Sermon Seeds: For the Heart
Sunday, August 20, 2023
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 15 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 • Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67 • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 • Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
For the Heart
Cast the Net (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
This passage of scripture only makes sense, in terms of how Jesus is portrayed, if I understand Matthew’s pattern of teaching followed by demonstration. The text begins mid-conversation as Jesus has had an encounter with the Pharisees and legal experts who questioned the behavior of his disciples. After firmly rebuking those leaders directly as hypocrites, Jesus calls the crowd in for a lesson about attitude and actions. Then, Jesus immediately encounters a woman seeking healing for her daughter and seemingly provides an example of what not to say to someone.
His words are harsh and demeaning. This just does not seem in character for Jesus who lifts up the marginalized. Even though Matthew’s account is geared toward an inside audience, the writer emphasizes how the folkx on the inside are called to prioritize and embrace those on the outside. Jesus equating healing an outsider to giving the children’s food to dogs is jarring and off-putting. Fortunately, that’s not the whole story.
Like much of the gospel narrative, we move from tell to show. There’s the theological exposition, teaching, or parable lesson followed by a demonstration of the reign of God. Here it would seem that Jesus seeks to shock his audience by showing them how they look when they proclaim preferential treatment or consideration in the kindom of God.
The gospel passage opens in the middle of a larger encounter. Jesus and the Pharisees had a biting exchange over the practices of the disciples. The Pharisees question why the disciples do not maintain traditions established by those religious authorities. Jesus counters that the traditions of the elders do not adhere, and may even contradict, the Law established by God. That is the basis of his claim of their hypocrisy.
Our focus text begins as Jesus turns his attention during this public argument with the religious leaders to the crowd who is witnessing it. He uses it as a teachable moment to clarify the law in a way that is reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount. We can almost hear the silent “You have heard it said…but I say to you” as Jesus expounds on what actually defiles when it comes to human behavior and religious practice. Peter, again standing in for all disciples, asks Jesus to further explain his meaning, which Jesus does first in words and, then later, in demonstration.
Jesus and the disciples leave the gathering of religious insiders and depart for a different region inhabited primarily by outsiders. It is there that he finds or is found by the Canaanite woman:
This would be Gentile territory; in fact Tyre and Sidon “were proverbially wicked Gentile cities attacked by the prophets.” Commentators disagree as to whether the word eis “to” in this verse means he went “toward” or “into” the region. Entering the territory would be against his own instructions to the disciples to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5). At the very least he is at the border within access of the Canaanite woman in the story. Either he is crossing the line or she is.
Jesus has a ministry of crossing borders. Through the Incarnation, he crosses from eternal and divine to finite and human. When calling the disciples, he lifted up the marginalized and made them the leaders of his burgeoning movement. In the healing miracles, he crosses societal and religious norms and boundaries. In his teaching, he reframes the guidelines of the Law and message of the Prophets as the truth of love.
Whether it is a happy accident or an intentional choice, Jesus leaves the company of religious zealots to be surrounded by people that those zealots would have particularly demeaned, diminished, and despised. He encounters a woman who puts his message to the test. Will Jesus practice what he preached?
According to Sharon Ringe, in first-century Palestinian society women were supposed to be invisible. “No Jewish man, especially one with a religious task or vocation, expected to be approached by a woman (Jew or Gentile)” unless she was a prostitute. By her society’s standards, she has transgressed the boundaries. She might be called an “uppity” woman. Unlike the woman in 9:21, who snuck up on Jesus from behind (appropriately invisible) and did not dare to speak to him, this Canaanite woman “came out” and “started shouting” (15:22). She is the first woman in the Gospel to speak. When she does, she dares to “demand her share in God’s blessing,” challenging the whole ideology of chosenness.
If Jesus can cross tradition to acknowledge that adherence to the purity code adopted and exhorted by the religious leaders of his day did not assure purity, will Jesus also acknowledge that inclusion in —or exclusion from—a particular group of people does not reflect the dignity, worth, or belovedness of any human being? Many preachers, biblical scholars, and theologians have examined this troubling text and concluded that Jesus was testing her. Perhaps, this outsider woman was testing him.
