Homily Sunday, August 20, 2023 Holy Wisdom Monastery Pam Shellberg
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 15:21-28
Well, this is certainly not the Jesus we are used to seeing, is it … maybe not the Jesus we really want to see – and certainly not the Jesus our theology often primes us to see – a gentle, loving, and inclusive Jesus who reaches out to everyone, no exceptions. It’s hard to know what to make of this rude, disrespectful, and exclusionary Jesus who earlier in Matthew’s gospel was more than willing to heal the servant of a Roman centurion, yet here harshly rebuffs a desperate mother similarly pleading for mercy for her afflicted child. They saw the Lord Jesus testing the woman’s faith – and yay for her, she passed with flying colors. Or, considering that the Greek word translated “dog” was more accurately rendered “puppy,” they determined that Jesus’ tone was probably playful – he was obviously just teasing her.
Some among us will fiercely resist any interpretation of this text that reads the Canaanite’s behavior as signs of her humility or self-abasement – especially if then lifted up then as Christian virtues for women. This has been the case made by recent generations of scholars – women, international, scholars of color, and some not Christian. They insist the woman not be seen as groveling before Jesus, that we give her all the credit due her for the strength of her love for her child and the power of her mind and will as she calls Jesus to his own “come-to-Jesus” moment. They insist that we see a more human Jesus and the Canaanite as responsible for the transformation in his understanding of his mission.
I’m inclined to want to figure out what Matthew’s original readers and hearers might have heard as “gospel” in this story. The time was a difficult one for many first-century Jews – divided in belief about whether Jesus really was the Messiah, come to fulfill the covenant between God and Israel. The division raised all kinds of questions about faithfulness – the Jews’, the Jewish Christians’ – but also God’s. This story is a window to a very complex situation of shifting identities as what was yet to become Christianity was newly evolving from its Jewish origins. We can see how Matthew might have Jesus speak to Jewish believers who longed for reassurance that God always intended Jesus’ mission for them.
The Caananite woman then represents Gentile believers of the time, passionately responding to the presence of God’s spirit in Jesus and in the communities that gathered later in his name. She represents how Gentiles became the manifestation of God’s purposes, demonstrating that prophecies like the one we heard read in Isaiah today were being fulfilled: “the foreigners who join themselves to the Most High, to love the name of God… these I will bring to my holy mountain. Thus says the Most High, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them…” But as Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine reminds us, Matthew never set out to write a universal, multi-cultural gospel. He wrote a narrative of God’s promises to Israel, and his point was that Jesus went first to his own.
Now all that is at least interesting as far as explanations go, but I’m not sure they really help us to know what is “gospel” in this story for us.
For the past few days, about two dozen people have been on retreat here at the monastery, being led by Douglas Christie in an exploration of contemplative ecology, what that means in general, and what it means to cultivate a sense of place, in particular. Maybe because we’ve been talking so much about place and sacred space, a few details in today’s gospel came into a little bit sharper focus. I’d noticed them before, because they are variations introduced by Matthew into a story that we know he received from the gospel of Mark – and whenever edits are made to source material, they are usually worthy of a careful look. But now, when I realized how those variations effected the place of the story, they really caught my attention.
First, Matthew writes that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and that the Canaanite woman went out to meet him there. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus, goes into the house of the Canaanite woman. But Matthew never lets him get that far. And according to Matthew, Jesus says something also not included in Mark’s version – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’ first priority is to the house of Israel. It wouldn’t do, in Matthew’s story, for Jesus to go into the house of a non-Israelite.
Matthew also rewrites the introduction to say that Jesus withdrew to Tyre and Sidon. I wonder if that might have to do with the fact that as the Jesus movement evolved into the Christian movement, it felt like a kind of withdrawing from the traditions, practices, and rituals of Judaism. To say he “withdrew” signals both the place from which he left as well as the place he moved toward.
These might seem minor details, but a quote I heard this weekend by nature writer Barry Lopez suggests that this kind of attention to place might actually locate good news for us. Lopez writes:
To inquire into the intricacies of a distant landscape is to provoke thoughts about one’s own interior landscape, and the familiar landscapes of memory. The land urges us to come around to an understanding of ourselves.
So maybe it is this place where Jesus and the Canaanite woman stand that can provoke thoughts about our own interior landscapes, might be what urges us to come around to an understanding of ourselves.
The two of them meet at the outer reaches of the region of Tyre and Sidon. It is a boundary place. Jesus stands at a threshold there, in a liminal space – that ambiguous transitional space between what was his known and assumed structure of life – sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – and what will be the transformed state from which his mission will expand.
But it is not just Jesus at a threshold place. So are the Jewish people represented by Jesus, those trying to make sense of the changes in their evolving tradition. Jesus has just withdrawn from arguments with Pharisees and the disciples about transgressing the tradition of their elders. The Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community are themselves beginning to withdraw from the traditional expressions of their Jewishness as those expressions are transformed by the spirit, by the passing of time, by the presence of Gentiles – but it is a risky and frightening move.
And it is not just Jesus and those Jewish Christians, but we, too stand here in our own liminal times and at our own threshold spaces. Do we not have our versions of this in our understandings of our vocations, our roles, the functions and structures of our lives as they all necessarily change and evolve over time … “I was sent only to … parent my children” – as they’re leaving the nest; “I was sent only be a spouse to my partner” – when that partner is lost to divorce or death; “I was sent only to be a teacher, a preacher, a physician, an artist – a worker” – when we are withdrawing from what we think our work is because of disability, or downsizing, or retirement. “I was sent only to ____.” You can fill in the blank. When we stand at the threshold of change, when life requires us to withdraw from our places of meaning and purpose, our places of certainty and clarity, there is risk, there is loss. Who am I and why am I here? What was I made for? These are the questions we ask at thresholds. And, like Jesus, we might even dig our heels in, holding on evermore so fiercely – THIS is what I believed I was sent only to do, THIS is what I thought I was made for.
But the Canaanite woman also stands at this boundary place. That she is identified as Canaanite is also a change Matthew makes to the story received from Mark – and it is of no small consequence because it is Matthew who includes other Canaanite women – Rahab and Tamar – in Jesus’ genealogical record. What if, standing at this threshold place, part of him recognizes her as his kin? recognizes home? What if it was like turning the page in the book of life on Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s “Finding Your Roots?”
On the boundaries of our own interior landscapes, on our landscapes of memory, this story reminds us of the unity of kinship through space and time, that there is continuity through the ages – in all our ages, there is a thread running between what was and what will be, between our past and our future. Jesus and the Canaanite woman, together withdrawing to a new way of being, joined in fierce and fiercely demanding love. Some of the spiritual power of this story is unleashed at the boundary of both space and time, what Rainier Maria Rilke would call the limits of both Jesus’ and the Canannite woman’s longings – and so I’d like to end with Rilke’s words – words I imagine God spoke to Jesus, to the mother desperate for healing for her child, that I imagine God speaks to you and to me.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Book of Hours, I 59