August 16, 2020, Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall, Matthew 15:21-28 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To Listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000210
The story that we read this morning, of the conversation between Jesus and a distressed mother, is one I have always found troubling. We expect to hear compassion and kindness in the words of Jesus, and yet here, he seems to be harsh. He might even sound a little racist, making this distinction between his people and her people, putting the rights of his people above the rights of her people. It’s quite jarring, really. In previous sermons I’ve pointed out that the words Jesus uses are not quite as derogatory as they sound in our English translation, that the word for ‘dog’ here is not the word Jews normally used as an epithet against Gentiles, whom they did call ‘dogs’, and not in any nice way. Instead, the word Jesus uses here in this story – and this is the only place this word is found in the New Testament – is almost an affectionate word, a word denoting a small dog, a household pet. That puts the tone of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in a less ugly place, more playful, maybe, certainly less derogatory. And that is all true and helpful, or at least it has been helpful to me in thinking about this interaction.
But there is a bigger picture here that we miss if we focus on whether Jesus is being nice or not. There is something genuinely uncomfortable in this encounter. At first Jesus doesn’t acknowledge the woman at all. And then, when his disciples get tired of listening to her and beg Jesus to send her away, he turns to her and says, “My mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. What can I do? Would it be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs?” These words that surprise and trouble us are shining a spotlight on a wall, a real and solid cultural barrier that was right there, between Jesus and his people, the chosen people of God, on the one side, and the Canaanite mother and her people on the other. And when we become aware of that wall, then this story becomes about something new. It’s not about Jesus being rude or unkind. It’s not even about the mother’s faith and courage, though Jesus praises her for her faith. But at the heart of this story is this question: what does God do when he encounters a dividing wall? And the answer to that question is what Jesus does here. He breaks through it. He doesn’t let this cultural barrier stop him. He heals that woman’s daughter.
This dividing wall between Jew and Gentile is what Paul is talking about in the eleventh chapter of his letter to the Romans. We read part of that today. Speaking to a Gentile audience, Paul is explaining how God continues to be faithful to his people, Israel, the “lost sheep” as Jesus puts it, while extending his mercy beyond the dividing wall, to the rest of the world, to the Gentiles, that everybody thought were outside the bounds of God’s grace. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “Jesus himself is our peace, who has united Jews and Gentiles, breaking down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, making peace, and reconciling us both to God in his one body on the Cross.” Jesus is the destroyer of walls. Jesus is the one who breaks down barriers.
Seven hundred years before Jesus met the Canaanite woman, Isaiah spoke God’s word to Israel, declaring that the wall between Jew and Gentile was not his plan: “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And Isaiah goes on: “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”
All through the Old Testament, we see God reaching through and around and over that dividing wall. The prophet Elijah stays with a poor widow in a Phoenecian city called Zarephath during a famine. He miraculously extends her food supply, and when her son dies, Elijah brings the child back to life. Elisha heals a commander in the Syrian army who has leprosy. When Joshua sends spies to scout out the Promised Land, a woman named Rahab hides them and keeps them safe. Rahab ends up marrying an Israelite named Salmon, and their son, Boaz, marries another Gentile woman, Ruth. Ruth, in fact, is the great-grandmother of King David, and that means that these Gentile women, Rahab and Ruth, are in the genealogy of Jesus, who was a descendant of David.
Jesus himself scandalized his disciples by striking up a conversation with a Samaritan woman – the Samaritans being just a step lower than the Gentiles, you understand – so that the whole Samaritan town came to believe in him. The truth is, the wall between Jew and Gentile was full of cracks right from the beginning, and we see God reaching through those cracks time and time again, until the time they should come crashing down altogether at the coming of his Son.
Because it was never God’s intention to establish a wall between Jew and Gentile. When God called Abraham out from his homeland to establish a new nation, who would belong to him in a unique way, and who would manifest God’s character in the world by living according to his standards, he promised to bless Abraham and his offspring. But he also promised to make Abraham a blessing to the rest of the world. The deal was that it was through Abraham, through this chosen and beloved nation that God was taking to himself, that God would extend his blessing to all the rest of his creation. Israel was meant to be a city on a hill, not a fortress walled off against the world. And when Jesus came, God’s plan was finally fully revealed, as the wall of division came crashing down and the Gentiles came streaming in to the new Church by the thousands.
So, all that helps us to understand, I hope, what’s going on in this awkward conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite mother. But having understood the background of this story, the history, and the original import of Jesus’s words, and Paul’s, and Isaiah’s, we need to take one step further, and seek to understand how this impacts our lives today. Because we know that the Bible is the living Word of God, and that means that his Word isn’t just an ancient document. It’s not a textbook. It is relevant and urgent for us, yesterday, and today, and tomorrow.
And certainly this idea of walls speaks strongly into our world today. We see in this story what Jesus does when he comes to a wall. He reaches across. He breaks through. And in this world of ours, which is so full of walls, that’s what it means to represent Jesus Christ, to be people who break down walls, his ambassadors of reconciliation, as Paul so wonderfully describes it.
Yesterday in Potsdam there were two demonstrations, a “Back the Blue” rally and a “Black Lives Matter” counter-demonstration. In the current political and cultural atmosphere the wall between those two groups of people seems almost insurmountable. No matter where we find ourselves politically, I think most people would agree that we are called to show respect to those with whom we disagree. We are certainly called to act constructively, without violence. But as people who belong to the God who breaks down walls we are called to something much more radical than that.
As ambassadors of Jesus Christ, we are called to reach across walls, to find the cracks through which some light of common understanding can shine. Instead of holding fast to our own side, we can listen to the other side, for starters. We can do everything possible to assume the best of others rather than jumping to conclusions. We can be servants of all, even those we think of as our enemies – especially those we think of as our enemies. We can hold our convictions with humility, as lights and not as weapons. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
We’re living in a very political season, so political walls are an obvious challenge, but there are so many other walls that divide people in our world. Isolation is a terrible wall that divides people – elderly people, or disabled people, in nursing homes, or in their own homes. So many are ignored and neglected by the world at large and sometime forgotten by their own families.
Poverty is a dividing wall. Race divides us. Gender divides us. Age divides us. Education can divide us. As wrong as it is, we’ve seen again and again that religion can be one of the most deadly and impassible walls. Like Jesus does in this story, we come up against dividing walls all the time. If we want to be his representatives, his ambassadors in this world, our job is to do what we can to reach over, or to push through; to break down, or at the very least to begin to make cracks in the walls that divide us from our brothers and sisters. Because just like us, they are made in the image of our Father. Along with us, they are those for whom our Lord Jesus gave up his own life. Just like us, they are the objects of his love. God is love. And love breaks down walls.