The Fourteenth Sunday after Penecost -- Proper 15A (8/17/2008)

What Is Faith?

Lessons:      Isaiah 56:1, 6-8      Psalm 67      Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32      St. Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28      Semicontinuous Reading and Psalm:           Genesis 45:1-15           Psalm 133

Prayer of the Day:      God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[15.10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." 12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" 13 He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." 15 But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." 16 Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."]

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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." 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

St. Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

As this week's text begins, Jesus is locked in an epic battle with the Pharisees over what it means to be a person of faith. The Pharisees were careful students of Jewish law and custom. They had spent a lifetime studying what it means to be faithful, and had come to understand faith as obedience: staying true to the vast array of laws, commandments, rules and regulations that had become part of their life together. They believed it was important for God's people to establish and keep firm the boundaries between what was clean (including themselves) and what was unclean (including all other people). And so, in an attempt to honor those boundaries they became extremely careful about how they washed themselves, how they maintained their cooking utensils, how they prepared their food, and most importantly: with whom they chose to socialize and eat.

Then comes this Canaanite woman, this "unclean" neighbor. She is an outsider on a variety of levels. First, she is a Canaanite: the Jewish people saw them as pagans; longtime opponents of the Jewish faith. Second, she (a woman) speaks to Jesus (a man) in public. Almost every Near Eastern culture in the first century prohibited women and men from socializing in public. Yet she ignores these customs and calls out to him. For this woman to brazenly approach Jesus in broad daylight went against every sense of decency in those days. Third, she is rude. She continues to scream at Jesus and his disciples, and even though they ignore her (hoping that she would go away?), she persists. Finally, her daughter is demon-possessed. Worse than being ritually unclean, her home is inhabited by the very force that opposes God.

It is interesting to contrast the Pharisees with this woman. The Pharisees are locked into an argument about theological minutiae. They are offended that Jesus and his followers are neglecting the customs and traditions of Israel related to washing their hands before eating. They are worried about the religious system in which they live. But the Canaanite woman is consumed with compassion and concern for one who is not well. She is desperate for healing -- and determined to help her daughter experience God's grace, even though the two of them are clearly outsiders. She is worried about her daughter.

On the one hand, we have a great concern for propriety and little concern for humanity. On the other hand, we have a deep concern for compassion and little concern for regulation. (Neither the first nor the last time these two worldviews clashed within a religious system.)

Jesus' initial response to her request is very troubling. I've read dozens of attempts to excuse him for these words, but none of them seem very compelling. He seems rude and abrupt and thoughtless, and as much as says, "You're nothing but a dog. Why should I have anything to do with you?" It is hard to understand his initial reluctance to help her. But it is inspiring to see that eventually he is moved by her tenacity. He describes it as "great faith" (that phrase is used nowhere else in the New Testament). And her faith is what ends up standing center stage in this encounter.

This Canaanite woman has a profound sense of faith. She is willing to entrust her daughter's wellbeing to this Rabbi from Nazareth. She believes that nothing can limit the work of Jesus (even her outsider status). She has somehow seen something in Jesus that neither the disciples nor the Pharisees have noticed. And for her insight, for her courage, for her tenacity, for her faith, Jesus rewards her. Her daughter is healed.

Faith, after all, is what it is all about. Not faith in institutions. Not faith in rules and regulations. Not faith in customs and traditions. Not faith in systems. But faith in the living presence of Jesus Christ, and his ability to forgive, to heal, and to strengthen and renew believers for life and ministry. We learn from this Canaanite woman, as we see how she throws herself into the merciful arms of Jesus, and trusts that he will make her (and her daughter) well.

May the Holy Spirit fill us with that kind of faith.

David J. Risendal

Exploring This Week's Text:

  1. What was the difference between how the Pharisees approached faith and religion, and how the Canaanite woman did?
  2. Why did Jesus first respond to her in a negative manner?
  3. What does it mean that Jesus was willing to break tradition and heal this woman's daughter?

Connecting with This Week's Text:

  1. What existing boundaries do I have trouble breaking through today?
  2. What prejudices am I reluctant to abandon?
  3. Am I more interested in customs and traditions ("The way it's always been done"), or am I willing to be open to where God's Spirit is moving today?