Crossing Boundaries


Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese), Christ and the Canaanite Woman, c. 1665-70
Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese), Christ and the Canaanite Woman, c. 1665-70

Sermon: “Crossing Boundaries”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
9th Sunday after Pentecost: August 17, 2014.

Scripture readings:
Isaiah 56:1-8 (NRSV)
Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

Podcast:

Please join me in prayer…

Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts be open and receptive to the Word you have for us here, today. Amen.

The story of the “Canaanite Woman” in this morning’s reading from Matthew 15, and also in Mark 7, is a narrative that crosses all sorts of boundaries.

To begin with, the setting isn’t located near any of our other stories about Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus has journeyed with his disciples to “Tyre and Sidon.” Doing so means he has left behind the familiar comforts and safety of his native land, moving across Israel’s frontier into the Gentile lands to the North. He’s in a new and strange place. But, is it strange for him, or strange for us?

And the woman in this story is also crossing boundaries: To begin with, and most obviously, Matthew calls her a “Canaanite.” She’s therefore a native of that region, but is she really?

Matthew’s term, “Canaanite” isn’t as specific as the term originally used by Mark, in which this same woman is called “a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria” [New Gospel Parallels by Robert W. Funk, p. 127] – in other words, a Greek speaking Canaanite. Mark’s term makes her “otherness” more apparent: she is not really a Greek, but also not fully Canaanite, either.

In any case, Matthew and Mark are both using terminology that indicates this woman was in between two cultures. Her social location mirrors the experience of Matthew and Mark’s original audiences: who were either Jews living in gentile cities – speaking the language, but not fully accepted into the local culture; or gentiles worshipping in Jewish Synagogues – allowed to listen to the teaching, but not able to fully enter into the faith because they are not Jews.

Both groups left behind critical pieces of their original identities to seek acceptance in a new place, but were stuck, like the Caananite woman, on the boundaries – experiencing rejection and frustration for not being fully a part of either their old or new culture, or faith.

This is a pattern we still see all too often today: We all know of the many immigrants in this country who try very hard to be accepted as Americans, and yet are rejected by many because they don’t look or act or speak like an American “should.”

On the other hand, many these of same immigrants have told me that when they return to their homelands, they are now looked upon as “rich Americans”- a source of money and opportunity, someone to be taken advantage of – but no longer one of “them.” They too have become like this woman. They are not one of us but also no longer what they were: they are trapped in their otherness. Their very existence is a challenge to the labels and boundaries we apply to those around us. And this is exactly who the Canaanite woman was, and who many of Matthew’s fellow believers were: people whose very existence was a challenge to the labels and boundaries familiar to so many who lived in that time.

But, the Canaanite woman goes on to challenge and transgress boundaries in other ways.   She starts by shouting to get Jesus’ attention, a most disrespectful way of communicating with anyone. In that same vein, she is a woman talking to a man, and a man of God – an act seen back then as a grave transgression of social and cultural norms. And, she is the one who initiates the conversation – another boundary transgressed.

Jesus remains silent as this woman caught in the gap between cultures shouts at him and the disciples. He doesn’t say a word, conforming to the cultural expectations of a man in his position.

She won’t take the hint and shut up! She harangues Jesus and his disciples to the point where the disciples give up – saying to Jesus “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us!

In a way, they’ve taken her side – and are crossing a boundary themselves – by demanding that Jesus respond – even though they want that response be the opposite of what she is pleading for. They are not respectfully asking, or petitioning, Jesus to respond, as a proper disciple should do when addressing their master.

It seems that all these pressures to respond have an impact upon Jesus, and so he finally says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Door closed, boundary reaffirmed, end of conversation.

We don’t hear any more from the disciples. I’m guessing they’re happy, because they are now out this annoying and obnoxious woman’s line of fire. But she doesn’t accept Jesus’ dismissal.

She began by shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!’ But now, because he responds directly to her, she takes advantage of the opening. She comes to him, kneels in front of him, and pleads, more respectfully than at first, “Lord, help me.”

He dismisses her again, but he raises the heat with a huge insult, saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This is a really troubling verse. Jesus is not seen as being so harsh and judgmental to anyone in need, anywhere else in the Gospels. How can this be? His strangeness is increasing!

Many try to take the edge off of this by suggesting Jesus was actually using the endearing term “puppy” – which may be true, and makes this more of a condescending remark than a harsh insult. But for me, either way, he is not respecting her, instead, he is continuing the rejection and disrespect she’s faced her entire life. How can this be? This is not the Jesus who preaches unconditional love, and who is a strong voice for compassion and social justice for all. This isn’t the Jesus we thought we knew; is it? His otherness overwhelms us.

What’s Matthew doing here? All these reversals, all these boundaries being crossed, all these cultural norms and values being undermined or flung aside.

