Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Last week, we heard the first part of Matthew 15. In that part of chapter 15, Jesus was arguing with people who had a passion equal to his own about what was important in their faith. They were arguing about how to keep their shared religious laws, and how to weigh the value of traditions developed to keep those laws in light of human need. Jesus, like other Jewish teachers of his era, believed that human need should often guide how they followed their religious laws. This is why he thought it was ok to feed hungry people and healing sick people on the Sabbath. That’s what we read together.
Then, there was this additional bit of teaching where Jesus talked about eating. There were some very important religious laws about what was ok to eat and what was not. These were some of the religious practice that most clearly separated their community from other cultural communities that they lived alongside. Ultimately, and surprisingly for some people, Jesus said it was “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” We should remember that this isn’t Jesus arguing against dietary laws, but, instead, is likely pointing out that you can eat or not eat everything you are supposed to and still say and do things contrary to God’s covenant. He said, “For out of the heart comes evil intentions.” He said evil intentions and actions defile. Eating without ritually washing one’s hands does not.
That is all context that should be in our minds. Jesus said human need is a vital part of how someone figures out how to follow their religious traditions. And, we saw Jesus regularly healing the sick when they sought him out. And, beating this story ritually pure was not more important to him than following the heart of their religious law, which was loving neighbor and loving God. When we remember all of that, we might pause when we hear this story about Jesus refusing to heal this woman’s daughter. It is a story that sounds so much like the stories of the countless people who followed Jesus into the wilderness. So why would he hesitate here?
It is curious that the woman who approaches Jesus in this story is called a Canaanite. In her commentary on the text, Marilyn Salmon notes that by the time this story would have been recorded, no nation in the area was called Canaan and no people were called Canaanites. By the time of Jesus’ adulthood, this name of a people, which was common in the Hebrew Bible, was already quite out of date. It would be like calling modern day French people Normans. It just wasn't a term used for an existing people group. So, what does the use of this archaic term have to tell us about how to read this passage of scripture?
Salmon thinks it's there to remind us of the power of ancient ethnic tension. Matthew, in calling this woman a Canaanite, instead of a Syrophoenician, as she is called in Mark, the author is reminding the listener of the greatest ancient enemy of the Jewish people, the Canaanites. The oldest books in our Bible rarely say anything good about a Canaanite. They are called everything but children of God. Throughout the most ancient texts, they are portrayed as murderers, rapists, and sexual deviants who profaned God and worshipped idols. In most of the religious stories Jesus heard growing up, Canaanites were villains. Even though, the scholar Mitzi Smith points out, three women in Jesus’ family tree were Canaanite, (Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth), and when Canaanite is used here, we are supposed to understand that Jesus was, in effect, speaking with an enemy.
We might expect Jesus, who healed the Centurion's servant, who hung out with tax collectors and sinners, who was touched by a bleeding woman and desperate lepers, and who chose to not follow all of the hand-washing rituals around eating, to help this unnamed woman as quickly as he did the masses of people who sought him out following the execution of John. But, he doesn’t. At first, he doesn’t respond to her at all. Then, he refuses to help and calls her a dog. His buddies also wanted him to run her off. But, she stayed.
In her commentary on this text, Salmon notes that it can be tempting to try to justify Jesus’ actions here. If you are of the mind that individuals whom you respect can do no wrong, you might say that Jesus must be testing her or otherwise has a good reason not to help her. I would encourage all of us not to do that. Not only does this story not support that reading, it also sets up a precedent where those assumed to be good are never wrong. If this story were to stop at the moment when Jesus refuses to help this woman, it would be stopping at a point when Jesus is doing something wrong, or at the very least, outside of his stated values. Thank God the story doesn’t stop there. The woman gives Jesus the opportunity to practice what he preaches.
Thank God for this woman’s persistence. She would be heard because the future of her family was at stake. Somehow, she knew that Jesus could bring her child healing and she would not leave until he acknowledged her. In her commentary, Mitzi Smith notes that the woman brings some of her own cultural commentary to bear on the situation. In her culture, dogs might be more welcome near the table than they would have in the homes Jesus and the disciples were raised in. Yes, he might call her a dog, but even a dog can eat the crumbs that fall off the table. Or, as Dr. Smith puts it, “One can feed the children and feed the pets, too.”
Hearing her wisdom, Jesus would change his mind. He would say, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And, her daughter was healed. Isn’t it good to follow a Christ who shows us the power of being willing to change our minds and adjust our behavior when someone shows us that we aren’t living up to the values we hold true. And, aren’t we lucky to count this woman as one of our teachers. May we be persistent in fighting for what is right. And, may we be willing to have a faith strong enough to change our minds.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Matthew 15:1-9 The Tradition of the Elders
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’
He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
For God said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’
In the chapters before today’s reading, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, demonstrating, according to Andrew Overman’s notes on Matthew, that there are people turning against Jesus even as we will witness so many people turning towards him for healing. His cousin and baptizer John is also killed for daring to critique Herod and his wife Herodias. This shows us the possible outcome of ruthless people using their power to silence critics. Jesus had to go into the wilderness for a while after this, though the people who needed his healing followed them there. Scriptures tells us, with only five loaves, two fish, and the Holy Spirit, he fed more than 5,000 of them.
