The challenge of the Canaanite woman

Usually, if I publish a sermon on here, I publish it verbatim. This sermon was a bit long, so I’ve cut out some of context setting from the opening section. It was also written for my very social-justice orientated congregation in Highbury – but I’ve added some things that I’d want to say to a wider audience…

Matthew 15: 21-28

Christ Church Highbury, August 20th 2017

The person who confronts Jesus has two important characteristics: she was a woman and she was a Canaanite. On two counts – her gender and her ethnicity –  this woman is unlikely to be listened to by those in religious or political positions of power. Including, it seems at the start of this encounter, Jesus and his disciples. When she cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter, verse 23 tells us that:

“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.’”

How does this response sit with you? Is this a rather inconvenient moment in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry? Where is Christ’s empathy?

There is an explanation for his reaction contained in his reply that: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’

***

When we read the New Testament as a whole, the message that the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile shines through. We take Paul’s words to the Galatians as a vision to live by: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But a reading of Acts or Galatians also reveals the division that was caused in the Early Church by disagreements about what ethnicity meant in the context of being a Christian.  The fact that the Early Church was able to unite over this division should be inspirational for us.

In this encounter, Jesus realises that he is not embodying the fullness of who he is as the Messiah. Yes, he has been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but there is also enough of his glory for even just the scraps to be given to those outside Israel. In this Canaanite woman, Jesus recognises more faith in who he is and who his Father is, than many in Israel have managed to muster!

A key message throughout Matthew’s gospel is one of Gentile inclusion. Time and again he reinforces the fact that Jesus came for all, regardless of their race. Just four chapters prior to this morning’s reading, Matthew has recorded Jesus’ rebuking of those who had not recognised him.

In chapter 11, verse 22, the cities of Tyre & Sidon are mentioned specifically. Jesus says to the crowd before him:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” [Matt 11:21-22]

And it is here, in the region of Tyre and Sidon that a miracle is performed for a Gentile who had recognised Christ as her Messiah.

***

In confronting Jesus, this woman seems to have a huge amount of confidence! Standing in front of an acclaimed teacher, who has ignored her and then told her that she is irrelevant because of her race, she throws his words back in his face.

In fact, she adopts an attitude that was something of a tradition among poor, desperate women in this culture. Being persistent in an attempt to gain justice from a corrupt judge or similar authority figure is a trait seen elsewhere in contemporary accounts. Luke’s gospel includes an account in chapter 18 of Jesus telling the parable of a widow who finally receives justice from a judge because of her persistence.

The Canaanite woman’s response uses language that is strong as the reply she’s just had from Jesus. Can you imagine how you might have felt having come to someone desperate for help and been referred to as a dog? Yet she throws the analogy back at him brilliantly: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

It is a phenomenal example of the power of faith. Having been ignored, I’m sure many of us would respond by simply walking away and avoiding a confrontation, but not this woman. And in turn, this interaction not only saves her daughter, but has an irrevocable impact upon Jesus’ ministry.

***

I knew a few weeks ago that I would be preaching on this passage today and was looking forward to it because it’s an encounter that I find deeply powerful. But over the last week it has increased in resonance. While doing some research online, I found an article in Political Theology Today published on Monday, in which today’s lectionary gospel reading was considered in light of current events in America.

It highlighted the importance of ‘Jesus’ conversion to justice’ – how he had realised the need to be open to the call his Father had given him – and called upon society to consider their own approach to justice. One sentence that particularly struck me was:

“Jesus models the reality of failure—that we often fail to think beyond the limited categories of our culture—but also the possibility of redemption through the reinstitution of justice.”

