Patient Persistence

Matthew 15:21-28 (8.20.17)        It is another story of a woman interrupting Jesus. Like the woman at the well in John’s gospel, she is not Jewish. And both encounters take place outside of Israel, when Jesus has crossed the line into unwashed territory. Matthew tells us this woman is Canaanite… part of the people who had opposed the Israelites in the long ago battle over the real estate we call the Holy Land. When Mark tells the same story, he identifies her as a Syrophoenician woman, a Greek. Both are clear that she is not a Jew, but a Gentile. She is from the regions of Tyre and Sidon, coastal cities on the outside northern edges of Israel, in what was called Canaan, then Syria, then Phoenicia, named for the purple dye found in that part of the world. She is a Gentile living in Gentile territory.
What is Jesus doing there in the first place? I don’t think it is his summer vacation on the Mediterranean coast. Is he traversing the “unwashed” territory to make a point? Matthew has just finished describing Jesus’ teaching on keeping the purity rules of handwashing for God. He doesn’t have much concern for the hand washing rules. He is more concerned about the filth that comes out from inside of a person. He says, “What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight.” Then he goes to a “contaminated” place, in the eyes of his listeners. A visual illustration? Perhaps. But then it turns into an opportunity for him to learn from someone else.
This woman approaches Jesus and his disciples with a very specific concern. She is desperate, and she comes across as screaming or squawking her need for help with her daughter who is possessed by a demon. At first Jesus totally ignores her, and the disciples try to run interference, asking him to send her away. She is clearly interrupting, unwanted, and disturbing. Maybe like the people on the street corners of Baltimore who are hard to avoid when you pull up at the intersection, the people who are screaming their need for help with a cardboard sign, a cup for coins, a dirty shirt and jeans, and a wild look of lostness and hopelessness in their eyes. We turn up the music, avert our eyes, hope they will ask someone else ahead of us for money so we won’t have to say no.
The woman may as well have been carrying a sign with her: “I don’t belong”. She knew it. Jesus knew it. The disciples knew it. Everyone knew it. She was not Jewish—what right did she have to come to Jesus for help? She was a woman not related to him in any way—what right did she have to confront him publicly? She had a child thought to be possessed by a demon—even further separating her from her own community She had no claim over Jesus. There was no reason he should listen to her request.
She is determined. She won’t take no for an answer. This is where I start to get uncomfortable with this story. This is not the Jesus I know, the generous, giving, welcoming, loving Jesus who has room for everyone. No, in this part of this encounter, Jesus comes across so much like us! We who claim to be Christ followers and continue to condone invisible walls and barriers between people who don’t belong? We who think we are welcoming but get our feathers ruffled if someone doesn’t follow the rules around here? We who claim to stand for justice and equality but still live comfortably with structural and institutional “isms” of all kinds that have always made life more difficult in these United States of America for people of black and brown skin, for transgender persons, for people whose first language is not English?
Has Jesus forgotten who he is? He is being ethnocentric in an uncomfortable way, especially with the recent events in our country. Is he operating out of a theology of scarcity—as if there is not enough love and grace for all people? Was he caught with his compassion down?
At first Jesus is operating by the rules. Apparently continuing to ignore the woman, he tells the disciples: “I came for the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” His first ministry priority is the Jews who are so stuck on their traditions, their rituals, maybe their memorials and their statues?, that they need their eyes opened to a different way of operating based on love and grace. Jesus the good shepherd views the people of his own faith tradition as stuck in the past, finding it difficult to change, living like lost sheep. He has to start with them, he says.
But God is bigger than that. The woman knows it. She pushes. She begs. She gets down on her knees, groveling, bowing in front of someone who has yet to address her, adding to her humiliation. She insists. When Jesus finally speaks to her, he says: ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Non-Jews would have been referred to as dogs in common speech, and the woman accepts the slur as normal. She knows that to the people of Israel, and thus to Jesus, she is like one of the hungry dogs that hang around the table looking for the scraps, the leftovers. But she doesn’t let that stop her. She has a retort that rings true and can not be ignored. “Even the dogs deserve crumbs from the table.” She knows that the grace of God tumbles off the table into the lives of those on the fringes…the non-believers, the demon-possessed, the foreigners, the excluded, the unclean.
Her patient persistence pushes Jesus to put his words into practice. He is wowed by her faith. Her daughter is healed. He has broken the social and religious rules at her insistence. She has pushed open the floodgates of mercy and grace and healing and love. If you follow the rest of this chapter, Jesus leaves the coastal area and heads back to the area around the sea of Galilee. He heals and teaches and feeds another huge crowd of people, this time identified as 4,000. It seems to be that this segment of his ministry is to people on the outside, and he appears to be on the “other side” of the sea, the northern, Gentile, side. The people impacted by his ministry praise the God of Israel. If they were all already Jews, the description would have been different—no need to say, they praised the God of Israel. Could it be that the gospel is going to the dogs? The children’s bread is being shared with those who have been hungering for wholeness and acceptance and hope? Could it be that Jesus is pushed into this part of his ministry because of his encounter with the desperate mother? I think she ends up giving Jesus a chance to really act on the words he had just been preaching. Although his society says differently, this woman is not any less worthy of his healing powers than anyone else. Although his faith tradition says differently, this woman’s daughter deserves to be released from the demons which control her. Although he begins with a theology of scarcity, there always seem to be leftovers of God’s abundant grace. This encounter is sandwiched in between two stories of feeding the crowd with baskets left over, images of God’s amazing abundance.
Way back in history, during the time when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, Moses and God are having a conversation. God says to Moses: “I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate.” God does not follow the human rules which exclude or demean people. God will not be kept in a box.
The persistent woman won’t let Jesus keep God in a box. If we listen, we will find that there are people around us today who are screaming/squawking for us to hear the same message. With violence erupting at protests in Charlottesville and a mayor removing Confederate statues in the dark of night for security of our city, the screams seem to be getting louder. With a store manager shot execution style one block from where we sit and drug dealers who “own” corner after corner around this city, the screams must be heard. The children, the young people, the senior citizens who don’t get a place at the decision-making tables are screaming for help. There are still people in this country in 2017 who are like scavengers hoping for bits of bread in a culture of excess and waste. Or maybe they have just given up, resigned to a world of unequal playing fields, lost eyes reflecting hopelessness.
We can’t keep God in a box either. God’s grace spills off the table. We need to be the ones to gather it up and spread it to those in need. We too need to be persistent. We too need to be bold. We too need to insist that there is room at the table. Will it be a letter to your council member to ask why some neighborhoods get faster response to police calls than others? Will it be connecting a friend with a job opportunity? Will it be getting involved in our Rosemont Community Interfaith Coalition to provide positive, healthy activities for children in the “hood”? Will it be going to the Back to School night at Thomas Jefferson school right behind us and making a connection with a family nearby who can use a voice of encouragement? What will it be for you?
I want to close with some questions for you to ponder in the week ahead. Where do you see God’s grace spilling off the table? Whose voices do you hear screaming for help? And how will you be a conduit for that grace of God to reach the lives of those who feel like scavengers looking for bits of bread in a society full of excess and waste?

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