Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
It would have been so easy…to simply edit this episode out.To erase it. It’s short. It’s confusing. And it doesn’t paint Jesus in the best light. He ignores her. He insults her…he denigrates…no …he dehumanizes her. But then he heals her daughter, and proclaims her great faith…
Is it all a set up? Is he just messing with the disciples to prove a point? or is he actually wrong here? Does he mess up that badly and change his mind?
I mean, last week, and just a few verses prior to this, Jesus is walking on water—literally hovering over the deep like the spirit of God at the beginning of creation—and using the same language about himself that the Holy One uses when speaking to Moses out of the burning bush…ego ami—I AM. But today, for reasons that are not exactly clear, he’s up near the border of Lebanon—and he has this really tense exchange with this desperate, persistent woman, and he says these things that make us REALLY uncomfortable. It’s an exchange that is so brutal in it’s honesty about how people in positions of privilege and people without privilege see and interact with the world and their own history very differently.
Some of the questions we’re often left with:
Does Jesus change his mind? At first he ignores her. But she keeps coming…So, is she just like the persistent widow in that parable, and wears him down? Does she get Jesus to do something he doesn’t really want to do?
Does his mission change at this point? When the disciples beg him to do something so she’ll go away he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” and she is clearly not a Jew, and yet, one tense exchange later, he’s remaking on how great her faith is and healing her daughter. So does she make him suddenly realize that non-Jews are also included in the plan of salvation? Maybe, but in the next verse, he’s back among the Jews preaching to them, and we never hear from her again…
And what happens to her? She emerges out of nowhere and disappears again. Does she become a disciple? Does she start keeping the law? Does she follow Jesus? Is she like the Samaritan woman at the well in John? Does she go back to her community…her tribe…and convert them? We don’t know.
It’s an odd little episode and I’m guessing that a contemporary editor—and one more interested in creating a seamless, positive narrative—would circle this in red and tell Matthew to get rid of it. It’s confusing and unnecessary. It would have been easy to edit this out.
And yet it remains. She remains. This meant something to Matthew, and to Mark, the only other Gospel writer who includes it. It might be brief, it might be confusing, but it’s important. It remains.
There’s a very significant term, that Matthew uses. It’s a term that pierced me to the quick this week, and reframed this whole episode for me…and revealed much of what is important about it.
She is not named, but she is not just any woman. She is specific. She’s not just a foreign woman, or even a Gentile woman. Mark says she is a Gentile, a Greek, “of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26), and that’s true, but that also a gloss on the difficult history that Matthew surgically highlights. Matthew says, boldly, and clearly…she is a Canaanite. And that’s something that means a whole lot more than just “she’s from up north,” or even as many biblical notes will say at this point, “Canaanites were the historic enemies of the Jews.” That’s also true, but it doesn’t address the real history…the history that was undoubtedly taught to Jesus and all of his Jewish followers.
That history comes from the book of Joshua, which we read very little of in church on Sunday. Joshua recounts the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites following the Exodus. In the words of one scholar, it describes “a systematic campaign against the civilians of Canaan — men, women and children — that amounts to genocide.” [source]. The book of Joshua narrates a triumphalist history of Israel’s manifest destiny to conquer and subdue the land of Canaan. And to erase all of the Canaanites from the narrative. In the history according to Joshua, she shouldn’t be in this story at all…But here she is. A reminder that, triumphalists histories are always suspect.
The Book of Judges (which we read even less of on Sunday than we do Joshua), tells a more nuanced story. One in which “separate battles against [various] Canaanite peoples [are] waged by individual tribes or by temporary alliances of several tribes, enlarging their territories at the expense of their neighbors.” [source]. The Book of Judges reveals the constant struggle Israel has with groups of Canaanites who are able to retain some their independence; which is probably closer to the actual historical reality, but the end result was the same. One group holds power, and privilege, and the right to wander wherever they felt like in these border lands; and another group are “dogs,” not human or barely human, and members of a tribe that those in power would rather have erased from the narrative.
Jesus and the disciples knew these histories…would have absorbed the triumphal, nationalist narrative of divinely ordained conquest of this land. And some of them undoubtedly longed for a day when their nation would once be triumphant. And a writer who also wanted to push that agenda would have had no trouble editing this episode out. They would have erased it. Easy peasy. Thank God, Matthew isn’t that writer. Thank God, Matthew doesn’t let us forget…refuses to erase her.
During my vacation I got to catch up on some reading, and one of the things I read was An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which outlines the program of settler-colonialism that my white ancestors in engaged in and benefitted from, and the devastating effect it had on first nations and indigenous peoples. In today’s gospel, when Matthew introduces a “Canaanite woman” and all that that history implies…I heard…a Wampanoag woman…a Cherokee woman…a Seminole…Cheyenne…Dakota…Chumash. A woman who remains, who will not be erased, a woman who reminds us of our troubled, violent history…a woman who reminds us of the truth.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” There’s plenty of truth about our own history that continues to be revealed and that we need to hear…that we need to be able to embrace and own and share. The truth is not always easy to hear. It’s not always welcome. It will not always paint us in the best light. But it is the only way to begin healing…to get to reconciliation. As difficult and uncomfortable as this passage is; it is honest. It is truth-full…and because it is truth-full…healing comes.
It would have been so easy to erase this whole episode. It would have been just as easy to gloss over her identity, to make her something she isn’t. I’m grateful that Matthew doesn’t. I’m grateful she stood up, and spoke up…and I’m grateful that Matthew kept her and this difficult history in the narrative…because with this short, messy, honest conversation…that history begins to be healed. And with every honest conversation we have about our own history, we take another step towards healing and towards being the people of reconciliation that we are called to be. Amen.