One of the beautiful things about our Lectionary is the telling of the Gospel stories in relative sequence. We have been hearing of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and we have walked with Jesus this summer, from the naming of the twelve disciples to the telling of many parables, always along the way witnessing Jesus’ healing the sick who are brought to him. While this summer we haven’t read Matthew from beginning to end, I know you are familiar with many of the stories that give insight into Jesus just before he meets the Canaanite woman.
In our reading today Jesus appears to be tired, tired from taking care of the needs of the people of Israel, tired of his disciples who need the parables explained to them, tired even of his family who has doubted his authority and has been offended by his teaching.
And what else has brought Jesus to this moment of near exhaustion? When Jesus heard about the death of his cousin, John the Baptizer, he withdrew in a boat to a lonely place by himself. But when the crowds heard of it, they followed him from the towns. Of course Jesus cared for his sheep and healed the sick that were brought to him. The crowds wouldn’t leave; they wouldn’t go home. And so, with five loaves and two fish, all were fed. Afterwards Jesus sent his disciples to the other side of the lake, he dismissed the crowds, and he went to a mountain to pray, just a little time for rest and prayer. In the early morning he walked toward the disciples on the sea, terrifying his friends. Rest was over and his energy went into allaying their fears and helping Peter especially on his faith journey.
Again, when Jesus came to a new region the crowds heard of it and once again brought all who were sick to be healed. The Pharisees and scribes heard of it, too, and came from Jerusalem to quibble about the disciples who weren’t washing their hands before they ate. Do you ever feel frustrated when something like this happens to you? You are working on a big project that can culminate in beautiful results, you want others to appreciate it, understand it, get it, and someone points out a tiny flaw and misses the big picture. You want to say, Give it a rest! Give me a rest.
Jesus left the Pharisees and the crowds and went away. Mark’s parallel story of today’s reading says “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.” Who enters the house, but a Canaanite woman seeking help for her demon-tormented daughter.
Jesus’ response to refuse her request and compare her to a dog seems so harsh and out of character for us, two centuries later, who know Jesus to be kind andgood and loving to all people, believers and non-believers. But this Jesus at this time, while divine, is living his human life on earth and finding that not everyone and everything is going as planned. Perhaps his tiredness made him less receptive to this pagan woman than he had been before to other Gentiles.
Jesus saw his ministry to care for the lost sheep of Israel. He tells the Canaanite woman this, quite rudely. He did not come to care for a pagan, a Gentile. Her request is too much to tear down the wall that he has built around himself and his ministry. He has drawn a line he will not cross.
But others already have gotten him to cross the line. A Roman centurion, a member of the occupying forces in the region, pleaded with Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. Jesus was impressed with the man’s faith and the servant was healed.
Others already have made a crack in the wall. Jesus stopped at Jacob’s well and asked a Samaritan woman for water. The Samaritans were age-old enemies of the Jews; still, they were a tribe of Abraham, their bloodline a mixture of both Jewish and pagan ancestry. Jesus spoke with her and through that conversation he revealed himself to her to be the Messiah, the Christ.
The Canaanite woman needs nothing revealed to her. She comes to him knowing of his divine healing powers, calls him Lord, Son of David, and kneels before him. Jesus’ wall has crumbled down. He acknowledges this pagan’s persistence, and yes, her faith in him, and comes to accept those who are outside the traditional circle of faith to be, also, sheep that need a shepherd.
How many walls have we built around our ministries and the people we serve? How many lines have we drawn not to be crossed?
When I came to St. Mary’s over 20 years ago, I had my ministries figured out. I controlled all of it. I wanted to be a lay Eucharistic minister, a LEM, most especially because I love to proclaim the Word of God. And after some appropriate time I asked Fr. Ted if I could become a LEM, and I did. And God said, not so fast, Nancy. First I became a Silent Server, what I affectionately call the LEMs who have no reading part in the worship service. It seemed like a very long time before I was assigned to read a lesson.
And then I asked Fr. Ted if I could start a tiny little ministry called HO! HO! HO! Most of you have heard this story. Every Advent I was going to put out five Christmas stockings to be filled by five parishioners for five children in need in our community. Five. And God said, not so fast. The good people of St. Mary’s are going to fill fifty stockings this year, and one hundred stockings next year, and then one hundred fifty stockings, and then nearly two hundred.
And then I asked Fr. Ted that when the parish bookkeeper retired in a couple of years, would he please consider me for that position. And he said, Bless you, Nancy. When can you start? So after giving proper notice at my current job, I became instead the administrative assistant, but eventually the financial assistant.
So at this point I decided I needed to lay low from God. I built a nice little wall around myself and my ministries to the church, and all was well. Let God be helpful to others.
And then Fr. Ted and Deacon Penny asked me if I would discern if I had a call to the diaconate. And I thought, dang. I’m going to have to come out of hiding and talk to God about this. And God said, Nancy, there you are. Let me help you. Let me knock down that wall so you are free to lose control, to rid yourself of your preconceived notions about ministry, and to allow yourself to love and serve everything and everyone I have in store for you.
God speaks to me. And when I forget to listen, God sends someone, maybe one of you, to remind me to talk to God and to listen.
Did God speak to Jesus in the same way? When Jesus went to the mountain to rest and to pray, did God say, I will help you with your ministry. I will send to you a Canaanite woman, and I will help you break down your wall so you can love and serve all the children of this earth.
We all need to listen and not hide behind a wall. Break down that wall you may have built and greet with joy the ones God sends to you for your ministry to the church and to the world. Embrace all the people who come here, who come here just as we do, to proclaim our love of Jesus, and to be healed in the miracle of his presence.