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Isaiah 56:1, 6–8 | Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32 | Matthew 15:10–28
Ever had someone make an assumption about you? Based on what “group” you belong to? (Dan in a light shirt and tie being taken for a Jehovah’s Witness in Compton etc.)
Austin Channing Brown—author, teacher, devout Christian (interviewed by Brené Brown, quoted by Richard Rohr)—talks about loving books as a child—so much so that she often reached her check-out limit and with her “overdue” fines, is pretty sure her family financed a good part of the local library. One Saturday, when she was 7 years old, the librarian took her books at checkout, looked at her library card and raised an eyebrow. Austin assumed it would be about her check-out limit or fines, but the woman asked, “Is this your card?” Austin nodded. “Are you sure? This card says Austin.” Austin nodded more emphatically and said, “Yes, that’s my card.” The woman continued to wait, “Are you sure this is your card?” Finally, having dealt with this name issue before, she said, “Yes, my name IS Austin and this IS my library card.” The woman continued to look at her with a furrowed brow, stammered about an unusual name and finally checked out the books. Austin would later realize that the suspicion wasn’t just that she wasn’t a boy… For now, though, she walked over to her mom and demanded an explanation for her name. Her mom and dad had long talked about how it was a family name; how they loved the sound of it—but now her mom also admitted: “We knew that one day you would have to apply for a job. We wanted to make sure—with people assuming on paper that you were white and male—that you would at least make it to the interview.” (Interviews became an awkward event for Austin for many years!)
Our brains are busy trying to figure a lot of things out about our social location: Where WE belong; what group, what identifying factors. Also, we want to know what to expect of OTHERS. We are—even during a pandemic—social creatures who continually balance both closeness and separateness; from one another. This is just as much an emotional process as a physical one. And not being particularly emotionally literate, we struggle with this: For instance, healthy distance between people does NOT mean cutting off. (Although boundaries are good.) Cutting off is actually just another form of emotional enmeshment. ALSO, healthy closeness does NOT mean spending every moment together or constantly rescuing someone from themselves. But healthy connection DOES mean regard and respect for one another in our mutual humanity and our differences. It is managing our reptilian brain that takes over thoughts and behavior- Like Jesus points out with the digestion metaphor and Paul with being “imprisoned in disobedience.” There is always learning to do.
We see this tension between close and separate today: The “Canaanite” woman seems to understand both dynamics in connection. She addresses Jesus in an unusual way—“Son of David”—which shows a closeness with him—being of the same group—by connecting the dots of his ancestry as listed in Matthew, to the Canaanites like her: Rahab, Tamar and Ruth. AND, there’s also the separateness: She calls him, “Lord” which indicates respect for his position as a learned Teacher; and also, we might add, that he is male. There are grouping, understandings, stories and forces—that could derail her attempt to get help for herself and her daughter. She has named them and so moves to her request, an appeal for what she knows Jesus can offer: That is “mercy.” Here, she indicates and understanding that he is even beyond all the groups: for anyone who knows the prophets, knows this what God gives. She’s also honest, seeking mercy “for me”—even though it is her daughter who is in need of healing—she knows that she needs this too; as a mother.
At first Jesus says nothing. Maybe he is so accustomed to the undifferentiated people who cross his path; and here, she’s laid it all out. Perhaps he even thinks that she already knows what “mercy” is—in this dance of togetherness and separateness, shot through with injustice and indignity—and for some, privilege and power. Whatever is going through Jesus’ head, it’s one of the most uncomfortable moments—I think—in scripture. What is Jesus going to do? I mean, he’s been healing and feeding and calming storms. And now, just because he’s reached the physical and psychological and religious edges of the group that he knows, is there no more healing to go around?
It’s my thought that Jesus wants people to feel uncomfortable here: To ask, NOW what? In the actual scenario, the disciples want her to go away because, how embarrassing and annoying to have someone keep shouting after you!? (And how fortunate to be them and have the luxury of NOT shouting your heart out in anguish and despair?) And I still think that Jesus dishes it out here both because he wants them to know how harsh it sounds out loud—what they are thinking—and because he also knows this woman has something to teach them all: Now, in her rebuttal to the feeding-the-dog-at-the-table metaphor—something particularly offensive at a Jewish dinner table but no so much to the Greeks for whom they were more like pets. She cuts through the resistance: “Even the dogs get crumbs.” That is—we might say—both children AND fur babies (as my daughter calls her dog) can be fed; ARE fed. In God’s economy.
The Canaanite woman shouldn’t have had to beg for mercy. Her daughter so in need of help, a Mother, distraught. She gets silence, distancing, excuses—but she knows this: She’s got a case and God is a God of mercy. And Jesus is doing God’s work. Finally, “Let it be done,” says Jesus. “Great is your faith.” In the midst of division, cut-off and enmeshment that confound society—there’s this connection that happens:
“Great is your faith” in the practice of mercy and justice, in the loving of the Lord” (we hear in Isaiah), the keeping of the sabbath—in which we let God be in charge and not us for one day every week—as a practice for other days. Faith is knowing God is in mercy in that space between us, ever drawing us onto that holy mountain—into a new community with each other, filled with joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.