22 August 2008

fair

Matthew 15:21-28, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs . . ."

Sometimes reading the Bible, reading a scripture, has the ability to make us uncomfortable.

Has that ever happened to you? You may be going along your merry way and then you are sitting down to read the Bible for your devotion. You decide you’ll read from one of the epistles and then and there, it’s like Paul has jumped out of the pages onto your lap, knocks you in the head, and says, “Hey there! Pay attention to this!”

And all of a sudden you realize that you may have done something earlier in that day that you now regret. Or maybe you realize in that moment that there’s someone who needs you to call them and say, “I’ve been thinking about you. I hope you know that I care about you.” Sometimes reading the Bible does that to us. It can make us uncomfortable. And maybe it should . . .

Well, I’m not embarrassed to tell you that this particular passage makes me a bit uncomfortable.

For those of us who follow the lectionary, we look at the four passages that are laid out on the calendar. There’s always a psalm, an Old Testament passage, an Epistle, and a Gospel passage. And I could not get away from this passage about the Canaanite woman.

I struggled with it, but I couldn’t let it go. Perhaps we should look at the psalm. Unity. That’s a nice topic. But I kept going back to this Canaanite woman and Jesus. And a lot of the reason for that is that this passage makes me uncomfortable.

I think it makes me uncomfortable mostly because of Jesus’ attitude toward someone in need. You may or may not be aware that for about three years I was a social worker at Union Mission in Savannah working with people who are homeless.

While there, I tried my best to show as much respect and dignity for my clients as I would show for anyone else. If someone came up to me and asked me a question, I would try to find the most honest and helpful answer I could give them. And if I could not help this person with their difficulty, it’s my job to refer them to someone that can.

So, when I occasionally heard from one of my clients that someone in that shelter has been treated unfairly or rudely, I didn't like it. People who are vulnerable already because they don’t have anywhere else to go don’t deserve to be treated badly by those who are supposed to be there to help them. When you are living on the edge like so many of the people I saw at Union Mission were, it wouldn’t take much to push you over.

We should never underestimate how difficult it can be to ask for someone else’s help. And when you’ve mustered up the courage to ask for help, by all means the person at the other end should show some respect for that.

So, when I hear Jesus address the Canaanite woman in this way, I’m uncomfortable with it.

This woman is vulnerable. She is vulnerable once because she is a woman. Women in that culture did not have much standing or power. It was a pretty daring thing that this woman did to approach a man and speak to him in that day and age. But then, she is doubly an outsider in approaching Jesus because she is not a Jew. She is a gentile.

First, Jesus doesn’t say a word to the woman. The disciples come up to Jesus and describe her as “crying after” them. You can just see her, upset because of her daughter, just knowing that Jesus can help. She is not going to give up that easy. Then Jesus does stop and address her. It had to be a tense moment. So Jesus stops and says, “I did not come here for you or your daughter. I came for the Jews, my own people.”

I’m just not comfortable with that.

But sometimes those things that pain us, that bother us, alert us to some area where we may need to grow.

And, this is a hard one.

Hadn’t God told Jesus yet that he’s not just there for Israel? Hadn’t God let Jesus in on the fact that this new thing that God was doing would be for all people, gentiles too? I mean if Jesus had just come for the Jews, that’s going to leave most of us here out of the equation. I’m not Jewish. I suspect most of you are not. Where does that leave us?

So here’s this gentile woman, vulnerable, who knows Jesus can help her and her daughter, but he just told her that he’s not there for her. Not only that, Jesus says that it is not fair to take the children’s bread (referring to the children of Israel) and to throw it to the dogs (referring to this woman and her daughter).

So this Canaanite woman does a bold thing.

She says to Jesus, “But wait a minute. Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” Hmmmmm.

She is saying to Jesus, “Even if this is not why you are here. You are here. I know who you are and you can help my daughter.” She recognizes, even though she is a gentile, she recognizes the power and authority that Jesus has. She’s showing Jesus the kind of faith that says, even though someone just told me that this is not possible, I still believe it is.

I still believe that you, Jesus, have the power and ability to help me. Hers is the kind of faith that pulls back the curtain of what we think is possible and shows us a whole other world. It is a world where her daughter can be healed.

And Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed.

Matthew may be showing us a little more of what faith is. This woman doesn’t need proof. She knows that Jesus can heal her daughter. But she ends up struggling a bit before it can happen. It is also like Jacob struggling with God that dark night in Genesis. Sometimes it is in the struggle, it may be because of the struggle, that our faith is challenged and strengthened. Sometimes we too see more in the struggle than we would have without it.

The Canaanite woman struggles with Jesus too. She has a faith that says things can be different. She just knows that they can be. And as Jesus recognizes the strength of her faith, he heals her daughter. She knows, even if Jesus doesn’t seem to, that Jesus is there for her too! She is not just hoping that Jesus can do something; she knows that Jesus is there for her and her daughter too.

Faith means seeing more than maybe we are supposed too. Faith may mean struggling with our limited vision of what the world is like and what it can be. It can be like those struggles with our spouses where in the end, we see things a little differently . . . or at least we should.

This is the part of my work with the people down at Union Mission that I would savor the most: when someone who couldn’t see that vision before, begins to.

When you don’t even have a place to live, whether it was a result of your choices or the choices of others, when you don’t have a thing in the world except what people give you, you can feel severely limited. Your vision becomes very narrow and constrained. When you have had so many difficulties for so long, you just don’t think that there’s any other way for the world to be. You have a hard time grasping that vision.

You see, we are all called to share the vision that God has given us at some point. It is not just the job of the preacher or caseworker. We all have the responsibility to be light to others when that lights seems to be absent from everything else in others’ lives. It’s our job to pull back the curtain a bit and say, “See. Things can be different.” And that’s when the hard work starts.

And that’s where the hard work comes for us too. Even though we are supposed to be light in the midst of places where there does not seem to be any light, sometimes we have difficulty finding that light too. Sometimes in our relationships with others we may have a tough time seeing how that relationship could be different. We may lack the vision in our relationships that says, “See. Things can be different.”

All of us are guilty of this at some point or another. I guarantee you that even though I have always strived to treat everyone with respect and dignity and honesty, it does not always happen that way. We all should, but we too sometimes lose the ability to see farther than we thought we could.

God’s grace is available to all people, but sometimes we don’t see that. And sometimes we feel that we are unworthy of receiving God’s grace for ourselves. We may feel like the dogs at the table, just happy to get a crumb or two. But God’s grace is available to all of us, even if we don’t feel worthy of it. Jesus came for everyone.

So know that Jesus came for you.

Struggle to see beyond what everyone else says is possible.

Allow your vision, God’s vision, to be larger than you expectations.

And go out into the world to be light for those who also need God’s vision.

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