Jesus’ opponents constitute an alliance of groups with some status, political power, and wealth. Sadducees, absent since 3:7, and scribes, legal agents and interpreters of traditions, have not recognized Jesus’ identity (2:4; 12:38). The Pharisees participate in the ruling group centered on the Jerusalem temple and allied with chief priests and Rome’s governor (15:1). They have some political power and a religious-societal vision involving table companions (9:11), Sabbath observance (12:1–14), hand-washing (15:2), and support for the temple (15:3–7). They think Jesus is an agent of the devil (9:34; 12:24) and want to kill him (12:14).
Yet, this woman who belongs on the outside (and is notably identified as a descendent of a geo-political enemy state), is not in this group. Those opponents listed above share a common history, heritage and religious observance. This woman not only recognizes Jesus’ identity, she boldly proclaims who he is by calling by his honored names (“Lord”, “Son of David”). She sounds like an insider. Her confession of faith reflects more highly than that of Jesus’ closest disciples who have benefited from his teaching, mentoring, and miraculous demonstrations of the kindom of God.
How does she reach the conclusion that others struggle or refuse to accept? It may be her desperation.
This woman does not come from a position of power but of need. Her lack of power and standing is pronounced and seemingly weaponized by Jesus:
At the very least Jesus has employed a metaphor that is insulting as it identifies her and her ethnic group with “dogs” and the “lost sheep of Israel” with the children of the household. At worst he is employing a common racial slur. “Gentile dogs” was a common appellation. The words reinforce the boundary between Jew and Gentile. When Jesus puts off this woman begging healing for her daughter in this way it seems cruel; it seems that Jesus has been, as Sharon Ringe puts it, “caught with his compassion down.” It seems a text that confirms what we have affirmed in principle theologically: that Jesus was not only fully divine but also fully human. In spite of this theological affirmation, readers and interpreters often resist the textual evidences of humanity and limitation. Could it be that Jesus was actually still learning about the fullness of the divine embrace and the scope of his own calling? Is it so hard to imagine that Jesus might actually have learned something in the encounter with the Canaanite woman?
It’s also possible that Jesus used this situation to demonstrate his earlier message. He shows his disciples, if not the religious leaders he has left, what it looks like to weaponize chosenness. The words that Jesus utters defile, demean, and degrade. They are awful, and yet, they do not conflict with the religious tradition upheld by those religious authorities who questioned the behavior of the disciples and, by extension, of Jesus.
The Pharisees would call Jesus and his disciples names, just as Jesus refers to the woman and her child using a slur. The Pharisees prioritize tradition over human condition, and Jesus seems to take that same path in this moment. Is Jesus confused and contradictory…or is Jesus making a point through demonstration?
In the scheme of things, it does not take much convincing for Jesus to completely turn around and offer a compassionate and immediate response. It seems that the woman’s challenge brings him back to himself. Or, perhaps that was his intention all along. Whatever the case, the woman approached Jesus casting a net to reach his heart. At first, she comes up empty as he meets her shouts with silence. She casts again; Jesus disqualifies her for attention. She casts again; Jesus insults her. She casts again; Jesus commends her for her faith and heals her daughter.
As the story unfolds the Canaanite woman exemplifies the great faith that Jesus does not find among his hometown folks, or the religious leaders, or the crowds, or even the disciples. She addresses Jesus with christological titles of “Lord” and “Son of David.” She “kneels” before him. The Greek word used is proskynein. It is a word that expresses an attitude of reverent faith. When the same word is used in reference to the disciples it is translated as “worship (14:33).” She does not deny the distinctive place and priority of the “lost sheep of Israel,” but she claims a place at the table of God’s blessing as well. Her “great faith” stands in stark contrast to the “little faith” demonstrated by Peter (14:31). She is in fact an exemplar of faith for the disciples—though she is a woman, a Gentile, and even a despised Canaanite.
She is also relentless as she casts the net for the heart of God.
May we be the same.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?
What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.
Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.
There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.
—James Weldon Johnson, O Black and Unknown Bards
For Further Reflection
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” ― Kahlil Gibran
“The heart is an arrow. It demands aim to land true.” ― Leigh Bardugo
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the testimony of someone who has been “othered” with a particular emphasis on representation outside of your faith community. For example, if the church is primarily of European descent, invite someone of African or Latin descent or an Indigenous person.
Alternatively, invite representatives from agencies to share their mission and initiatives that address disparities that result from “othering” disabled persons , LGBTQIA communities, and immigrants to name a few other marginalized groups.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 • Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67 • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 • Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=155