This week, someone made an observation about me as a preacher. He said: “You seem to be biblically conservative. You have certainly preached the Bible these past two weeks.” Then he added: “I find it interesting that someone who is as conservative as you can be so inclusive.”
I said that’s because the entire biblical witness commands us to love inclusively—from Abraham who graciously welcomed the strangers by the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18) to John’s great portrait of heaven that we find in Revelation:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, [all] peoples and [all] languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).
I believe Jesus said it best: “On this hangs all of the laws and message of the prophets, ‘you should love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:40). It is as if he was saying, “If you don’t get anything else from the Bible, you need to get this: “Love your neighbor and love your neighbor empathetically—as yourself, put yourself in the shoes of another.” In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Now, of course people have always tried to use the Bible to support their hate and exclusivity. For centuries, the Bible has been used to support sexism, racism, even slavery. It is being used today to support all kinds of bigotry. But to support hate with the Bible, I believe one has to arbitrarily lift verses of scripture out of their contexts.
But that is not how the Bible should ever be read. One must always look at the entirety of its message.
I believe the point could be made that this morning’s gospel lesson is a microcosm of the entire Bible. If one arbitrarily lifted verses from this passage, one might argue that Jesus was a selfish, sexist bigot. But when we look at the whole story, a very completely different message emerges, a message that cannot be more relevant for us today.
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.’
We hear this cry everyday. Yet, we really don’t hear this cry. We don’t understand this cry, nor want to understand this cry. We don’t like this cry. Thus, we never truly listen to the cry. To our privileged ears, it’s just shouting. Strange, foreign shrieks that, frankly, we find offensive.
They are cries of mercy for a child tormented by demonic evil.
They are hopeful cries for a safer, more loving and just world.
They are moral cries for equality.
They are cries for equal access to a quality education, for equal protection of the law, for fair wages, for access to equitable healthcare.
They are prophetic cries against injustice.
They are cries against racism, against discrimination, against predatory loans, against voter suppression, against Gerrymandering, against oppressive government legislation. They cry out that their black lives matter.
Jesus’ first response the cries is the most common response: it’s one of silence.
We know that response all too well. Silence, just silence.
If we ignore their cries, maybe they’ll go way. Responding will only stir things up, make things worse, uncover old wounds. And responding might cost us something. We may have to give up something, change something.
The second response comes from the disciples. It’s shocking, but not surprising. For it’s as familiar as silence: “Send her away.”
It’s the response of fear: fear of the other; fear that causes defense mechanism to go up; fear that breeds selfishness, anger, and hate.
Then, they blame the victim.
“What about her shouting?” “She keeps shouting.”
“What about the way she is behaving?” “She needs to be more respectable.” “She’s only making things worse.” “She needs to go away, get a life, get a job, go volunteer somewhere.” “She needs to learn some personal responsibility, stop begging for handouts and learn that God only helps those who help themselves.”
“She is what is wrong with this country.” “These girly girl snowflakes need to grow up, toughen up and shut up.” “And they need to learn that all lives matter.”
Jesus breaks his silence, but like the disciples, with words that are all too familiar. Words that are culturally popular; not biblically informed.
‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
“We have to put our people first. We have to look after our own interests. We need to do what is fair for us. We can’t include you, especially if you have needs. If you don’t possess the skills to help yourself, how can you help us?”
She continues to protest. In an act of defiance, she kneels down.
He answered (again with language culturally-accepted; not biblically inspired), ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
But the good news is that is not how the story ends.
The foreign mother from Canaan persists. She keeps shouting. She keeps fighting. She does not lose heart or hope. She believes that justice will come, truth will prevail, and love will win. She speaks truth to power saying: “Lord, at my house, the dogs eat at the same time we eat. Lord, at my table, there’s room and enough for all, especially for those tormented by evil.”
And here is the really good news. Jesus listens to this outsider, and although he was neither Canaanite, female or a parent, Jesus empathizes with this mother from Canaan.
Jesus is able and willing to do something that many are unable or unwilling to do these days; that is, put ourselves in the shoes of the other. Jesus is able to see the world as she sees it, bear the pain of it, experience the brokenness of it, sense the heartache and grief of it, feel the hate in it.
And because he is listening, because he is paying attention, I believe Jesus is outraged. I believe Jesus begins to suffer with her, offering her the very best gift that he has to offer, the gift of himself, which is breaking before her and for her.
Jesus loves her. He loves her empathetically, authentically, sacrificially. He loves her unconditionally, deeply, eternally.
And loving like that always demands action.
After hearing her cries, listening to her pleas, empathizing with her pain, becoming outraged by the demons that were tormenting her child, Jesus announces that her daughter will be set free from the evil that was oppressing her.
However, she will not be liberated by his love alone. She will be liberated from her oppression, both by the love of Jesus, and by the persistent faith of this mother, this mother who will not give up, back down, shut up or go away.
Now, I could pick and choose and lift verses out of this passage and twist words to say some hurtful and evil things. But if I allow the overall message of this story to speak to me, inform me, guide me, this is what I believe:
When we hear the cries of people our culture considers to be outsiders, instead of responding with typical silence, instead of criticizing their shouting, their protesting, their marching and their kneeling, instead of blaming them for their situation, if we will follow the biblical mandate to love them as we love ourselves, if we will listen to them and allow their cries to penetrate our hearts, if we will empathize with them, if we will put ourselves in their shoes, walk in their steps, experience their plight, feel the sting of the hate directed toward them, then a place will suddenly become open at our table for them.
Outsiders become family. The underprivileged become equals from whom we can learn, be led, and change. They will become sisters and brothers.
And then, together— together, because the miracle we need today can not happen unless we come together— together, with the one who is no longer a foreigner, no longer feared, no longer ignored, no longer ridiculed— together, in community, side by side, hand in hand, with faith in God and with faithful persistence— we will stand up, we will speak out, and we will fight the demonic evil that torments God’s beloved children.
Of course, there will be great cost involved, for the Bible teaches us that love is always costly. But the cost of refusing to love is greater.
I love reading what happened next (“the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say). It’s the story of justice coming, truth prevailing, and inclusive love winning.
Beginning with verse 29…
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet and
without asking any questions about where they were from, what they believed, or what they had to offer,
he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:29-31).