Jesus went to the mountain to be alone again and his friends took to the water. In the midst of a terrible storm, his disciples saw him walking towards them on the water. Peter, struck by an intense faith, asked if he could do the same. Jesus said yes. Peter was brave enough to do it for a moment, but then grew afraid. Jesus caught him before he sank, offering a word that makes it sounds like Peter could have kept doing the impossible. With Peter and Jesus finally in the boat, they landed in a place called Gennesaret, where more people found him and asked to be healed, begging to even just be allowed to touch the fringe on his cloak, hoping that would cure them. Matthew 14:36 says “all who touch it were healed.”
And, then, Jesus got into an argument. That’s where today’s reading starts: an argument. There has been so much tension: Jesus’ hometown was suspicious of him, his cousin was killed, people kept seeking him out even when he was needing time alone, and yet, he still healed people and helped his disciples do miraculous things. Then, these respectable and respected people travel all the way from Jerusalem and ask him why his disciples are disregarding traditions that their shared community holds dear. To be fair, it sounds like a reasonable tradition. Who among us hasn’t been taught to wash our hands before we eat? This hand washing has more to do with ritual purity than germ theory, but still. It was common practice and inherited tradition in their religious community to wash one’s hands as a reminder of their connections to and commitments to God. The Pharisees and scribes, people very committed to their faith and to following their religious laws, would have noticed when someone who claimed to be a teacher and his disciples were not adhering to the practices that much of their community agreed were appropriate behaviors for demonstrating your faith.
Jesus seems prepared, if testy, in his response. Remember, it’s been a challenging few days and weeks. He says something like “oh yeah, why do you break the commandment about honoring your parents for the sake of your tradition?” Then he described a tradition where people wouldn’t have to financially support their parents if they said that the money they were supposed to share with them was set aside as an offering to God. That is not described in the religious law, or Torah, given to Moses from God. It was a tradition that grew from people trying to figure out how to follow the Torah in lots of different kinds of situations. Overman describes these “traditions of the elders” as religious “regulations not found in the written Torah.”
Notice that Jesus is drawing a distinction between religious law believed to be handed down to Moses from God and the traditions of interpretation that branched out from the Law. Now, many of us learned traditions about how to live out our faith. Who here learned that you should wear a suit and tie or a skirt to church every Sunday in order to be respectful to God? Did anyone learn that you shouldn’t say swear words, especially at church, as a way to demonstrate your faith? Did anyone learn that women shouldn’t have leadership positions in church? These are three examples of traditions that elders in my childhood community taught me. Maybe you have similar examples. These traditions are usually justified by pointing to scripture, but I think are just as often a product of the culture in which a person was raised as they are of any straight forward reading of the Bible.
The traditions that Jesus and the Pharisees are referencing here are more formalized than the three examples I just mentioned. Even so, I hope you will remember that, for a long time, well before Jesus, people have been trying to figure out how to live out their faiths. And, they pass along what they learn. Sometimes the practices we learn from our forebears are useful. Sometimes, they are not. And, nearly always, people will disagree about what it means to actually live out our faiths. They might even argue about it.
In his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrmann points out that there are some teachings that people assume Jesus was either the first one to say it or that he always believed something very different than other Jewish teachers at his time. This idea is particularly prominent in discussion about how Jesus understood religious laws. For example, there are parts of scripture where the Jesus and/or the disciples are criticized for harvesting or healing on the Sabbath. Some claim that Jesus was unusual in saying that healing people and feeding hungry people is acceptable on the Sabbath. He wasn’t actually. Jewish people have always made allowances for care work, especially life-saving care work, to happen during the Sabbath.
Another example: the Rabbi Hillel, one of the most revered rabbis to live around the time of Jesus’ own life, is said to have believed something very much like Jesus’ own golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Hillel put it this way: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” It is important for us to remember that Jesus found deep meaning and usefulness in following the religious law and many traditions of his people. At the same time, he, like Hillel, was clear that love and mercy are the most important aspects of the law.
If we think about the stories leading up to today’s scripture, we see Jesus actually trying to live this out. He preached the truth as he understood it in his hometown, even though people did not respond well to it. In the midst of his grief over the execution of his cousin and mentor, he still made space for acts of mercy and love for the crowds who continuously sought him out. Storms, literal and emotional, did not stop him from practicing love, even when he could have likely used a break. Bart Ehrman describes Jesus’ actions this way, “The Law is to be obeyed to the fullest extent possible, but in obeying the Law what really matters is human need.” Everything else is subservient to the command to love. Even the traditions that the elders passed down to help us learn how to live out our faith.
People will quibble about what “loving action really means,” even arguing that abandoning children for being gay or refusing to feed hungry people is actually loving. They are wrong, by the way. Because they have forgotten that part about doing unto others... they have forgotten that human need is an adequate reason for going against tradition. What I pray we will gain from this scripture is a reminder that our traditions have use only as far as they lead us to love. And, when measuring our actions between the way we’ve always done it and a way that will alleviate human need, we will remember that Jesus persistently cared for the need first. May we go and do the same.