And now, another boundary is crossed: after his ugly insult and dismissal, she now softens her own tone even further, and meekly and respectfully says “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

She’s flipped the table on him – she’s accepted his labels of her and turned them around, using them to teach him about compassion and love for those who are other than Jews!

…Jesus – the Jewish Prophet – is being taught by a non-Jew – and a woman! I’m sure Matthew’s audience was shocked! Another insult on top of all of her others! What a mess! How can this be? What will Jesus do? How does he get out of this?

But before we go there, why is this a problem? I’m not talking about the crossing and confusion of gender and cultural boundaries here, but Matthew’s confusing the role of God versus the role of us as part of God’s Creation. The problem isn’t merely that we have a gentile woman teaching a male Jewish prophet, but that a mortal human is teaching the Son of God.

Then Jesus responds, saying “Woman, Great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Jesus changes his mind – he has learned something new from her, and it changed his perspective on his own mission here on earth.

In our modern world, we find the story to this point puzzling and troubling, but back then it shook their understanding of the entire cosmos. Not only is she teaching him, but here we have the Son of God, part of the living Godhead, actually receiving what she has to say – he changes because of the words of a mortal! Worse still, she is someone who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, someone who has no place, and therefore no legitimacy in the eyes of the world in which she lived.

Shocking.

And yet, this is not the first time the Bible shows God changing in response to human intercession. In Genesis, we see Abraham negotiating with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Exodus, Moses bargains many times with God. Beginning with the Burning Bush, where he convinces God to reveal his name and then to send Aaron to help Moses. Later, Moses intercedes for Israel and convinces God to withhold vengeance upon the people for their worship of the Golden Calf.

And, the name “Israel” itself was given to the Jews because of Jacob’s wrestling with God one night, as he and his family were about to cross the boundary back into Canaan, to reunite with Jacob’s brother, Esau.

And finally, in Job and in the book of Jonah, we see mighty challenges directed towards God as mere human beings seek to understand and cope with the circumstances that God is confronting them with; and God responds in both cases.

All of these stories, and many others in the Bible, point to one thing: relationship is a two way street, a street without gates or boundaries. Matthew emphasizes this in the very first chapter of his Gospel when he writes “’…and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God with us.’”

God with us … relationship!

But relationship requires give and take on both sides. If only one side gives, and the other takes, it is not a relationship, but ownership, and makes God unreachable, like that distant and capricious God we see in parts of the Hebrew Bible – a God who steadily becomes more approachable as our understanding of the nature of our relationship with God deepens and matures; and as God comes to better understand, and love, us.

And so, this thread that runs all through the Bible, especially here in Matthew – leads us to conclude that every relationship – including our relationship with God, must be a two way street. Not only do we benefit and change because of our relationship with God; but the Almighty benefits – and changes – because of our relationship through Jesus.

I believe Matthew included this story of the Canaanite woman because this was a point that had to be made in jarring way, if it were to stick with those who first heard it. Jews already had a relationship with God, but if God truly is with us, as Matthew claims in chapter 1, and if the Gospel is meant for all of humanity, then Matthew needed to show Jesus in a two way relationship with someone who stood on the other side of every boundary that separated them from Jesus. …Someone who was not a Jew, not of Israel, not respectful of Jesus, someone without a culture to call their own, someone for whom it was inconceivable that they even converse with the Lord. They had to be the ultimate outsider.

This is what the Caananite women is, and, by proxy, so were every one of the Greek-speaking Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in Matthew’s and Mark’s audiences. She violates every boundary, and is someone whose very existence is a problem, until she confronts Jesus.

Their encounter convinces Jesus that if the Gospel of unconditional love and intimate relationship with God is real, then there can be no boundaries as to who can receive it, or benefit from it, nothing to prevent anyone from entering into a relationship with Christ.

So, if this disgustingly pushy woman can be in relationship with the Christ, and through Christ in relationship with our Eternal living, loving God, then nothing stops us from being in a relationship with God, too – no matter who we are, and it is a true, full, vibrant, two-way relationship. God listens to us, and learns from us, and us from God, because we are partners walking together, not one a slave following at the command of the other.

But, it also means that we must embrace Jesus’ example as we journey through our lives: his example drives us to love the unlovable, to embrace those whom others might see as unclean, to love everyone around us just as much as Jesus loves them. Unconditional love means loving those who don’t fit in anywhere – not just loving those whom we are comfortable with; and it means ministering to them, as Jesus did for this woman, healing her daughter.

We all don’t fit in somewhere, whether we’re talking about our family, our faith, our church, our gender, our race, our economic status, our sexual orientation, or something else. Our otherness doesn’t stop Jesus, Christ loves us just as we are, no matter how strange we may be. We cross those boundaries because of the Cross itself.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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