+In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit+
My friends in Christ, in 1970, when I was 12, Hubert Humphrey ran for re-election to his old seat representing Minnesota, in the US Senate, that he had occupied prior to being elected Vice-President. During the campaign he made a visit to Gilbert, my hometown. His advance people let it be known that although he would only be in town for a quick stop between campaign speeches, he specifically wanted to meet with some young people. News travels fast in a small town and within an hour a rambunctious lot of about 25 of us teenagers met him in front of the Gilbert Public Library. I got to shake his hand and I got his autograph, which I’ve long since lost. After the excitement of meeting Vice-President Humphrey wore off, I felt badly…because I wanted to talk with him…I wanted to thank him for all the years of public service he’d given my home state and my country…but I never had the opportunity…we all felt overlooked…it was a small crowd and he had time to speak with each of us, but Humphrey was off and running to his speaking engagement in about 20 minutes. He was important to us…a bunch of working class kids in a small town…but we left wondering if we were really all that important to him.
That’s my only brush with greatness. I’m sure we’ve all had them…a brief encounter or a momentary conversation with a famous person or celebrity.
Reflecting back over the 35 years since my only brush with greatness, the strongest memory I have of that meeting is the smell of the cologne he wore…and I find it both sad and silly that someday I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, “When I was your age I met Vice-President Hubert Humphrey…and he smelled really good.”
In one sense, our Gospel story today is about a brush with greatness. The Canaanite woman is one of those nameless and faceless people we encounter in the Gospels who have a brief meeting with Christ and are never heard from again. I often wonder about those characters and in my mind I think that sometimes they are nameless and faceless because their anonymity gives us an opportunity to place ourselves into the Gospel narrative so we can ask: “What would I do in that situation? What would I do if I had a brush with greatness with Jesus?”
Jesus’ home base was Capernaum, a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In this Gospel story we find him in the region of Tyre and Sidon…both cities are on the Mediterranean Sea in present day Syria…Tyre is about 35 miles northwest of Capernaum and Sidon is about 25 miles north of Tyre. The journey Jesus and his disciples took to this area would have been an arduous one, over mountains and primitive roads, and in our Gospel today we encounter Jesus ministering in this area.
It’s important to recall that Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience…so that a Jew could understand who this Jesus was and what he was doing for the Chosen People. In the middle of this wonderful Gospel meant to help the Jewish people…this Canaanite woman…this Gentile…this shows up. Canaanites were looked down upon by Jews from Old Testament times, and I imagine that being overlooked and looked down upon was the way she was used living and being treated. For this woman to even approach Jesus, she had broken several first century Palestinian social taboos:
àShe was a Gentile approaching a Jew. The boundaries between Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ time were pronounced, much like the boundaries between Protestants and Roman Catholics several generations ago. Jews were wary of the residents of Tyre and Sidon. One of the commentaries I read noted that those from Tyre and Sidon were described by the Jewish historian Josephus as “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” The commentator goes on to note that the poor rural Jewish peasants of Galilee grew food for the rich Gentile cities like Tyre and Sidon. We do not know the social class of this Canaanite woman, but she would have been seen as coming from the culture of Jewish oppressors.
àShe was a woman approaching a group of men. We in the West are centuries away from the male-female boundaries of Jesus’ day. Pick up a Newsweek or turn on CNN to see how rigid male and female boundaries are in much of the Middle East and Islamic nations today. Think about the images of a woman wearing a birka (those long veiled garments) and being restricted to the home, and you get some idea of how courageous this Canaanite woman was just to talk to Jesus in public. Generally in a situation where a woman needed to talk with a man who was not her husband, he would go out and make such requests. Where was this woman’s husband?
So here is this poor woman, totally excluded and totally out of place, asking Jesus for help. Disciples and spectators alike must have been embarrassed to have her there. She must have been driven by desperation. Maybe now we can better understand Christ’s original negative response, when he says, “Let the children be fed first (referring to Jews) for it is not fair to give the children’s bread to the dogs.”
Looking back over the centuries, we’re horrified by Jesus’ response. It’s totally un-Christ like. Please remember that Jesus was a first century Jew. Jews considered dogs to be scavengers and unclean animals…they weren’t kept as pets and every reference to dogs in the Bible is negative. It’s clear to the commentators that Jesus is putting her down.
I think if I were having a dialogue…a prayer…or if I were to meet Christ and he treated me in such a fashion, I’d be more than upset. How would any of us feel if God made us seem like we were annoying him?
The Canaanite woman is persistent. She tells Jesus that “even the dogs under the table deserve the crumbs.” This Canaanite nonbeliever understood the power of God’s grace…she believed so much that she knew a crumb from Jesus would be enough. I can’t recall offhand anywhere else in the Gospels where someone won a theological argument with Jesus. Even as a 12 year old kid he astounded the wisest biblical scholars…but not this woman. I wonder if maybe that’s what Jesus wanted her to do all along. If he had just healed her daughter at her request, the disciples would have been appalled and, not being the brightest bulbs, they would have probably missed the point…but how much more dramatic to lose a theological argument to a Gentile and then heal her daughter.
This incredible example of approaching God with humility, confidence, deference and boldness…1such trust in God’s grace, is delightful.
So this ornery deacon asks the question you find me asking every time I preach: What does this lesson mean for us, today, in our lives?
I think this lesson helps us when we come to communion. How do we come to this table? Do we come as the in-crowd like the disciples assuming God’s favor? Or do we come wondering where we are with God, longing for his presence, yet feeling overlooked and unimportant?
We come to the table as God’s kids. We are getting the bread on the table…we don’t have to pick crumbs off the floor. When Father David feeds you that little piece of bread, he represents Christ, and he feeds you from a silver platter. That crunchy bread is a gift of grace that says God has not overlooked you. No matter whom you are…no matter what garbage you bring to this communion rail…God still searches your innermost thoughts and knows you and loves you. Communion helps us heal our lives just as surely as Christ healed the Canaanite’s daughter.
Those words we say or hear every Sunday are meant for everyone, not just us: “The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
My dear friends in Christ: If this bread heals us, who else might it feed? Does God’s grace stop when you leave your Church of the Resurrection? Do we give other people crumbs when we should be inviting them to the same table?