10th Sunday after Pentecost
Christ Lutheran Church – Sedona, AZ
Primary Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Some of you know, but probably many of you do not, that I use to be an Arizona Highway Patrol Officer for about seven years before I decided to go to seminary. My first duty station was in my hometown of Yuma, patrolling U.S. Highway 95 from the Mexican border near San Luis to about 50 miles north of Yuma.
While I was on patrol one day, I noticed a man carrying a backpack walking along the side of the road. He looked like a transient. It was not uncommon for the area to find undocumented people walking along the highway. These were the days well before the increased security after September 11, so if we did find an undocumented person, we would call Border Patrol, but if it took Border Patrol longer than 20 minutes to respond we simply let the person go and forwarded a description of the person.
Well, on that day this particular man caught my attention. It was near the end of my shift and I almost did not stop to talk to him. For one reason, unlike most undocumented people hitchhiking on Highway 95, he was going back south towards the border and not north. But, duty got the better part of me and I decided to turn around and talk to this man.
He was rather small, about thirty years of age. The smell did, indeed, indicate that he had been on the road for some time. He did not have any identification. He did not speak much when I asked him questions, which I assumed to mean that probably he did not speak much English. I tried to communicate with him in my broken Spanish. I asked him why he was walking back towards the border. He responded, in perfectly clear English, “Because, I don't belong.”
At first, I thought he was just telling me that he did not belong in the United States because he was undocumented. But as I began hearing more of his story, his statement meant much more. He had not been able to get work in Mexico, so he decided to come to Los Angeles to meet up with some of his extended family. His demons, however, drugs and alcohol, had come with him. He was not able to find work in Los Angeles and he quickly wore out his welcome with family there. Unable to stay, he decided to return to Mexico, except he had nothing waiting for him there, either. It turns out his addictions had alienated him from his family there, too. He was literally, homeless, wandering a no-man's land, belonging no where. “I don't belong”, for this man, meant that he did not belong anywhere.
In today's Gospel lesson from the 15th Chapter of Matthew, we also have a story of someone who does not belong. Matthew tells us that Jesus travels up to the districts of Tyre and Sidon. We are not told the reason why he goes to this region, but for whatever reason he attracts the attention of a woman – a Canaanite woman.
This designation as a “Canaanite” is important. Mark records the same story in his Gospel, but he describes the woman as Syrophoenician, which is actually the more correct designation for Jesus' day. The word “Canaanite” describes an ancient nation found in the Hebrew Bible that was an enemy of Israel. So by introducing her as a “Canaanite” woman, Matthew has already labeled her as someone that does not belong.
But even though she does not belong, she seeks out Jesus to heal her daughter from a demon. She shouts, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” Jesus ignores her. Again, she does not belong.
His disciples say to Jesus, “You really need to do something about her because she keeps shouting after us.” Again, Jesus does nothing, but tells his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Again, this Canaanite women, this historic enemy of Israel, does not belong.
Finally, this woman kneels right in front of Jesus so that he cannot ignore her. She pleads, “Lord, help me.” Does Jesus agree to help her? No. Instead, he replies, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, Jesus is equating this woman with a dog; he is telling her that she does not belong.
But this woman, out of either desperation or inspiration or both, tells Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” And in those words, she shows a faith that completely changes Jesus' mind. “A great faith,” Jesus says; Jesus has never even told the disciples that they have “great faith”; in fact, just back in chapter 14, Jesus chides Peter for having “little faith” when he tries and fails to walk on water. Somehow, however, this woman, this Canaanite women, shows a faith that even the disciples lacked. And in doing so, Jesus recognizes that she does, indeed, belong; even this Canaanite woman belongs; and, Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter just as she asked.
Now, this story may make us uneasy because we are not comfortable with Jesus having his mind changed. He is suppose to be perfect, after all, and calling a woman a dog and sending her and her suffering daughter away does not seem like something we would want Jesus to do. Sometimes, scholars will even try to spin the story so that Jesus was merely testing the woman all along. The only problem is there is no Biblical evidence to support this assumption. The simplest and plainest meaning of the text is that Jesus has his mind changed by this Canaanite woman.
Jesus has his humanity challenged, a humanity that we all know, a humanity that excels at putting up barriers and borders, a humanity that is so good at dividing into “us” verses “them”, a humanity that so easily speaks the words, “You do not belong.” Jesus was born into this same humanity into which we all have been born.
What that Canaanite woman does, however, is remind Jesus of his divinity, that he is the Word of God present at the beginning of creation, that he is big enough to encompass those that belong and those that don't. Jesus has the view of his mission expanded. He is not simply going to those lost sheep of Israel, but for the whole world. In fact, Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus giving his disciples the most inclusive of missions: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” All nations, not just the children of Israel, not just members of our own nation, not just members of our denomination or church; all nations, all peoples
As a fallen humanity, we live in a world of borders and barriers; we live in a world that makes rules about who belongs and who does not. And as Christians, we have to live in this world; however, we must never forget that we are not of this world. We are of God's Kingdom; and, that kingdom is one of radical inclusivity, where even a Canaanite woman who does not belong can kneel down and make God listen.
And every Sunday, as we partake of the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion, we are given a foretaste of this kingdom. We are reminded that he gives his body and blood “for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” There are no barriers, no borders in this meal; it is given freely and intended for all.
My encounter with that man on Highway 95 happened almost 20 years ago. I did end up calling Border Patrol and they gave him a ride to the border because, after all, in this world, he did not belong. My hope for him over these years is that he was able to find some place to belong in this world, but more importantly, I pray that I always remember that in the Kingdom of God, of which we all are citizens, that he does, indeed, belong. That when I take Holy Communion, I am dining with that man and all the others who have been told in this world that they do not belong; for here, at this table, we get a foretaste of that feast in the kingdom to come; a feast, where, ready for it or not, like it or not, we all belong.