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Read Matthew 15:21-28 here.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that I do impressions. Want to see one?
“Hi-dee-ho there, neighbor!”
That was my impersonation of Wilson, the next door neighbor to Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor. Wilson says hello over the fence in every episode of the sitcom “Home Improvement.”
Have you seen this TV show?
The audience never saw more than this of Wilson. We never got to see his entire face until the very last episode when the cast came out together to take their final bow.
There have been lots of theories about why we never got to see Wilson’s face. The show is based on the comedy routines of its star Tim Allen, who says that Wilson’s character is based on Tim’s childhood neighbor. As a child Tim was too short to see over the fence and so all he ever saw was the top of the neighbor’s head.
The neighbor Wilson is sort of like the fool in Shakespeare’s plays. He’s almost never central to the story line but he always has something wise and insightful to say that helps Tim figure out whatever issue is troubling him.
In one episode, Wilson’s advice to Tim, given from the other side of the fence, is about one of the many times that Tim has done something really dumb:
Tim: So I go back on the show and look like a fool again.
Wilson: The first step for greatness is humbling yourself.
Tim does his manly grunt.
Wilson: Maybe you shouldn’t try to have all the answers and instead ask more questions. You see, Tim, a truly wise man always has more questions than answers.
The conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s scripture reading reminds me a bit of Tim and Wilson. The woman is such a minor character that we don’t even know her name, but her words are full of wisdom and Jesus commends her for her great faith.
And I really like Wilson’s advice to Tim about wise people having more questions than answers, because I think that’s where we are with this story about Jesus. There’s a lot we can’t know because we aren’t living in the first century or in the Middle East, and we aren’t the Messiah or a Canaanite woman.
Who do you identify with in this story?
If we’re seeking to follow Jesus then we are disciples, but maybe we wouldn’t like to identify with them in this scene. They’re the ones who tell Jesus to send the woman away. They say, “She’s bothering us with all her begging.”
I think Jesus would want us to see ourselves in this scene, because the words Jesus says sound like he might be showing us what we sound like.
Just before this, Jesus has fed the huge crowd that had gathered to hear him speak. Wherever Jesus went, crowds gathered and people were desperate to get close enough to even just touch his robe in the hopes of being healed. (Matt. 14:35-36) Some of the teachers of religious law came to see Jesus and wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples weren’t following all the Jewish purity laws. Jesus answers them by pointing out ways in which they too are not following the law, even accusing them of canceling God’s laws with their own traditions (Matt 15:6). He quotes Isaiah 29:13 to them:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God. (Matt 15:8-9)
Jesus then calls out to the crowd to listen to him, and says, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person. (CEB)
When the disciples ask him to explain more, Jesus tells them that their words show what’s in their hearts. “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19).
And then Jesus and the disciples go to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre was a major seaport on the coast of what is now Lebanon. In Jesus’ time this was Gentile territory, and the Jews would normally have avoided people from this region. Historical records tell us that by the 2nd century, this area was home to a large Christian community, and maybe that community began because of this encounter with Jesus that we’re reading today.
Considering how things have been going for Jesus and the disciples so far, with crowds showing up everywhere he goes, it’s maybe not surprising that the disciples are running interference, trying to give Jesus a break. The woman is clear right up front that she’s there with the same kind of request they’ve been continually hearing. She says:
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”
Maybe the disciples were thinking, “Is there no end to these people wanting help? Can’t they bother someone else with their demands and give Jesus a break? Let someone else take care of this demon. Just look at him. He’s one tired rabbi!”
The disciples interpret Jesus’ silence as . . .
Well, here’s one of the questions we can’t answer. Why is Jesus silent at first? I don’t know. Why is God silent sometimes? Have you ever been frustrated by God’s silence?
It’s one of the big questions people have asked down through the ages.
- Psalm 35 cries out to God, “Do not stay silent. Do not abandon me now, O Lord.”
- Psalm 83: “O God, do not be silent! Do not be deaf. Do not be quiet, O God.”
When Jesus does answer, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
I don’t know why Jesus says that, because he’s in Gentile territory. If he’s only supposed to help the lost sheep of Israel, why go to Tyre and Sidon at all? Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had lamented over the lack of faith in Israel, and said that Tyre and Sidon would be better off on Judgment Day because they would have believed more than Israel had (Matt. 11:2-22).
But I have heard people say something like what Jesus says. “I can’t help with that because it’s not my calling.” Or “I’m not compassionate because that’s not one of my spiritual gifts.”
It’s a common boundary that we use in determining how to distribute help. “This is only for people in our church, or in our county.”
Are we bothered about hearing Jesus say this? Then it should also bother us when we say it.
The Canaanite woman isn’t stopped by this. She drops to her knees and pleads with Jesus. “Lord, help me.”
Whenever someone is willing to get on their knees and beg, we should listen.
Jesus does listen, but then he says something that scholars have been trying to explain away for centuries, because it bothers us. Jesus is God and I trust that God has reasons for everything, even if I don’t like them. But I do think it’s good if it bothers us. Maybe Jesus is demonstrating to the disciples what he has just said about the words coming out of our mouths being the things that defile us.