Resources consulted while writing a sermon:
Bart Ehrman's chapter on Matthew inThe New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
J. Andrew Overman's notes on Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
The Parable of the Yeast
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
The Use of Parables
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’
Somewhere on the internet this week, I saw a video where two people are hiking next to a field full of tall yellow flowers. One of them says “Look at these beautiful flowers.” The other one immediately pipes in, saying “that’s actually super invasive.” I wish I could remember where I saw it so I could tell you who made the video. They are talking about shortpod mustard, a beautiful plant that grows bountifully in lots of places it's not supposed to be, including my yard.
Jesus was a good teacher. He knew that people can learn new ideas more easily if the new ideas are connected to something familiar. If you’re preaching to a bunch of farmers and people who cooked their own food, you might compare your new idea to some aspect of farming or baking that they are very familiar with. In her commentary on today’s text, Jennifer Kaalund says, “These literary devices are effective ways for giving color, life, and meaning to concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.” Jesus was also a challenging teacher. Just because he was teaching using images that were immediately familiar to the hearers, that doesn’t mean that his teaching will be easy or that the meaning will be immediately clear. Today’s reading, which includes parables about mustard plants and yeast or leaven, are two parables that are familiar but also complex.
Our yard and the field some random instagrammer was walking through are not the only places where mustard grows. In his commentary on the text, David Lose says that when we read “mustard” here, we shouldn’t think of yellow spread we put on hamburgers or the delicious greens we eat with porkchops. Instead, we should think of an invasive plant that will take over your whole garden. It takes up all the space and nutrients that the vegetables you want to grow to eat actually need. And, I’ve learned that it can outcompete native wildflowers, too, making it hard for them to have the space and nutrients they need to propagate. And, remember those birds that can nest in the mustard? Do we really want a lot of birds in our gardens? No. Most of us don’t. We construct all manner of scarecrows and clanging pie pan contraptions to keep them out.
In the translation we heard today, the next parable says that the Reign of God is like “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” In his commentary on this text, Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman clarifies that the “yeast” referenced here isn’t a nice and “tidy little packet” of yeast like we use. Jesus is actually talking about something called “leaven,” which is, and I quote, “a rotting, molding lump of bread.” Ew. Though, to be fair, that’s kind of how you got yeast at the time... you hoped to capture the yeast that was naturally in the air and on stuff like old bread or maybe pine needles. And, he argues that she’s not mixing it in the flour so much as hiding it. And three measures of flour is enough to make an amount of bread big enough to feed a hundred people. Hoffman also argues that leaven is often understood to be a pollutant, something that made food unfit to eat, and is regularly used as a metaphor for sin.
For those keeping score: It appears that Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is a weed that takes over your whole field and, also, like something moldy being hidden in your food. How do we feel about a vision of the empire of heaven as a place where that which is unwelcome and unclean has found a home? Because that kind of seems like what is happening here. This isn’t just a couple parables about big things starting from little things. The pests and pollutants in these parables are describing to us the presence of God being uniquely suited to spreading quickly and taking up residence in every nook and cranny of anywhere where there is space.
Through these stories, though, the pests and pollutants are redeemed. Weeds become shelter. Birds, instead of thieves, are evidence of life and abundance. The enormous pile of flour is actually given the ability to rise, and, when mixed with other ingredients and heat, to nourish many people. David Lose puts it this way: “Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every corner of our lives?” Mark Hoffman also invites us to consider these parables to be telling us that God’s reign will grow in unexpected and possibly scandalous ways. Hoffman argues, that especially for the early church that was trying to explain how Jesus could have been the Messiah and also murdered like a common criminal by Rome, it was vital to pass along this tradition of Jesus’ teaching that showed that Divinity and the unwanted and unwelcome could abide in the same space.
Jesus is clear that he has come to share was has been hidden. Like the woman with the leaven, he knows exactly what is in the flour. He also knows that parables, like yeast that takes time to grow or mustard that is spreading, root by root, seed by seed, are not a kind of teaching that is clear at first listen. Like the pine needle soda we mixed up before the sermon, it might need to sit for a little while to be ready. Like the bread that will rise and the seed that will grow, God’s reign of love and justice will make itself known. I pray that we will have eyes to see it as clearly as the yellow blooms lining our fields. (Though, if you have mustard growing in your yard, go ahead and pull it up... it’s not supposed to be here anyway).
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
I learned about pine needle soda from Alexis Nicole Nelson (@blackforager on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cl9ydeOjg-Y/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==) She also mentioned this recipe from Ms. She and Mr. He: https://msshiandmrhe.com/pine-needle-soda/
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/07/pentecost-7a-parables-that-do-things/
Invasive of the Week: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cs9OfFVtj97/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=983
Jennifer T. Kaalund: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17/commentary-on-matthew-1331-33-44-52-4
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.