Christ Lutheran Community Church
August 16, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Jesus and the Canaanite Woman"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
Jesus said, “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
Hmmm. I wonder what Anthony Fauci would have to say about that!
Our religious tradition is concerned with keeping people healthy, so in the Bible there are quite a few passages that advocate for practices like washing, which even two thousand years ago people knew could help prevent disease.
But in almost every culture, ideas about cleanliness and purity get mixed up with cultural boundaries. People who are inside our group are considered “clean,” while those who are outside our group are considered “unclean.” Leaders in Nazi Germany were obsessed with “racial hygiene,” fearing that the purity of the Aryan race would somehow be diminished by contact with inferior races. That kind of racist ideology may have been debunked by science, but still it persists on a visceral level in the attitudes of many people.
So, Jesus is right in arguing that true impurity isn’t about superficial things. You can scrub your hands your hands all you want, but if your heart is filled with corruption and hate, that’s true defilement. That’s what poisons you and poisons your relationships far more than the dirt under your fingernails.
After telling his disciples this, Jesus crosses some cultural boundaries of his own. Jesus traveled from his home in Galilee to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is in modern day Lebanon. Today, that border between Lebanon and Israel is one of the most heavily fortified boundaries between two nations. Even just a couple of weeks ago, there were violent clashes at that border resulting in the deaths of four people.
It was the same back in Jesus’ day. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile territory, so people from Israel who ventured up there were leaving the security of their own nation and traveling into dangerous territory. But we should note that there is a long tradition in the Bible of prophets from Israel going up to Tyre and Sidon and encountering people of great generosity and kindness. Elisha goes up there and meets a widow who shares her last meal with him. God rewards her generosity by sustaining her with bread through a long famine. And later Elijah miraculously resuscitates her son.
So, Jesus goes up to Tyre and encounters a woman who, like the widow in Elijah’s story, cries out for healing for her child. Jesus’ response to this woman is difficult to grapple with. First he ignores her, then he compares her with a dog, and we’re left wondering: Is this the same Jesus who earlier said “Come unto me ALL you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” By calling this woman a Canaanite, though, Matthew gives us a clue that maybe we should not read this story as an actual historical account of what happened. Because, in fact, there were no Canaanites alive in Jesus’ day. The Canaanites had disappeared a thousand years earlier. They were the people that the Israelites pushed out of the Promised Land way back during the time of Joshua. So, from the perspective of the Israelites, the Canaanites were the quintessential outsiders. They were the opposite of the chosen people. They were the ones who didn’t belong. And yet, just as Elijah encountered great faith in the widow of Tyre, so Jesus encounters great faith in the “Canaanite” woman.
I don’t think Matthew tells us this story in order to reveal something about Jesus; Matthew tells us this story in order to reveal something about faith. True faith in God knows no cultural or ethnic boundaries. Which is really good news in a community like Upper Darby, where you might cross ten cultural boundaries just walking down the street. How wonderful to know that our neighbors from all over the world are able to call upon God and receive God’s mercy.
Jesus doesn’t tell the Canaanite woman, well, first convert to Judaism and then maybe I can find a little grace for you. No, the woman claims for herself and for her daughter the healing power of God. She does it with tremendous humility, recognizing that she is not entitled to God’s grace. None of us are! And yet, like this woman, we have the audacity to come before God and ask for God’s healing and freedom and forgiveness. We gladly receive the crumbs that fall from God’s table, knowing that those crumbs are more than enough to satisfy us.
Remember how Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and there were twelve baskets-full of crumbs left over. God’s table of grace and mercy is abundant. There is plenty to go around for every person on earth. Unlike the hand sanitizer and disinfectant that disappeared from our grocery stores a few months ago, God’s love is not diminished by sharing it. The more we share God’s grace, the more of it there is to go around.
I love this story of the unnamed Canaanite woman because she stands with all the other unnamed women in history who refused to take no for an answer. Her love for her daughter drove her to endure a painful situation. If I were in her shoes, I might not have bothered. But by her audacious faith, she shows that God’s goodness knows no boundaries. The house of God is a house of prayer for ALL peoples.