What bothers us is that it sounds callous and racist. Part of our problem may be that we’re listening with 21st century ears. But the other problem is that we are bothered when we see ourselves in other people. If it bothers us to hear something like this from Jesus, then we should definitely be bothered by hearing it from ourselves.
Maybe the whole point here is for us to be uncomfortable with this scene?
The word “uncomfortable” comes up in our group that’s reading “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown. As we read about the situations that have happened in Austin’s life, we get uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. We are seeing the world through Austin’s eyes, the eyes of a Black woman, and we’re seeing how much prejudice and racism are deeply ingrained in our schools and churches and government. That’s uncomfortable. But we’re also seeing our own blindness and ignorance exposed. That makes us really uncomfortable.
We’re experiencing what Austin says is “white guilt.” She leads classes and conferences on diversity and does quite a bit of public speaking, and her talks bring this out in people. They come up afterwards to talk to her about it. She says these “unsolicited confessions inspired by a sense of guilt are often poured over Black bodies in search of their own relief.”
She tells how she experienced this after speaking at a church celebration for MLK Day. She says, “During the service, my friend Jenny and I stood on the church stage, recounting the story of our friendship—formed during a Sankofa trip, back in college.” They told their personal stories. Brown talked about the first time someone called her the n-word, and how it felt to be a Black person on a disrespectful plantation tour, and the horror of visiting the lynching museum. She says, “It worked. Sort of. By the time we stepped off the stage, white people were lining up to offer their racist confessions.”
The confessions she heard included:
- “A man who looked to be in his thirties: ‘I once called someone the n–word, and I am so ashamed.’”
- “A white woman in her early twenties: ‘My parents wouldn’t let me date a Black man, and it only just occurred to me.’”
- “A forty-ish woman who told [Austin] she prided herself on spending time with the Black worship leaders of the church but went on to share, ‘At my workplace, there is an Indian woman who is often discussed behind her back, but I’ve never stood up for her.’”
Obviously people had been moved by hearing Austin speak. But they only told their confessions to Austin, not to Jenny who was white. And it wasn’t helping Austin any to hear these stories. It only made her feel worse about the pervasiveness of racism. So she started asking people this question:
“So what are you going to do differently?”
What are you going to do about it?
The Canaanite woman is in essence asking Jesus this question. What are you going to do about my daughter who is tormented by this demon? I’m not going to give up and go away until you do something about it.
Whenever we are bothered by someone who needs help or by a situation that needs to be changed, we need to be more like this woman, constantly pestering God with our prayers, asking God to do something, or, asking God to help us see what WE should do and for the courage and wisdom to take that action.
What are we going to do about it?
Jesus says, “Dear woman, your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.
This is one of the few times Jesus commends the faith of a Gentile. “Your faith is great.” It’s like she knew that she was talking to God, and that with God all things are possible, and she refused to give up until God answered her prayer.
Radical Acceptance. That’s what Jesus does that for this woman. He could have ignored her as if she wasn’t even there. But instead he listened and did what she asked.
Rev. Gennifer Brooks in her commentary on this passage says that “an ongoing challenge for the Christian church is to truly be the inclusive body of Christ that Jesus sought to model in his acceptance of all people. Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is a mandate for the church that is too often overlooked or reinterpreted, in order to exclude particular individuals or groups.”
The highest level of acceptance is to listen to what someone has to say and be changed by it, so that our behavior is different. Radical means change. Thorough, fundamental change. We might already expect that we need to change. To turn to God is to change. To follow Jesus is to change. We might think we’ve already changed enough. Anytime we think we don’t need to change anymore, that we’ve already learned all we need to know, we’re in trouble.
In our defense, we are good people and we don’t mean to be racist, but it’s deeply ingrained in our culture, and to stop it we’re going to have to acknowledge it and be willing to do something about it. It’s why our denomination is having a week of action about racism starting Monday, August 24. There will be opportunities to connect and learn each day of the week, and we’ll put more about this in our newsletter this week, and through that week we’ll be doing what we can to help us all connect with those opportunities.
Change is not going to be easy. It’s going to bother us. And the more it does, I hope we’ll hear Austin Channing Brown’s question, “So what are you going to do differently?”
I hope we’ll also hear Jesus saying, “With God, all things are possible.” We don’t do this life alone. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have the renewing power of the resurrection at work in us, and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and God’s mercy and grace to lift us up when we fall.
With God’s help, we can be all that God is calling us to be.
Thanks be to God.
 Are we troubled by his silence? In the psalms, God is silent. The disciples urge him to send her away. Instead he is silent, giving her an opportunity to speak. https://bible.org/seriespage/23-lesson-hermeneutics-matthew-1521-39
 Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here (pp. 106-107). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here (p. 110). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Gennifer Benjamin Brooks in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 7777-7781). Ed. Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, Carolyn J. Sharp. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.