A Word from Jes…Sometimes I enjoy highlighting other women who you may, or may not, know in our reformed life who I believe are saying things we need to listen to. Rev. Marcy Rudins is a recent graduate from Western Theological Seminary. I’ve enjoyed connecting to her through social media, though I do not think we have met in person, yet. She recently posted this sermon she preached and I asked if I could share it with us. She graciously said, yes. A sermon from our friend, Reverend Rudins…
Thanks be to God? I mean holy smokes. Speaking for myself, and maybe illuminating some of the thoughts you might be thinking, this is a tough word for us this morning. Did we hear Matthew’s Gospel account correctly? The Gospel text begins like most stories in the Gospel- a person comes to Jesus. Specifically, a Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, asking for him to heal her daughter. And then by the end of the story her daughter has been fully healed. However what makes this story distinct, is that in-between the Canaanite woman approaching Jesus and the radical healing of her daughter, there are a few choice words from our Lord and Savior.
Well, actually, at first Jesus is silent when she makes a request of him. But upon that he then goes on to say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And then Jesus says some of his harshest words, “It is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yep. Jesus is referring to this woman as a dog and that helping her would be like the equivalent to throwing food to dogs, and all I have to say to that is “Woof.”
I mean it just kind of seems mean. Jesus, who was in the thick of his ministry preaching the sermon on the mount, teaching parables, leading people from all walks of life, and just earlier was feeding five thousand, which really was about 15,000 including women and children, and right before this passage he asked his disciples to have substantial trust in him, even so to walk on water and not fear because he will be with us always. Which leads me to ask, what’s going on Jesus? Where’s the grace in this passage and what exactly are we supposed to do with this Scripture text?
Well I think it first begins with our view of Jesus. And specifically, Jesus’ humanity. We believe and speak with our mouths that Jesus was “truly human” however, what I find is, that we don’t want Jesus to be too human. During my time in Israel/Palestine, the group leader for the pilgrimage said, “People usually don’t have a problem with Jesus being divine, it’s Jesus being human that we have a hard time with.” He would go on to say that Jesus being hungry, tired, emotional, and irritable are traits that we have a hard time placing on the one who died and rose again for us. Why might that be? Because we see Matthew daring to give us a very human Jesus, unlike how some commentators might clean up his comments by saying “Oh well he meant dogs, like puppies, which is a good thing, right?” No, in this passage we encounter a very real, authentic, and honest human. It can be hard to imagine that Jesus…well, Jesus might be like you or I. That Jesus, the son of God, savior of the cosmos, could possibly get exhausted, agitated, and even a bit short with those around him. Maybe you’re thinking, “But Marcy, Jesus does end up healing this woman’s daughter, and he comes around in the end.” Absolutely, and I will get to that in a moment, but before we get to the healing, I think it’s important to look at this nameless Canaanite woman.
She’s a Canaanite woman. And by that title she is immediately labeled as not being one of Jesus’ people. But should we be surprised? He’s in Tyre and Sidon- this is her turf and this was her home. The setting for this interaction was in a foreign place, however the choice word from Matthew describing her as the “Canaanite” woman would have been a bit odd for first century hearers. At this point, people were no longer called “Canaanites,” and this wasn’t even on the map anymore. So why would Matthew describe her in this way? One commentator suggests that Matthew chooses this label on purpose- because not only was she the “other,” but she was also seen as a part of an enemy people. A woman, an unwanted outsider- and since being in this part of Galilee she was a different race, spoke a different language, and probably a pagan. She wasn’t just seen as a part of an enemy image by being Canaanite, but she was in many ways a stereotypical “outcast.”
But with all of that looming in the systems she was raised in, that didn’t seem to stop her from coming to Jesus. LaVerne McGain Gill, in her book Daughters of Dignity: African Women in the Bible and the Virtues of Black Womanhood she calls the Canaanite woman, “determined, defiant, and rebellious,” much to the annoyance of the disciples. She comes desperate and shouting, calling out to Jesus in language of the Jewish prayer, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” But even these familiar words, from this unfamiliar woman didn’t budge Jesus. And he didn’t answer at all, only heightening the tension in this interaction.
