A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, and Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28.
If you look in the back of our church, on either side of the great big stained glass window in the middle, you’ll see four narrow stained glass windows. They’re called lancet windows, because they have a little pointed arch at the top, and since about the 13th century, when they became especially popular in French Gothic churches, people have thought they resembled a lance, or an arrow in that way. Our four windows represent each of the evangelists in the Bible— John is there, closest to the entrance. Next is Luke is represented with an ox. On the other side of the baptismal font is Mark is represented with a Lion. And then on the far side is represented by a human being. Because all of these figures usually have angel wings on them, the Matthew symbol is sometimes confused with being an angel, but traditionally, it is the human being that has been thought to represent the themes of this Gospel best.
Richard Burridge, who is the dean of King’s College, London, has written a great little book about just this thing—not our windows, but the idea of four different pictures representing one Christ. (Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading, Eerdmans 2nd ed, 2005) He begins the book with an extremely helpful analogy based upon four portraits of Winston Churchill at Chartwell. One shows Churchill as a statesman, one as a warrior, one as a quiet painter at leisure, and one as a family man at tea. Burridge notes that in each of the pictures, there’s a cigar. One could look at only one picture and get the idea that these were four different people, brothers maybe. And yet, there’s that cigar that unites each of the pictures. Burridge suggests that, while there’s no cigar in the Bible, and in a similar way, the four evangelists offer us different portraits of Jesus—portraits that are different, but unified by their Christology, the fact that each shows us Christ, the Son of God, who came, and died, and rose again for our sake.
But the perspectives are different. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus in a direct and clear way, a Jesus who sometimes roars like a lion. Luke shows a compassionate and justice-oriented Jesus, who like an ox, carries the burdens of others. And John’s gives us a Jesus who, like a high-flying eagle, sees all, and understands all, encompasses all—even from before the beginning.
Matthew underscores the humanity of Jesus. In Matthew, we see Jesus the Jewish teacher, Jesus the child who has a whole genealogy, and Jesus who (though as theology reminds us is fully God), Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ full humanity, as well.
I think we see some of Matthew’s take on Jesus in today’s Gospel. The reading is in two sections—the first, having to do with Jesus’ teaching about the words we use, the things we say, being far more important to worry about than the things we eat or the things we put into our bodies. Jesus is the teacher of Israel here, interpreting the Law, and reinterpreting the beliefs and customs of the Pharisees, a particularly religious segment of Jews. But no sooner is Jesus shown as the great teacher, the one who twice before in this gospel quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ This merciful, good, godly Jesus refuses mercy to the Canaanite woman.
There is, as they say, “history,” here. There is history not between Jesus and this specific woman, but between Jews and Canaanites. Ever since the Exodus, when Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, had the Canaanites been the “other,” the feared ones, the outsiders, the enemies, and the bad guys. It was common slang to refer to them as dogs, and to call a female Canaanite the name for a “female dog” would have sounded just as nasty and mean then as it does today in the street. We might understand someone we know, after a long day, being confronted with a woman (a foreign woman) whose child is in need, and we can understand someone maybe dismissing her. Maybe you or I might have done the same thing. Certainly the disciples seem against her. They say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And so Jesus appears to snap at the woman, suggesting that his message of hope and mercy and salvation is for the Jews only, not for just anyone, not for everyone, but for the people of Israel. Jesus seems to speak out of an understanding of Israel as the elect of God, but also understanding that election as limited and exclusionary.
But look what happens. The woman persists. She keeps on asking. She begs, she cries, she demands, she argues, she talks back…. however we might describe it, this woman has fight in her, and it’s fight enough to take on God. And God hears. And Jesus notices. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s little girl is healed.
A lot is going on in this story. It would have been an easier story to tell and scripture to preach, had it simply stopped before the pesky Canaanite woman comes along. Then, it would be a simple morality tale. Jesus, the great teacher, the holy one, the wise one, turns inside-out the customs and beliefs of the self-righteous religious. It’s easy to be on the side of Jesus against the Pharisees. We don’t imagine we are like the Pharisees, worried about this little thing or that little thing—no, we’re contemporary folk, no superstitions here. We take Jesus’ words to mean “it doesn’t matter what we eat or drink. Doesn’t matter how much we take (while others starve) or how much we use up (while others go without). Jesus is not about rules, but about how we talk to each other, and so let’s speak peace to one another and be kind. Thanks be to God, and Amen.
But the Gospel doesn’t end there. The reason it continues, I think, is that Matthew doesn’t want us to stay in the that smug place of looking across the way, criticizing the Pharisees, and feeling like we’re somehow free and clear to go our own way. He shows us how easy it is to forget God’s mercy. He shows us by showing us Jesus, who one minute extends God’s mercy, but the next, seems to lose his train of thought.
And so the first lesson of the Gospel still stands: it is more important what comes out of our mouths than what goes in. But both may be important, it’s just that what we say and speak and shape with words is MORE important.
The second lesson is to watch out—because it’s easy to forget the mercy of God and easy forget how to extend that mercy to others.
But there’s a third lesson, too. And that’s what we can learn from the Canaanite woman. She shows us what faithful persistence looks like. She shows us what prayer can look like. She shows us how to take our questions, our fears, our worries, our deepest hungers and deepest hopes—straight to the heart of Jesus, where there is mercy and where there is healing.
The Church gives us a tradition of understanding Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We affirm this in the Nicene Creed as we say a shorthand version of what the early councils of the Church argued and prayed over for several hundred years. Both fully God and fully human is the big picture, but in day-to-day living, I think we often experience swings in our understanding and perception of God.
Sometimes Jesus is overarching and transcendent, eternal and mysterious. But at other times, Jesus is like us—snapping at a stranger, talking back to his parents, cutting short the question of a friend, and probably hitting his thumb with a hammer all those years he was helping Joseph in the workshop.
I suppose this “full humanity” of Jesus could shake some people’s faith. But for me, rather than shake my faith in the Incarnation, this just deepens it, for me. It reminds me of the depths to which God has gone to be like us, to risk making mistakes, to risk looking foolish, to risk not being believed, not being loved.
This is the extent to which God has come for us, so that when we cry the prayer of the Canaanite woman, “Lord, help me,” God is already answering, loving, and healing. Thanks be to God for his mercy. Thanks be to God for his healing presence.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.