Proper 15a, August 14, 2011

August 16, 2011

Doggedly Faithful
Matthew 15:21-28

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

This morning’s reading is not a typical portrayal of Jesus. In this episode, Jesus just doesn’t come across as the gracious savior we know him to be. He comes through at the end, but his initial reaction to this Canaanite woman was not very nice – at all. I’m guessing it was even startling to Matthew’s original Jewish readers.

Now anyone who was sensitive ancient Jewish/Gentile relations would have expected tension to arise when Jesus entered the region of Tyre and Sidon. This was an area that had never been successfully incorporated into the nation of Israel. The conflict between the Israelites and the native people of this land went back to the days of the conquest, and in some significant ways the conquest had never really been successful in this part of the world. For the Israelites, the residents of this region had come to exemplify God-forsaken gentiles, while the people of this region harbored resentment toward the Israelites for trying to redefine their worldview. There was a clear division between them, and good Israelites just didn’t go to this part of the world unless they had to.

We don’t know why Jesus went there, but the truth is that he was in conflict with upstanding people in the heart of Israel, so maybe he went there for a break. But that’s not what he got. He had hardly set foot in the place when a situation arose. Jesus get’s approached in a dramatic way by this woman who was on the outside of his faith tradition and she begged him to heal her daughter who was possessed by something terrible.

Matthew doesn’t give us a clue as to why he ignored here the way he did when she came to him in such a passionate but respectful manner with her desperate appeal. His silence is troubling to our non-native sensibilities, but the disciples weren’t bothered by that at all. Being men who had been steeped in bigotry since childhood toward non-Jewish people in general and gentile women in particular, they were more troubled by the pleading of the woman than his lack of response. Their natural instinct was to usher her away, but Jesus didn’t go that far. Jesus didn’t encourage them to get rid of her, but he did say he had not come to do anything for them. He said he had come to serve the people of Israel.

Jesus revealed no inclination to help this woman, but the woman persisted, and at that point Jesus says this startling thing. He said it wasn’t right for him to give to the dogs the food that was provided for the children, and at that point this story could have gone in a couple of different directions.

I’m guessing things could have greatly deteriorated at this point. This woman’s kinfold could have gotten involved, and depending on who they were it could have gotten ugly for Jesus and his disciples. They weren’t in friendly territory and they weren’t behaving in a friendly manner. But the conflict didn’t escalate. The woman said something that totally deescalated the tension of the moment and persuaded Jesus to respond to her great need.

She took what appears to have been nothing less than a derogatory comment on her heritage and she turned it in to a further appeal for his help, and Jesus responded to her comment with great appreciation for her faith, and affirmation that her daughter had been healed.

It brings to mind the fact that the best coaches are not necessarily the nicest people. A good coach elicits good performance, and behaving nicely is not necessarily the most effective way to get an athlete to perform at their highest level. Now this is not to excuse the ignorant behavior we have all known coaches to exhibit, but sometimes it takes some tension to bring out the best in a person.

I’m reminded of a story my friend Jim Bryant told me last week. Jim is a man who has been practicing law in Little Rock for many years, and as we were having lunch he told me about a situation that he considered to have been his finest moment in client representation.

Jim was representing a couple who had hired a contractor to build them a house, but they were young and inexperienced and they didn’t have a good contract with their builder. The builder far exceeded what they were able to pay, but they were responsible for paying for the house. They had no way to get financing for the house, and they were in trouble. They hired Jim to help them negotiate with the builder, and Jim thought he had come up with a reasonable proposal to settle the case, but when he called the contractor’s lawyer to negotiate a settlement he ran in to a brick wall.

The lawyer for the contractor was the top trial attorney for one of the largest law firms in Little Rock, and she didn’t obtain that position by being easy on the adversaries of her clients. When Jim called her to talk about a settlement she just said no, and she saw no need to talk about it. They had a contract and they needed to come up with the money.

Jim was upset about the situation because without a deal this couple was going to experience a financially devastating situation. The man was a salesman for IBM and he had a promising career ahead of him, but they were facing bankruptcy and that wasn’t going to play out well for anybody. Jim was in disbelief that the other lawyer wouldn’t even talk to him about the situation, but in the midst of his distress it occurred to him that IBM had this policy of buying the homes of their employees whenever they were relocated, and he saw that as the solution. He called a local IBM executive he knew and told him the story and suggested that they transfer his client to Fayetteville and they did. IBM bought the house, and everyone lived happily ever after so to speak.

Jim said he would hear from this couple about once a year for several years and they would call to thank him for saving them. To this day he considers that idea to have been his most ingenious resolution to a case, and it came about in response to the harsh response he got from that other lawyer. I don’t think he would give credit to that other lawyer for bringing out the best in him, but sometimes that’s what happens when we encounter situations that frustrate our agendas.

When things aren’t easy we can go in different directions, and while frustrating situations often move us to act in unfortunate ways, there are occasions when the very difficulty of the situation is what helps us to become more focused on what it is we really need.

Matthew doesn’t speculate on what Jesus was thinking when he threw additional obstacles in front of this woman who approached him for help. He doesn’t soften the story for us in any way. Matthew has Jesus saying some things that we aren’t comfortable hearing, but this isn’t a good story for people who want to promote bigotry. The traditionally despised person is the hero of this story, and I think this is a point Matthew wanted to make.

There is a sense in which this woman sort of embraced the dog comment. One characteristic that many dogs are known to exhibit is focus on a task. When my daughter got married we not only added a new person in our family, we also acquired his dog. It’s an English bulldog, which is like a big head with legs, and when Knute gets focused on a ball or a stick or whatever toy is at hand there is no distracting him from it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a display of raw focus as I’ve seen with that dog. Of course many dogs are known for their capacity to stay focused on a task. I guess that’s where this word, doggedly, comes from, and it’s a redeeming characteristic.

This woman wasn’t just like any old dog, she was like a Bulldog, and Jesus couldn’t shake her. Matthew told this story to highlight the redeeming work of a woman who refused to quit trusting. Jesus can be trusted, but he didn’t make it easy for people to trust him. You might say Jesus didn’t want to waste the grace of God on people who weren’t paying attention.

Clarity is a wonderful thing, and we have a savior who wants to help us become clear about who we trust and what we truly need. None of us like being in difficult situations, and we sure don’t like it when other people do things that make our situations worse or don’t do things that could make our situations easier. But when that happens it’s good to remember this remarkable woman in that far away place who refused to be separated from the love of God – even when that resistance came from Jesus Christ himself. When things get difficult pay attention – God’s saving grace may well be near.

Thanks be to God for this.

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