To which the disciples come swooping in, maybe in a way to appease some of their frustration with this outsider, and urged Jesus to send her away. “Jesus she’s annoying us and keeps bothering us.” However, unlike the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sides with the disciples on this one. In a way, Jesus’ response is like, “Why should I waste my time on you? You’re a nobody.”
I can’t imagine what that must have been like to hear from Jesus. The legendary healer and renowned spiritual man saying to this woman, and implicitly her daughter, that they are not included. Anyone with a pressing need or with a significant request, knows the heartbreak that ensues when such words are spoken over you. The echoes of “You’re too much- I can’t handle you,” “Your problem is way too big,” which really ends up being, “You’re not enough” ring in our minds. Hearing such words can be traumatic, and in this case, especially for this woman who already was an outsider who was frantic because her daughter had yet to be healed and it was looking like there was no hope.
Nevertheless, she persisted. This is not where the story ends, and thanks be to God for it. Like Sojourner Truth or Rosa Parks, this Canaanite woman persisted. And maybe she saw Jesus as something more than the words he was speaking. Maybe she saw Jesus as who he truly is- one who is filled with grace, love, and compassion. And so she responds with determination for healing, defiance of religious norms, and rebellion against societal standards.
The Canaanite woman tells Jesus, “I won’t go away until you make this right, and give this blessing.” Because like Fannie Lou Hamer, a black woman born in 1917, and a sharecropper in the fields of Mississippi, the Canaanite woman was “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This nameless outsider was saying, “My people aren’t second class and I have a right to be seen and heard.” She was saying, “If you are, who you say you are, I have a place at the table.” She persisted for justice and inclusion.
And it’s in her persistence that Jesus’ eyes are open. Matthew gives this unnamed Canaanite woman credit for changing the heart and mind of Jesus- for reminding him that grace really does abound for all people. In a way, in this encounter, Jesus is the one who grows in self understanding and with a greater acceptance of the mission. It’s in this exchange that wakes Jesus up, that there really is no one outside the circle of God’s love and mercy. That in her persistence it not only freed her daughter from the bonds and chains of evil, but it also opened up Jesus’ salvific ministry to all human beings. It was her daughter’s life that was restored in this exchange, but it was Jesus’ ministry that was truly restored. That all people are welcomed and included in the loving embrace of God.
When we open our eyes, we can see the chains of hatred, the lines drawn in the sand as “us” versus “them,” and it wouldn’t be too hard to find the abuse of power and persecution of those who are minorities. But it is from this persistent Canaanite woman that we see that life and death hinge on our persistence in the face of injustice and exclusion. Her daughter was said to have been healed instantly upon this conversation with Jesus. This opened up a way for healing, a stream of living water in the desert land of oppression, not just for her daughter but for all her people and all others who have felt the weight of exclusion.
But it begins with our persistence. The healing of the nations begins with our courage in the face of injustice. The promise of inclusion for people of color, LGBTQ, women, Native Americans, and Muslims begins when we speak out with boldness and humility. Shalom begins when we stand with Charlottesville and against the systemic racism that has plagued our country.
Because in the end. When we have persisted in the name of justice and embracing all people, and we’ve spoken even when there were people who wanted us to leave, and there was silence with whom we thought would stand with us, Jesus will look to us and say, “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” So persist on friends. And may you have courage and strength in the face of cruelty, oppression, and injustice. Persist on.
My name is Marcy Rudins, and I will partake in the Albany Synod Fellowship program for the next two years starting this October. However, when I preached this I was serving at Fort Plain Reformed Church as the Associate minister of Contemplative practice and Discipleship. As a recent graduate of Western Theological Seminary, and as I launch into ministry, some of my greatest passions include writing, kayaking, preaching, leading retreats, poetry, and inviting the Beloved children of God to be both active contemplatives as well as mindful advocates. It is my understanding that apart of our life together is to both be still and know that we are intimately known and beloved, as well as purposefully seeking shalom, justice, and inclusion for all people.