Sunday, June 24, 2012

Say "Yes" to the Yes

He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15.26-28)

Not His Kind

Today, Gay Pride is traditionally observed around the world, marking the 43rd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that gave birth to the LGBT rights movement. While many communities opt to celebrate Pride on other dates throughout the year, the last weekend in June touches a global nerve. With or without parades and festivals, we pause to consider how far we’ve come together and the distance we’ve yet to go.

In light of today’s celebrations, we’re going to break from the Sunday lectionary to consider a truly amazing event in Jesus’s life and ministry. In fact, it’s one of very few times when we witness two altogether extraordinary things: someone whose needs are too great to countenance rejection and Jesus, the Great Teacher, learning an invaluable lesson that changes how He sees and thinks. The story, told in Matthew 15.21-28, is deceptively simple. A mother, whose daughter is tormented by an evil spirit, seeks Jesus out. Expecting to be ignored, she makes a ferocious squall that disturbs the disciples. They urge Jesus to send her away. He agrees, not because she’s too loud and obnoxious to merit attention. Jesus wants nothing to do with her because she’s not His kind. She’s a Canaanite from the pagan tribe Israel conquered to claim the Promised Land. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says matter-of-factly—as if the woman should know better than to ask Him for anything.


The Canaanite woman will not be ignored. She kneels before Jesus and prays, “Lord, help me.” We imagine her desperation and humility will touch Jesus. Given the racially charged climate of her day, she is, after all, making a fool of herself to prevail on the kindness of a Jew. But Jesus’s reaction is unimaginable to us. He rejects the woman’s plea in a most degrading fashion. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. For all practical purposes, He tells the woman she’s worse than a beggar; she’s a thief, an ill-mannered mongrel trying to steal what doesn’t belong to her. Where is the love that Jesus is so famous for? Where are the compassion and acceptance He’s always talking about?

Surely the insult wounds this woman to the core. Surely her hopes crumble and the pain of hearing her daughter won’t be helped slices her in two. Still, in the face of outright bigotry, she refuses to be refused. She grants Jesus His point. Her request is unorthodox and, in the eyes of Jewish traditionalists, indefensible. She really has no right to ask, or expect, Jesus to intervene. But none of it matters. Her need is too urgent, her agony too real. So she absorbs the insult and then turns it on its head. “Yes, Lord,” she says. “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her simple statement takes Jesus aback and compels Him to rethink His position. He’s stunned into a new understanding of what God requires of Him, and everything God wants to do through Him to eradicate religious, social, and cultural boundaries that deny God’s grace to all but a select few. Suddenly Jesus is moved on a level far more profound than merely accommodating an anguished mother’s request. The woman’s belief that Jesus will help her constrains Jesus’s belief that He must. He declares, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Matthew finishes by informing us, “Her daughter was healed instantly.”


This is the Gospel in action—the good news of God’s kingdom that calls us to repent from narrow-mindedness that seeks to limit God’s grace to people of a certain kind, namely, our kind. And our astonishment with this episode springs from witnessing Jesus repent from the exclusionary mindset of His faith tradition. God vests the Canaanite woman with holy boldness to teach Jesus that God’s grace is too big for labels and boundaries. The time for religious bigotry and rejection has ended. God is doing something new that debunks members-only myths about faith and acceptance. Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has been pushing the envelope by healing Jewish outcasts and performing miracles on the Sabbath. But this precious Canaanite mother presses Him to go all the way—to ignore all the rules and include her among those whose lives are forever changed by His power. And perhaps the most thrilling aspect of this event emerges in Jesus’s immediate response. He doesn’t tell the woman to come back after He’s had time to consider whether or not He should honor her request. He doesn’t consult the religious establishment about what’s “right.” He doesn’t poll His followers to see if they’ll be comfortable with His decision to help the woman. He answers her prayer with an all-inclusive “Yes.”

Christ’s all-inclusive “Yes” is the Canaanite mother’s legacy to us. And she has much to teach us about laying claim to it. We may have to come to Jesus in a big way, making a lot of noise that disturbs His inner circle. We may have to endure social and religious humiliation caused by our insistence that Jesus take notice of us. We will have to humble ourselves before Christ and beseech Him to help us. But God vests each of us with holy boldness to believe that God’s grace is too big for labels and boundaries. Great is our faith—so great that Jesus will reward it without hesitation. Jesus will never ask us to come back after He’s considered our worthiness. No traditions or powers need be consulted to ensure our acceptance. Christ will never poll His followers to get their approval of His decision to hear us and do amazing things in our lives. Regardless who we are, where we come from, and how others label us, Jesus answers us with an all-inclusive yes.

On this Pride Sunday, I pray that LGBT and alienated believers everywhere will summon the courage to overturn every hindrance and boundary attempting to deny their right to believe. I pray that we all will say, “Yes” to the Yes.

Christ’s all-inclusive “Yes” is the Canaanite mother’s legacy to us.


Sherry Peyton said...

Oh Tim, what a powerful statement. You have made the case so well, and I too have always looked upon this passage as one of the most important. This is so contrary to what people of the day would have expected and because it was so shocking, it was rememebered, retold again and again, and thankfully included in the Gospel that we might understand the utter childishness of our limited understanding of true equality. I am so astounded our more conservative brethren are unable to see what this passage actually says. But we must forge on, never giving in to our true conscious belief that this is Jesus as he was meant to be understood. What a great post!

Tim said...

Sherry, I too share your consternation about what many Christians aren't getting, when this and numerous other passages that reveal an open, accepting Christ incontrovertibly lead us away from prejudice and exclusion.

This story arose in my mind today as we marched with over 60 other welcoming churches in Chicago's Pride parade. Near the end of the route, we encountered a battery of anti-gay religious groups (which the city clumps together to minimize confrontations between them and parade-goers). They had all their hateful banners unfurled and were equipped with a sound system to tell us how wrong we are. But we heard not one word because the crowd, much like the Canaanite woman, greeted us with such a roar of appreciation that it silenced the nay-sayers. It was a truly powerful moment, one that no doubt shocked the condemners more than anyone.

The Gospel is, and should always be, shocking, because it calls us to new understanding of what God wants to do in the world. It is never what we think should be done, because we think too small. It is always greater, new, and unsettling--because it is always right.

Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to the post. Your kindness means the world to me!

Blessings galore,