Faces: Naming God's Children
Based on Matthew 15.10-28
Often in the church, we talk about “naming” and “putting a face” on things.
Usually these things we need to put a face on is people who we often refer to both in the Bible and in contemporary society as the other.
People who we don’t understand or accept -- their ways, their cultures, their beliefs.
And so we diminished their very lives.
This is what we’re looking at in our reading today in Matthew 15.
It was a powerful example in Jesus’s day, but it’s as equally powerful and poignant today.
Just a week ago, hatred and violence reared its evil head in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacist demonstrators violently attacked peaceful protesters.
Three deaths were blamed on the event, including a young woman and two police officers.
And twenty others were injured.
White supremacists practice evil in its purest form and have been for centuries, especially here in the United States.
Just like all hate groups in history, the means to be able to do such gruesome and evil violence to their victims is to not see those they hate as humans at all.
They see them as less.
Once a person’s human identity is removed through hatred, the same ethics don’t seem to apply to them.
Again, this is what pure evil looks like.
Obviously, evil white supremacists are an extreme example.
But so many times — even here in the church — we too strip people of their humanness, whether it’s intentional or not.
We make those people the other.
We turn people who we don’t understand or don’t agree with into something less.
And we distance ourselves from them because we feel threatened.
Ask yourselves, what are your views on homosexuals?
When we don’t welcome them in Christ’s love as children of God, we are making them the other.
We are making them less than us.
And how do you feel about Muslims — those who practice Islam?
There is enough misinformation and hate talk spewing on radio and TV stations, and even in our churches and communities, that want us to believe that all Muslims are evil.
Clearly, there are radical Islamists and terrorists in the world, but it would be ridiculous to believe that all Muslims or even most are terrorists.
Just like it would be ridiculous to believe that white supremacists who grossly contort the Bible into a doctrine of hatred means that ALL Christians must be white supremacists too.
But this is how hate begins.
Because of our lack of love and understanding, we strip people of their identities, their humanness, and we create others who are subhuman to us.
Giving a name or a face to someone or something lets us see them not as the other, but as human beings, as people, and most importantly as children of God, which we all are.
In our reading today, we see a huge identity crisis, don’t we?
It’s abundantly clear who the other is, isn’t it?
And this reading is a bit uncomfortable to us, because it looks as if Jesus is partaking in making someone else out to be the other.
But let’s look at what’s happening here.
The history is this: God made a covenant with Abraham that God’s people would flourish and be given a Promised Land.
That Promised Land was called Canaan, before the Hebrews — God’s chosen — settled in it and named it Israel.
When the Israelites — the Jews — got to the Promised Land — to Canaan — it wasn’t vacant.
The Canaanites lived there!
And so when the Israelites moved in, they displaced the Canaanites, forcing them to move way out to the far northern borders.
So anyone who isn’t a Jew is now called a Gentile.
The Canaanites were now Gentiles to the Jews.
They now were “the other.”
But the Canaanites didn't refer to themselves as Gentiles.
That word Gentile originally just meant clan or family or nation in the Hebrew translation.
But it soon picked up a negative connotation for the Jews, didn't it?
It’s meaning soon became pagan or heathen.
Other. Less than…
It’s like if we were to expand our church and build at another location.
So we move into a neighborhood and open a church.
And at first, we open our doors to the neighborhood and the families there.
But then we see how different they are from us.
And we don’t understand or like their beliefs and practices.
And if they aren't like us, then we close our doors to them.
And instead of referring to them as neighbors or families, we assign a new word to them: Other.
The Canaanites were forced to move farther north.
And Tyre and Sidon were way up north of Jerusalem, north of Galilee, almost to Lebanon -- an entirely different country.
And this is where we find Jesus and the disciples in our reading today.
The Canaanites are a bit like refugees.
They’re poor, they’re different, they’re outcasts, and they’re “unclean” in that they don’t practice the cleansing and purity rituals of the Jews.
It’s one culture dominating another.
And so everyone who is not a Jew is an “unclean” Gentile.
Do you see how the Jews made the Gentiles into less than human here?
To be clear, I’m not at all saying the Jews were some kind of a hate group;
But they avoided the Gentiles, and any contact with the Gentiles meant the Jews had to be cleansed again through rituals.
They might not have even been able to go home to their families and worship in their synagogues until they were ritually cleansed.
It reminds me a lot of the picture of segregation in this country — separate water fountains and bathrooms and schools and bus seats…
The Gentiles were unwelcome.
