Genesis 45:1-15 Psalm 133 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
My Aunt Liz, who died in her eighties, embraced a theology that made me uncomfortable. She believed that God took no personal interest in any of us. That God was present in the world, but not for the benefit of us as individuals. Nevertheless she was a very faithful Christian, a Roman Catholic, who, as long as her knees and her back allowed, knelt for devotions morning and night at a prayer desk she kept in her living room.
She spent a huge amount of time helping the handicapped (whom she called handi-capables), and she gave a lot of money to worthy causes, including, when necessary, to her nephews and nieces. While I was in college, I was the beneficiary of her insisting that I go to a doctor appointment she had made for me (behind my back). That was on a Saturday. She had paid for that appointment and for the, as it turned out, life-saving surgery that followed on Monday. My mom and I (and our family doctor for that matter) had been putting it all off because we didn’t have health insurance. While I would never have presumed to contradict Aunt Liz (none of her nieces and nephews would have dared to do so), I offer this sermon as a rebuttal to her theology.
Today’s Gospel appears in places other than in Matthew. Other than in the New Testament. Like in part of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
In that trilogy we meet Reepicheep, the bravest mouse in Narnia. Reepicheep has lost his tail in battle. That’s a terrible loss for a mouse, so he, along with many of his followers, approaches Aslan, the lion whose character is that of Jesus.
Reepicheep bows. “I am confounded,” says Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion.”
Reepicheep makes it clear that he needs a new tail – and we realize that Aslan could make that happen. “What do you want with a tail?” asks Aslan.
“Sir,” says the Mouse. “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honour and glory of a mouse.”
“I have sometimes wondered, friend,” says Aslan, “whether you do not think too much about your honour.”
“Highest of all High Kings,” says Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches), would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense.”
“Why have all your followers drawn their swords, may I ask?” says Aslan.
“May it please your High Majesty,” says the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honour which is denied to the High Mouse.”
“Ah!” roars Aslan, “you have conquered me. Reepicheep, for the love that is between you and your people, you shall have your tail again.”
Not only am I using that little bit of story from C. S. Lewis, but I’m taking most of this sermon verbatim (with an exception here and there) from one written by Richard Helmer, who was, at the time he wrote this, a writer, a musician and a postulant for holy orders. Often when I read things I like, I use the ideas, but I frame them in my own words, using my own voice. But I liked this so much that I didn’t want to dilute it. So. Here is Richard E. Helmer in “Of Mice, Lions, and Dogs.”
Jesus is distressingly unkind in today’s reading from Matthew. Our informed, tolerant, accepting selves curl up at the edges when Jesus puts the Canaanite woman in her place. Matthew doesn’t even give her the dignity of having a name. Jesus refers to her as a dog, making her the most unclean, unworthy individual imaginable. Every ounce of wrath in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to bear on her people.
Moreover, she’s a woman. She has no authority, no social standing, no property, no status at all. Even Reepicheep the mouse has much greater standing in Narnia than the Canaanite woman has in ancient Palestine.
She should count herself lucky that Jesus pays her any attention at all. The Pharisees would have had absolutely no time for such a bold woman. Any sensible teachers of the time would have taken great offense at her audacity. Jesus’s disciples find her cries irritating.
Finally Jesus is forced to turn to her and draw the line. We’ve all done it. Sometimes we need to do it. We don’t have the time. There is too much at stake, too much to do. Our lives are crazy enough. We can’t get involved. If we give in, we are in danger being enablers.
In this story though, in the drawing of the line there is a hidden gem of Good News. For a fast-paced, over-worked, high-tech society like ours, perhaps we need a Savior who can draw the line, who can say no. For a small congregation, sometimes pushing the limits of its energy, perhaps we ourselves need a Savior who can draw the line, who can say no once in a while. Jesus isn’t trying to be a super hero here. Why should we try to be?
What happens next in this Gospel is perhaps one of the more remarkable dialogues in all of Jesus’s public ministry.
Matthew has devoted line after line to accounts of Jesus’s message being totally misunderstood. The disciples can’t see for a moment into the metaphors of the parables. The Pharisees are confounded and annoyed at Jesus for shaking their cage of rules and regulations. The people swarm around hoping for something wonderful to happen. They’re like a crowd at a three-ring circus.
Then along comes a woman, a Canaanite woman no less, and she seems somehow to understand completely; because, in her pithy little statement about dogs and tables and crumbs, she makes her refreshing claim to grace.
She even embraces Jesus’s metaphorical language, something the apostles can never quite seem to manage. She is bold; she is insightful; to Jesus’s ears, that must seem beautiful. All of a sudden this Canaanite woman, this outsider, stands head and shoulders above the crowd, and even the disciples must cower in her shadow.
Her faithful assumptions are strikingly simple. She knows Jesus can heal her daughter. She has, in one sense, rejected her role as submissive, and she has boldly struck out for justice. By the same token, this Canaanite woman comes before the Savior and asks in all the humility of her station for her place in the Kingdom of God, however little a portion that may be.
Jesus is thunderstruck. She gets it. No matter how tiny she is from the Jewish point of view, she is willing to struggle faithfully – even with God Himself – to obtain healing for her daughter. She has assumed her rightful position in the Kingdom. She is among the first drops from the waterfall of Gentiles who are to be welcomed into Christ’s loving arms.
Today’s Gospel is not about faith in what we deserve. It is about faith in the grace we need. It is about our struggles for justice, righteousness, and dignity right in God’s face. It’s about insistent, almost obnoxious faith that will continue to pursue truth even at the expense of all the boundaries of society and culture. Even at the expense of police batons and arrests. It’s about wrestling for our healing directly with a God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” And it is about a God whose heart we can change, whose head we can turn.
We are a people constantly uttering, “Thy will be done,” to a lofty Lord enthroned [somewhere, somehow] above. Our theology wonders about how our prayer can change the mind of a God who knows everything, “to whom our needs are known before we ask.” We know we’re dealing with a God who says, “My ways are not your ways.” And we know we’re reckoning with a God who, all too frequently, allows suffering to run its course.
But let us take seriously the faith of the Canaanite woman: a faith that perhaps stands head and shoulders above our own. Let us indeed put our faith in a Creator who made the stars and the galaxies, and who is active in the deepest fibers of our very beings.
Let us also remember a God who, in a miraculous event quite beyond our comprehension, made creatures capable of surprising the divine consciousness. A God who healed even the daughter of a Canaanite woman.
Then let us fervently pray that our Savior might satisfy our own thirst for justice, righteousness, and healing. If we listen, we just might hear a voice saying, “Ah! you have conquered me.” Amen