August 17, 2008 XIV Pentecost (RCL Proper 15A) Matthew 15: 10-28
The second part of this Matthew 15 reading, this sharp and even edgy exchange that Jesus has with the Syrio-Phoenician woman, is a kind of parallel to his encounter with the Woman at the Well in John 4, if we remember that story.
In both stories Jesus pushes the envelope for an Orthodox rabbi, interacting with women, which is always a problem to start with, and then in John a woman and a Samaritan, for that matter, who seems to be a scandal in the community for her wanderings outside of marriage and here in Matthew a woman again doubly-unclean, outside the family, a foreigner, a Palestinian Canaanite. Yet in both conversations a kind of spiritual alarm goes off as we hear these “untouchables” and see revealed a deeper purity founded not on superficial aspects of identity but on openness of heart and of a new relationship of holiness based on a response of faith, trust, loyalty to the presence and goodness of God in the person of Jesus.
The whole system seems to flip over, turn upside down. In a very real and revolutionary sense, these two women, not Israelites by heritage, become Daughters of Zion and heirs of the Covenant--in a way that equals and even perhaps surpasses the blessing for the biological sons and daughters of Abraham. Daughters of New Zion, heirs of the New Covenant. Certainly for Matthew and for John as well these moments of encounter and transformation and faith are compelling anticipations of the Kingdom, of God’s new dispensation for all of us, Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider. Not an overturning of the Old Covenant, but a gracious, loving, even extravagant expansion of the circle. An overflowing of God’s loving heart.
What is exciting about these women in both stories is that they don’t settle for easy answers, for the superficial, for the status quo. Jesus pushes, and they push back. Not to resist, exactly, but to persist, to achieve a deeper engagement, a deeper truth. “Hang in there with me, Jesus, and I’m going to hang in there with you. No matter what the rules say, I’m not going anywhere.”
Scroll up to the first part of our Matthew 15 reading this morning, before the woman crosses his path, and Jesus talks about a kind of religious piety that focuses on the regulation of minute dietary regulations or complex formal ceremonial practices and yet will turn a blind eye to “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness.”
These days it’s kind of hard to hear this passage without thinking of so many politicians and religious and leaders of church and society who have presented themselves as pillars of righteousness, and who then have been undone in the harsh light of day. Read it in the tabloids, just about every day. Jesus talks about those who are like “whitewashed sepulchers.” Attractive on the outside, smooth-talkers, saying all the right words, but full of corruption inside. “Whitewashed sepulchers.” As if there were some costume we could wear to disguise who we really are.
The politician says, “I thought I could get away with it.” But for any of us, only fooling ourselves. Sooner or later the truth comes out—and even if we did manage to put one over on our contemporaries, for a moment or two, certainly there is another watching us and listening to us, who knows the secrets of our hearts.
In another place Jesus talks about “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” All about trivializing the deep concern God has for the character of our life. Not that we don’t offer to God a loving sacrifice of obedience, an offering to express our own loyalty and devotion. But what a farce it is to turn that offering of loving obedience on its head, and to imagine even for a minute that God can’t see past our costumes and facades and performances to know the deeper character of our heart, the true loyalties and commitments of our lives. Not just politicians and televangelists who need to give this passage a second reading.
The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 is right where the rubber hits the road, the very hard point of life, the point of life and death, the life and health of her child, her daughter, and she’s not interested in playing games or worrying over complicated dance steps. Nothing trivial here. All pretense and playacting stripped away. Cut to the chase, she says. There’s really no time to play games. Let’s get beyond that, let’s get real. She takes the hem of his robe and won’t let go. She needs to be in relationship to God where it matters the most, and she needs him right now, and she knows where to find him. I need you Jesus, and I am yours, if you will have me. Whatever healing and whatever new life there is here in you, that’s where I need to be.
As we would encounter him this morning at the Holy Table, as the people we really are, broken as we are, with what healing we need today, not going through the motions but with sincerity of heart, opening ourselves to the power of his love, to transformation, to new life.
“She said, ‘Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master's table.’ “ There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t say. Putting it all on the line. “And Jesus answered, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly."