Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fourth Sunday in Great Lent (Knanaitho / Canaanite Woman)

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 15: 21-28

Dylan's Lectionary Blog

by Sarah Dylan Breuer

Gospel: St. Matthew 15: 21-28

In my experience, three forces running counter to discernment tend to pop up a lot -- especially where theology and politics (by which I mean power systems, not just party politics or civics) intersect (and isn't all theology really about politics too, if you think that God is the source of all legitimate power and authority?).

The first force is the conviction that you're already fully aware of what God wants. Give in to that, and you won't even start a process of discernment -- why bother, if you already have full access to everything God has to say on the subject?

The second force is the conviction that there's a person or group you don't need to listen to, as s/he or they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to contribute. Just think about what that would have done for the early church if, say, Ananias had decided that Jesus would never appear to someone who was an avowed, practicing, and notorious persecutor of the church, let alone call such a man as apostle to the Gentiles.

The third force is the conviction that if you knew what God was up to before, no further discernment is necessary. I think this last one just might be the most insidious for Christian leaders. After all, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, incarnation of the god who is the same yesterday, today, and forever -- right? And furthermore, changing course implies that the first course was a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a trustworthy Christian leader, you won't let anyone think that you've made a mistake either.

These temptations are particularly strong for leaders who, in their heart of hearts, feel both that authority is about knowing a great deal more than others in the community and that they don't really know enough to justify being in a position of leadership. Parents and priests are prone to it; while neither giving birth nor being ordained confers miraculous infusions of knowledge or maturity, congregations and families often have vastly inflated expectations for what three years of seminary or three decades of living will do for you, and we're often afraid that any course corrections will cause us to lose face, and will confirm what they probably already expect: we're not Jesus.

But how well does that picture we have of the ideal, unwavering Christian leader, the one who doesn't need to grow because s/he's already a spiritual giant, the one who treats engaging with other points of view as a sign of undesirable weakness, match the canonical picture of Jesus? Not well, if this Sunday's gospel is any indication.

In it, Jesus is confronted by a woman who calls out to him demanding his help. It's not at all surprising that Jesus doesn't answer her. I've blogged many a time about Jesus' culture being an honor/shame culture. In such a culture, answering someone who confronted you like that would register for all onlookers -- and for anyone who heard the gossip from the onlookers, which would spread like wildfire especially if anything unconventional happened -- as an admission from the person who responded that the challenger was at least an equal. Once Jesus responds to the woman, that's what everyone watching things thinks -- that Jesus is no better than she is.

Unless, that is, she's appealing to him in the proper way, as a subject to a king. Her address to him as "Son of David," and by extension king of Israel, might suggest that -- if, that is, she were an Israelite. Perhaps -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- that was on her mind when she cried out, and she'd hoped to pass as such -- anything to bring mercy to her daughter. But Jesus' reply to her makes clear that even if he's king, she's not his subject. In other words, Jesus took away his one face-saving excuse for what's about to happen.

What's about to happen is that Jesus is going to give in to her. She challenged him, and by answering, Jesus made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd. But then, after acknowledging that she is not an Israelite, Jesus engages her in more argument ...

... and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes course at a woman's word, and commends her for challenging him. I've heard people say that Jesus didn't really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely what he was doing, and he was testing the woman's faith to see whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for her daughter. And I don't buy it, for the simple reason that this isn't how the crowd who witnessed the historical evidence would have interpreted it and more than Matthew's readers would have, and I don't believe that Jesus would play mind games with a woman desperately seeking a cure for her daughter to score a point so obscure that nobody in his culture could have gotten it.

I think we're on more solid ground in thinking that what was going on was this:

Jesus was changed in that encounter. He chose to listen to someone whom others would have ignored, and he chose to act in compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how a true leader discerns mission.

The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz said of her visit to Auschwitz, "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place."

Discernment isn't about knowing who not to listen to either. Conventional wisdom would hold that someone who took counsel from a strange woman, a Canaanite woman, a woman who shouted out in the marketplace when she should have been home caring for her daughter, was not a good person from whom to take advice. And yet, Jesus, who compares himself to Wisdom herself in Matthew 11:18-19, is still open to hearing wisdom from the Canaanite woman.

And once we've discerned a genuine call, that doesn't mean it's what we're called to do at all times and under all circumstances, let alone that it's a call for all humanity. As I've blogged about before, I don't think that Jesus was blowing smoke when he talked in Matthew's gospel about a call to go to the House of Israel, even when there's persecution coming from Israelites. I don't think he was blowing smoke or playing mind games in this passage when he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel either. But I think that Jesus had a deeper sense of call, a deeper sense of what it would mean for him to be faithful, and that it included entering into relationship -- real relationship -- with others. That's what love means. And real relationship, loving relationship, changes everyone involved. Christian leaders are called to "keep the main thing the main thing," as they say, and the main thing in Christian community is that quality of relationship.

Thank God for that! Thank God that, as our scriptures testify, God is Love, and God is changed in loving relationship. God saw that humankind was inclined toward evil, and resolved to blot out evil people from the earth (Genesis 6:5-7). After the great flood, God sees the inclination of the human heart toward evil (Genesis 8:21), but God resolves nevertheless to hang up God's bow, God's weapon, forever (Genesis 9:12-17) -- never again to try to destroy evil by destroying evildoers. Jesus sent his disciples to the House of Israel, where he said he was called to gather lost sheep -- and then a pushy Canaanite woman unveils something more -- something that leads the risen Jesus to commission an apostle to the Gentiles. Just when we thought we'd seen the limits of God's love, that love grows.

Thus says the Lord: "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
-- Isaiah 56:1-7

Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.

Thanks be to God!

See Also:

Crumbs from the Master's Table
by Hubert Beck

God of Mongrels
by the Rev. Dr. Gail Ricciuti

Canaanite Woman
by Fr. Daren J. Zehnle

A woman's Faith: Matthew 15:21-28
by Rev. Bryan Findlayson

Prejudice and Faith
by Larry Broding

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 4th Sunday in Great Lent (Canaanite Woman)

Sermons Home | General Sermons and Essays | Articles | eBooks | Our Faith | Prayers | Library - Home | Baselios Church Home

Malankara World
A service of St. Basil's Syriac Orthodox Church, Ohio
Copyright © 2009-2020 - ICBS Group. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer
Website designed, built, and hosted by International Cyber Business Services, Inc., Hudson, Ohio