But here we see Jesus walking the streets in one of these villages, and a Canaanite woman — an unclean Gentile — comes running up to Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter.
First, the Gentiles weren’t given the Good News of Jesus Christ yet.
That wasn’t made available to them.
Anything they knew of Jesus was spreading through the masses who were witnessing Christ’s miracles and teachings peripherally.
Second, they weren’t given the God of the Jews either.
The Jews would have nothing to do with these unclean people.
How was it that this woman identifies Jesus as “Son of David” and “Lord?”
Obviously, she is a desperate woman who is begging the one she has trust — faith — in to help her daughter.
She believes in Christ as Messiah!
Without even really knowing Jesus, and knowing full well that she’s not even supposed to be talking with Jesus, let alone addressing him, it was a bold move, and a dangerous one at that.
Because she is a Gentile and also because she is a woman, too.
But what would a mother do for her sick child?
It makes me think about the more than 6 million Syrian refugees today who have been displaced and whose lives are in terrible danger every day.
And I think what if I was a Syrian refugee with my two boys?
I was — thank God — born here in the United States.
But I had nothing to do with that.
I could have just as easily been born in Syria.
And what if — God forbid — one of them had a life-threatening illness that I KNOW could be cured if he could just see a doctor.
I would do anything — ANYTHING — to help my boy.
As I say a lot here: Don’t you dare read and hear these stories in the Bible and think they are only applicable to Jesus’s day or that these situations don’t happen to us in our world.
They most certainly happen and are happening all around us.
So what does Jesus do with the pleading Canaanite woman?
This is a hard passage.
Because Jesus flat-out ignores her.
He doesn’t even acknowledge her!
He keeps walking on by.
Taking a cue from Jesus and their very Jewish heritage, the disciples tell Jesus “Send her away,” verse 23…
And Jesus finally responds, and says he’s only here for the Jews: “the lost sheep of Israel.”
Not the Gentiles!
But the woman is persistent, just like any of us would be.
And she keeps pleading with him.
Finally, he addresses her directly, and he says what? Verse 26:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
See, Jesus is acknowledging what the Jews believed:
that the Jews are the children of God, and that the Gentiles are the dogs!
What face is there here?
What is their identity?
How is that woman any less than any other human?
It’s a hard read, isn’t it?
It’s not at all the Jesus Christ we know, is it?
Well, let’s slow down a bit here and look at what Jesus is doing.
We know Jesus is God.
We know God’s plan is to offer salvation to ALL nations.
That means ALL people.
It’s almost comical to think that when God made the covenant with Abraham to be the father of all nations that it was going to exclude some nations.
How do we misinterpret that?
No. It was never going to exclude some.
Sure, the Jews would be the catalyst through which Christ would come and offer universal salvation to everyone.
But up till now, the Jews thought it was for them and them only and always.
And so what Jesus is doing here is illustrating this point to show us the contrast between what the Jews thought and what Jesus Christ means.
Again, up until now, the face of the Canaanite woman and all Gentiles was less than.
It was other.
Like an animal — like a dog — she was seen as being less than human.
Not even noticed...
But she is adamant that she is something more.
And so when Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” she is quick to respond with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
A place at the table
What just happened here?
She says that even the dogs receiving the food that falls from the table still comes from the same table!
Whether the food is arranged nicely on a plate or spilled onto the floor, it’s still the same food!
It comes from the same source.
It doesn’t matter who is served first.
The "humans" and the “dogs” are still eating the same food!
So what is the food?
That food is Christ himself.
And Christ is available to all people — all nations.
Of course, Jesus isn’t going to withhold his love from anyone — and we see it time and time throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the Gospels.
God’s abundant table is open and available for everyone!
All people have a place at God’s table because all people are God’s children!
If we didn’t see the woman’s persistence, and if we didn’t see Jesus’s hesitation, we wouldn’t see the great contrast of what this means.
It's brilliant on Jesus's part to illustrate this!
It was shocking for the Jews to have Jesus even be in this place where he was, let alone to offer salvation — food — to a Gentile.
But it’s through this example that the disciples and all who witness it — including us here today — see that God’s love is available to everyone.
Doesn’t matter our skin color, our nationality, our belief system, our status, our sexual, social, political or religious preferences.
We were made by God.
We are heirs to the covenant between God and Abraham.
We are children of God.
We all have an invitation to a place at God's table.
