Jesus so fully released his rightful grasp on divinity and took on humanity, as Scripture sings, that he really and truly could be shaped by his culture? I think it is good news. It reminds us that in the incarnation, God is all in, even scandalously so. It reminds us that when the Word that was with God and was God took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood, he didn't float slightly above the ground; he actually took the risk of moving into the neighborhood, of being shaped and formed by the people and movements around him, even as his ultimate vocation took form in Scripture and prayer and intimacy with the one he calls Father. The incarnation is messy business from the get-go, and here, in the dusty streets of Tyre, through the boldness of a desperate mother, I think we catch a glimpse of the divine risk taken to get all mixed up with us.
Because it feels like this is a moment where the whole thing could go sideways, that somehow, the kingdom of heaven is at risk. I think that's what makes it so hard to watch, and maybe, eventually, breathtakingly beautiful. Beautiful, because beyond all expectation (through this banter between a desperate, idol-worshiping, Gentile woman, and the Messiah of Israel) the kingdom of heaven actually breaks through. Suddenly, her prayerful cry, "Lord Help me" and his prayer wrought vocation collide, and the holy and the human come together. I think it's entirely possible that by the woman's insistence that she and her daughter should receive mercy, should see God's ruling activity in their lives, should see God's kingdom mission take shape in Jesus' actions, that his full divinity is called forth.
Whether she could or would articulate it this way or not, her essentially human prayer, the prayer that is the deepest of every human heart (Lord, help me), insists that the Word made flesh, be the Word made flesh. And the risk of the incarnation becomes its wonder. Suddenly, on the dusty streets of Tyre, the future becomes present; God's dream of blessing every family in heaven and earth shines through this tiny crack; the resurrection mission, still in the future, starts to take shape--that the Good News of God's grace and mercy should go to the ends of the earth, in the name of the One who has overcome every boundary, every kind of brokenness, to be with us and for us and make this world new, to make heaven and earth one.
I think it's always good to keep in mind that the gospels are written and given to the Church not just for information, but also (maybe mostly) for formation. As John puts it, we hear that we might believe and live in Jesus' name. And maybe one blessing to be wrestled out of this story is that we might be shaped as people who share in the woman's dogged, heroic determination that we should see the kingdom come, here and now, in this time and place. Our culture, too, needs saving. We too need Word and flesh to come together in the dust and wonder of our lives. Our prayers rise as acts of rebellion against the ways of hatred and division, of all kinds of violence. This is what Jesus calls faith--the relentless insistence that the demons are no match for God's word, alive and active in the world, and that we should and will see them defeated. Sometimes that faith needs to be embodied and shouted. Sometimes it needs to kneel and cry in desperation. Sometimes it needs to be a nuisance for the sake of those who can't be nuisances for themselves, all the while insisting and trusting that God's will will be done on earth as in heaven, even in our lives, and our communities, and this broken and beloved world.
Because we also share in the promise where the story ends, which is a glimpse of the ultimate end: the hope of healing and wholeness; the promise that ours is a God not afraid to enter into the mess and brokenness of this world and our lives and to see them renewed and made whole. We share in the hope and promise that the God who hears our prayers and has determined to be with us and for us. We share in the hope and promise that our lives, this time and place--every life, every time and space, from Tyre, to Charlottesville, to Spain, to 12th and Cambie--by grace and mercy is sufficient material for the building of heaven's kingdom. May it be so.
Thanks be to God. Amen