In the US, this is a call to recognise the events in Charlottesville and the response of the President for what they are: fascism; white supremacism; and evidence that institutional racism still exists. You may be aware that 81% of Americans who identify as “evangelical” voted for Trump. This article, along with many, many other leading Christian voices in the US and beyond, calls for those Christians specifically to recognise the President for who he is. To change an opinion and act on it – as Christ did in this encounter. To embody the message of the New Testament that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, but all are one…

Changing your mind in public view requires humility. It can be a deeply difficult thing to do and requires courage. I have been very impressed with those Republicans who, in response to recent events, have come out and criticised their President for failing to properly condemn the violence and actions of those who seek to promote racist ideology. But one notable absence has been the majority of members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. Does a group of evangelical Christians really not have the strength and wisdom to speak the Gospel truth into this political mire?? It is no longer about who was the better candidate in last year’s election; it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans; it is about what is good and just in society.

The Canaanite woman challenged Christ and forced him to reconsider – which he did in full view of his disciples and those around him. Can these American Christian leaders have the courage to do the same? Could the people in churches across the US who voted for and have vocally supported the President do likewise?

And what about here in the UK? We may not have had white supremacist demonstrations on our doorstep, but just weeks ago there was an act of hatred and aggression on our Muslim friends and neighbours in Finsbury Park. Evidence suggests that since the referendum last year, acts of racial violence have dramatically increased in our society. Are we making sure that we speak out against such words and actions? Are we calling upon our church and political leaders to do the same?

***

There is also inspiration to be drawn from the actions of the Canaanite woman who stood up and demanded action. Who had faith and wisdom with which to speak to her Messiah.

Do we have the strength, courage and wisdom to know when to stand up for justice?

For me, one of the most powerful images to emerge from the violence and protests in Virginia was a photo of a line of clergy, robed and arm-in-arm leading a peaceful protest:

One of these protestors, the black woman with the red stole, is someone I heard speak on racial injustice in the US last autumn while I was visiting New York. Lisa Sharon Harper is someone who has dedicated her life to taking peaceful action against social injustice. She’s been arrested many times and has found herself in deeply difficult situations, but she carries on, firmly believing that this is what God has called her to do.

As I listened to her share her stories in a church hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in suburban London, but was actually just off 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I veered from “ok, I could do that…” to “my goodness! I’m not sure I could do that!!” The session was about the foundations of institutional racism in the US (I had several moments of feeling uncomfortable as a Brit as – of course – a lot of it was our fault originally) and what we, as Christians, could do to become more aware of, and take more action regarding racial justice. It’s how I discovered the brilliant Harvard Implicit Association Test – which I highly recommend as a way to become more aware of your own bias. During the evening, Lisa told the story of a 21 day fast she’d participated in to push for immigration reforms. She spoke of times when she had been arrested and was scared. It was both inspiring and extremely challenging.

Thinking about last weekend, if I had been in Virginia, would I have joined them? It just so happened that last weekend, one of my closest friends was in VA (although not in Charlottesville) staying with some good friends who I’ve visited twice in the last year. I have a lot of love for Virginia! And I like to think that I would have joined these clergy, even though it put them at risk of physical harm; arrest; and subsequent retribution as the photo travelled around the world. I grew up going to demos and protests, and since ordination I’ve been even more aware of the power of the dog collar in demonstrating that Christians can and do stand alongside those fighting for justice – whether that’s been at peace vigils; rallies against hate; or the memorial to murdered MP Jo Cox.

***

That’s not to say that we’re all called to be in those spaces. But we are called to use our voices to speak the words that Christ would speak. To bring light into dark places.

Many of the people who fight for justice in our society are not people of faith – so one challenge for you could be explaining the deeper motivation behind what you do. Whether that’s why you volunteer at the night shelter; or are involved in rehousing refugees; or are part of a political party; or give money to particular causes.

Or, a challenge for you could be to spend time in prayer and to ask God to show you where your words and actions are needed. This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture or big stand – it could be as simple as engaging in conversation with someone who has very different views to you and listening to them. Or bringing people together around the dinner table to unite in their difference by eating together.

I strongly believe that as followers of Christ we are called to be modern-day prophets. Not in the sense of predicting the future or having dreams and visions, but in our behaviour and our words. Of taking the risk of potentially being a lone voice calling in the desert, speaking out against injustice. Of showing that there is a different way. So I pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us afresh to perform God’s work in our world.

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