Not just white, Christian American.
Not just fortunate, educated Westerner.
Not just male, heterosexual.
And not just, privileged, wealthy.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11.28.
Rest for All of you.
Ironically, as Americans, we offer much the same words to the world:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Where is that from?
The Statue of Liberty.
See, God teaches us to offer rest to everyone.
This Canaanite woman needed rest.
Her daughter sure did.
And Jesus tells her that it was her faith that allowed her daughter to be cured by him.
It wasn’t because she had practiced some Jewish cleansing ritual.
It wasn’t because she went to synagogue and gave regular offerings.
It wasn’t her race or her origin.
None of that mattered.
It was her faith.
It is our faith that makes us covenant children.
It is our faith that allows us a seat at God’s abundant table.
Not anything else, but faith.
We are heirs because of our faith, and nothing else.
Nothing that we do.
We can't earn it, and we don’t deserve it.
That is grace.
God graces us with this gift so that we can have faith.
So now let’s turn back to the first part of the reading in Matthew, beginning in Verse 10.
I’m again working backward through the text.
This is right before the whole episode with the Canaanite woman.
Jesus is teaching, crowds have gathered, and he says this obscure little statement in Verse 11:
“…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
Well, this ruffles the feathers of the Jewish priests, the Pharisees, and so we know Jesus is up to some counter-culture teaching.
That’s always a good cue when people get bent out of shape by something Jesus says in the Bible.
But the disciples don’t really understand, and so they ask him to clarify.
Jesus tells them beginning in Verse 17 that whatever we eat just eventually ends up in the sewer.
See the Jews believed there were clean and unclean foods.
And foods that had to be prepared a certain way to be considered clean.
And so they believed if you ate unclean foods — like what the Gentiles ate — you became unclean.
Jesus said that’s ridiculous.
It isn’t what you eat that defiles you, it’s what’s in your heart that defiles you.
Verse 19: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Right there, Jesus just flips over what everyone thought was right.
It was a threat against the Jewish priests, for certain.
But consider where they are!
They are in the heart of Gentile country.
All of these Gentile threats of defilement all around them!
Jesus says what?
It’s got nothing to do with cleanliness; it’s got everything to do with the evil that’s in your heart.
What’s in your heart
Think about that.
As children of God, is this who we are?
When we turn away from those who need our help — like the Canaanite woman and her daughter — where does that come from?
Is it what we ate?
Let’s look at that food as a metaphor for something bigger.
What are we being nourished by.
What are we ingesting?
What are we being fed?!
Could it be that what we’re putting into ourselves, what is being fed to us, is making us believe that we’re clean and the others are not?
Or that we’re right and they’re wrong?
Or that we’re good and they’re less than human?
Jesus is saying it’s what we are feeding our hearts.
Because what’s in our heart comes out in our words, our attitudes and our actions.
It’s what’s in our hearts.
And that’s where the evil comes from.
Jesus didn’t turn away from the woman’s request, why?
Because what is in his heart is good — always.
But our fear and isolation and decisions to build walls and fences — that comes from where?
Is this what is in our hearts…
I can’t believe anyone here would ever look through a chain-link fence at a suffering woman holding a dying child on the other side and just turn their backs to her just because of her beliefs or her skin color or nationality.
Yet isn’t this what we do when we remain passive toward refugees?
When we don't practice Jesus’s commandment of love?
In our reading, Jesus was portraying what it looked like to do both.
To call someone a dog and make them feel as if they are less.
To make others into refugees of Christ’s love.
That is wrong, otherwise the story would have ended right there.
But to embrace someone totally different than you — despite what the world tells you — and then to act in grace and help and heal them: This is what Jesus models for us.
This is what Jesus commands us to do.
John 13.34: “Love one another as I have first loved you.”
Not to be superior to others, but to love like Christ.
Jesus put a face on the Canaanite woman that day, and in doing so, he obliterated the wrong-headed beliefs that we are not all the same.
We certainly are. Why?
Because it was God, the Creator, who gave us our identities in the first place.
It was God who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs — Psalm 139.13.
It was God who knew us before we were ever even born — Jeremiah 1.5.
It was God who named us and engraved those names right on his hands — Isaiah 49.16.
Not just the people in this church or in this Christian community; but everyone.
We follow Jesus’s example and give people their names, their identities and their faces, and this is how we come to love and understand our brothers and sisters all around God’s world.
Which side of that fence are you standing on today?