I think of the Bible as a conversation among the people of God about the things of God—and sometimes those voices do not agree; thus, we need to think carefully about where we stand today. It is through such a lens that I interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is a timely story in that it deals with issues of race and ethnicity. The sermon below, which I preached August 19/20, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA, is an adaptation of one I preached a few years ago at St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg, and includes a few quotes from a hymn I wrote about the story.
Today’s gospel is timely. It shows Jesus wrestling with issues of race and ethnicity. Let’s listen in, and hear what’s going on.
Jesus is met by a woman who shouts over and over, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Jesus makes no response. He is silent, giving no answer. In trying to imagine the scene, I found myself writing, “He gave her quite a silent stare, with doubt upon his face.”
Doubt? About what? About whether or not to help her. For she is a Canaanite, not Jew. She is not of Jesus’ people. And as Jesus says a bit later in the story, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
And so, she is outside the grace that Jesus has come to give. Or is she? Is she in—or is she out? Perhaps Jesus is silent because he is pondering that question.
The disciples, though, leave no doubt as to where they stand. They said to Jesus, “Send her far away. She’s loud, annoying, bothersome throughout the whole long day.”
In other words, get rid of this foreign woman. She’s not one of us, and all she is doing is causing trouble.
Is the Canaanite woman in—or is she out?
Were the prophet Jonah to have a say, there’s no doubt where he would stand: She’s outside God’s mercy.
In brief, the story of Jonah goes something like this. God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and speak God’s message. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t that he was afraid to do God’s work. It’s that he didn’t feel the Ninevites deserved mercy. They weren’t his people, so why should he help them? So he tried to flee from God. That didn’t work out very well, and Jonah eventually does what God wanted. But when Jonah’s words led the Ninevites to turn to God, Jonah started sulking. He told God, “This is why I didn’t want to come here. I was afraid you would show mercy. These people are not like us. They don’t deserve mercy.”
Is the Canaanite woman inside or outside the grace of God? The disciples and Jonah want her out. Other voices would agree. Like Ezra and Nehemiah.
The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are told in the Old Testament books that bear their names. They led the re-building of Jerusalem after its destruction, and the long period of Exile. They were not only putting up buildings, but were renewing the Jewish nation. And they wanted it purely Jewish. They commanded Jewish men married to non-Jewish women to divorce their wives, and send them away.
So Ezra and Nehemiah have no doubt. They stand with the disciples and Jonah, and say, “Get rid of that Canaanite woman!
But there are other Biblical voices to be heard. The book of Ruth, for example. Here’s a quick summary of Ruth.
Ruth was a Moabite, who married into a Jewish family living in the land of Moab. After the deaths of their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi went to live in Bethlehem. Ruth met and married a man named Boaz. They had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David: the David who became Israel’s greatest king. So David’s great-grandmother was a non-Jew. The story of Ruth is remembered to argue that non-Jews are in the circle of God’s grace.
A similar voice is heard in the latter chapters of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks the word of the Lord saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)
And in the words of Psalm 67, “Let your way be known upon earth, you’re saving health among all nations.” (Psalm 67:2
Ruth, Isaiah, Psalm 67 take the stand: “God’s grace is for the Canaanite woman. She’s in!”
In the Scriptures, we see a tension about who is in, and who is out. I wonder if that is why Jesus was silent when the Canaanite woman made her request. Is he running through the Scriptures, trying to figure it all out what God wants him to do?
In his silence, the woman kept pleading. She knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
But he replied, “It’s just not fair that dogs eat children’s bread.” In other words, “God’s grace is meant for Israel. That’s what I was sent to do. How can I take it away from my own people and give it to you?
This feisty woman did not give up when Jesus was silent. She was not put off by the scorn of the disciples. And she won’t quit now. She said right back to Jesus, “You’re right; no doubt about that. But even dogs get crumbs that fall from where their masters sat.
These words took Jesus’ breath away. He now knows where he stands in the great Biblical debate about who is in and who is out. He stands with Ruth and Isaiah and Psalm 67. For he has seen this woman’s trust in God; a trust that says, “Just give a little; it will be enough; it’s all I need.” Jesus recognizes this is the greatest of trust in God, and so he said to her, “God’s love is yours today. Your faith, my sister, shows to me God’s grace has come your way.
For Jesus, the question of who is in and who is out was resolved that day. The grace of God, the healing of God, and the dignity of God are for all people. No one is to be excluded. All are to be respected, honored, and treated as children of God. That is what Jesus came to believe, and he was faithful to that belief, even to death on a cross.
Unfortunately, not all people have followed his lead, and so from time to time the sin of racism raises its ugly head.
I was once pastor of St. John’s Church, located in Butler Township, just north of Hazleton. During the 20 years I lived there, I came to know a bit of the history of that place.
I learned, for example, that in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan was active there. The purpose of that Klan chapter was to intimidate Roman Catholics and eastern Europeans. The Klan wanted to keep the township “pure,” which meant white Protestant of western European descent.
Sometime in the 1960s, a Job Corps Center opened in the township; those who came to the Center were of a variety of races. This didn’t sit well with all residents, as is illustrated by a story told me by the local police chief. Shortly after the Center opened, a group of black youth from the center went for a walk down a country road. A resident called the chief, telling him he had to do something about them. “Why?” asked the chief, “what are they doing?” The caller replied, “They’re walking down the road! Do something about it!” “Are they doing anything wrong?” asked the chief. The caller replied, “No, but you have to do something about them!” Of course, the chief did nothing. They were simply walking: and if they had been white, no one would have noticed nor cared.
I would like to believe that the attitudes represented by the Klan and the phone caller are in our distant past. But as we have seen from the events in Charlottesville, they are not. Some continue to believe that only their kind counts, and that their kind is entitled to special privilege, and that their kind is superior, and other kinds are inferior.
Because such beliefs continue to be held, we who follow Christ must clearly and often say: “The beliefs and actions of racial supremacy are contrary to the will of God. Such words and deeds are sin against God and against humanity.
Among the chants of white supremacists last weekend was, “Jew will not replace us.” As believers in Christ, we respond by saying, “A Jew has already taken our place, and we are thankful he did. His name is Jesus, and he died for our sins. Through him, we are set right with God, and are called to love our neighbor, building relationships that transcend creed, nationality, and ethnicity.
We have been saved by the Jew Jesus. Saved not only for life with God. Saved not only for life after death. But also saved in the here and now so that we love our neighbor, whatever our race.
May God give us the strength, the conviction, and the courage to make it so. Amen.