a sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
preached on August 17, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
That wonderful song, rooted in the life of slave communities in the deep South and sung in that recording at a rally during the Civil Rights Movement, seems strangely appropriate for today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew. The Canaanite woman in this text seemed intent upon singing exactly those words even when Jesus himself tried his best to deny her a place at that table. Just as Jesus arrived in a town away from everything, in a region filled with people who were unlike him, this woman came up to him, begging him to heal her daughter: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
At first, Jesus completely ignored her. You have to wonder what was going through his mind to drive him to behave like this. Was he just tired and a little zoned out after an intense week of teaching and healing, not to mention all the traveling involved? Was he so marked by the cultural influences of his day that he could not look past her different race, gender, religion, and ethnicity to offer her compassion? Or was he so intent on completing his mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” that he could not offer even a little to others along the way? Whatever the reason for his silence, when he ignored this woman in this way he looked a lot more human than divine to me.
The woman, though, didn’t give up so easily. When Jesus ignored her, her cries grew louder: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Now she was starting to get on everyone’s nerves. The disciples started complaining to Jesus, but why? Were they just reporting the unrecorded complaints of others? Were they too embodying the sort of attitude of their time toward people who were different? Or were they a bit afraid that she might draw more attention to them in this community where they were actually the outsiders? Whatever the reason, the disciples told Jesus to send her away, and he did, finally telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Still, this was not enough to convince her to go away. When her loud cries for help were ignored, she fell on her knees before Jesus, pleading with him, “Lord, help me.” This time, Jesus’ response to her went from quietly disrespectful to directly demeaning: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Again he insisted to her that his purpose for ministry didn’t involve her or anyone like her. While we may lose a bit of the cultural or linguistic play on words at our distance, Jesus’ intent in his response to the Canaanite woman seems clear to me: he had had enough of her. It was time for her to go away and leave him alone, and he would tell her whatever was needed to make that happen.
But even with this response the woman did the unimaginable and came back at him a fourth time. As one commentator paraphrases it, she basically told him, “Yes, Lord, I am a dog, so treat me like one. Give me the crumbs [from that table].” (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, p. 153) After this, Jesus couldn’t turn her away, so he turned toward her instead. He healed her daughter and praised her faith, her belief that “she and her daughter should receive mercy from the ruling activity of God.” (Jae Won Lee, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 361) With her persistent faith in God’s mercy and compassion, she had claimed her place at that welcome table. She was willing to accept a lower-level grace for now, for the sake of her daughter, but by her persistence she made it clear that she would one day sit at the table, no longer relegated to lap up the crumbs on the floor with the dogs. She knew better than Jesus did in that moment that the incredible depth and breadth of God’s love breaks through every human limitation and makes a place for all at the welcome table.
Over the centuries since this first encounter, the followers of Jesus have often been too much like Jesus at the start of this story. We have let our exhaustion or anxiety in the moment shape our reaction to those in need. We have been so focused on our own understandings of ministry that we miss the people we weren’t expecting to encounter along the way. We have even fallen into the traps of the world’s ways to ignore those who cry out for help because they don’t look like us, live like us, think like us, love like us, or even cry out for help like us. If we haven’t done it ourselves, others surely have done it in the name of Jesus at one point or another.
We need people like the Canaanite woman to remind us that our reaction to injustice is so very often shaped less by God’s commitment to the humanity of all and more by our preferences. We need people like the Canaanite woman to step up and sing loud and clear, “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table,” claiming their place not under the table scavenging for the leftovers of justice and peace but a place where the fullness of new life from God is provided abundantly for all. And we need people like the Canaanite woman to urge us to action so that we can respond to the cries for compassion that are offered right in front of us, to challenge us to set aside the fears that all too often drive our actions, to bring us together in offering a united cry for justice and peace that is more than empty words, to join in God’s work of making all things new.
There have been plenty of people in our world crying out like this Canaanite woman in recent days, insisting that they too are gonna sit at the welcome table. Even on vacation over the past two weeks, I couldn’t escape the cries and shouts for justice in our world. All over London, thrift shops run by the relief organization Oxfam highlighted the great need of response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, where two generations of occupation have kept the Palestinian people from living life to its fullness and left Israelis at risk, only to have recent warfare bring further death to both sides in this intractable conflict as everyone seeks a seat at the welcome table.
Then, when I tried to turn to my social media friends on Facebook and Twitter to provide a bit of company along the journey, I was overwhelmed by the outcry over the troubling death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager stopped for walking in the middle of the street by a white police officer in a suburb of St. Louis last weekend. When the police offered limited, confusing, or conflicting answers to reasonable questions about the incident—in the rare moments when they spoke at all—the community’s peaceful protests escalated as the police approached the protestors in military riot gear. Images of these protests bear an eerie similarity to photos from the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement, and it is clear that even fifty years later, with some real change in our world, there are still people crying out for a seat at that welcome table.
And there are so many other places where women and men cry out for justice and peace and wholeness and new life in our world—among Ebola victims in west Africa, amidst renewed conflict in Syria and Iraq, alongside power struggles in the Ukraine and Russia, even among the poor and marginalized much closer to home—women and men and children cry out for a seat at that welcome table.
So what are we to do with all this pain around us, both far and near? Is our best response to be like Jesus at the beginning of the story, to ignore those who cry out in hopes that they will be respectful and just go away, or to tell them that they are a distraction from our bigger purposes, or even to insist that they are something less than human because they have dared to challenge the established order of things and seek a seat at the table with us? Are we to take a step even further and respond with violence? Or can we find a better way than what Jesus did that honors both these cries and the humanity of those who cry out, that shows compassion to those who suffer, that offers a word of grace to those in need, that embodies God’s love for all—love whose power is greater than even the smallest portion of crumbs—that offers a much-needed seat at the welcome table of our world?
In the midst of all the pain and war and suffering that marks our lives and our world, we can live and pray and work in ways that honor the loud and soft cries of those who are in need so that God’s love might touch each and every place where new life is needed. So may we join in God’s work to make space for everyone to have a seat at the welcome table, not leaving anyone just to pick up the leftover crumbs but ensuring that all God’s people can know the full abundance of God’s grace, mercy, peace, and love. Thanks be to God! Amen.