Several years ago another married couple invited Eyleen and me to spend a
couple of days with them. We didn’t know that couple all that well, but their hospitality
toward us was most gracious, so we said yes. Half-way through our time together,
something unexpected happened that changed the way we now talk about our marriage.
One day, we were getting ready to open the bedroom door and join them, when
we heard them talking. Suddenly, they got louder and louder. They weren’t yelling at
each other, but they were clearly emotional. Then, just as suddenly, things got quiet.
Eyleen and I waited a bit before we left our guest room to come and say “good morning.”
Our married friends knew we must have overheard them, because they told us
not to worry. They weren’t getting a divorce or anything like that. But they were having
a conversation they described for us in two words. Their description, those two words
have become something of a mantra for our marriage. I want to suggest that those two
words describe the conversation Jesus and the Canaanite woman had in today’s Gospel.
“We’re good,” the husband said. “We were just having vigorous fellowship.”
Vigorous fellowship. When I tell this story, even when I simply speak those two
words, people smile or even laugh. That’s because, at some level, they get it. But what is
the “it” that they get? Why is this simple phrase so helpful? Allow me to unpack it a bit.
For many people, the word “fellowship” is a good, old church word. It implies
some shared interests, even friendship. A church’s fellowship hall is where people go
when they want to spend more time with other people. To be in Christian fellowship is
to be on a journey with fellow travelers, fellow pilgrims, fellow companions in Christ.
The word “companion” literally means to share bread with. Com, with, and pan,
bread. We don’t break bread, we don’t share a meal with just anyone. When we want a
companion, we find someone who is, at the least, a friend in the making. Two people
who commit to spend their lives together are, hopefully, always friends in the making.
Companionship, friendship, fellowship can also happen when we least expect it.
When was the last time you sat down for a meal and had a conversation with someone
you hadn’t met before, and suddenly, you found a new friend? Of course, the other kind
of conversation can also happen. What do you do when you discover the person you’re
at table with disagrees with nearly everything you believe about God - or anything else?
In the region of Tyre and Sidon, a long, long way from their home, Jesus and his
disciples have entered Gentile country. That was foreign territory for Jews. Suddenly a
Canaanite woman from that foreign country came up to them, shouting at Jesus, “Have
mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22). She was “outside the fold,” as our
Gospel hymn puts it. She was not a Jew, and Jesus was not her Lord. What gives?
There were Jewish towns in that district. Clearly, she’d heard about Jesus before
he arrived. Clearly, she was in very great need, because her daughter suffered from
demon possession, what our modern, scientific world calls mental illness. A Canaanite
woman, a female foreigner who is, in Jewish culture, an outsider and an outcast, dares
to demand Jesus’ attention. She’s tenacious, because clearly, she loves her daughter.
This woman shouts, begging Jesus to give her God’s mercy. And mercy is what
Jesus is all about. He critiques his own religion by quoting the prophet Hosea (6:6),
twice in Matthew’s Gospel (9:13, 12:7), saying I desire mercy, not sacrifice. But now,
what does Jesus do? He ignores the woman - or so it seems. “He did not answer her at
all,” says our Gospel text. His disciples also need something from Jesus. “Send her
away,” they urge, “for she keeps shouting after us” (15:23). Finally, Jesus answers her.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Not to the likes of her.
Suddenly, the woman changes her approach. She falls down at his feet, kneeling
in reverence, pleading, “Lord, help me” (15:25). But Jesus does not help her. In fact, he
answers with words that, no matter how we might try to soften them, cut deep: “It is not
fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).
Dogs? Really? Is Jesus name-calling? Is that, to borrow a current phrase, a dog
whistle? Is he violating one of the things he had just taught the crowd? Earlier, he had
said, “What comes out of the mouth…is what defiles. Evil intentions,” Jesus calls those
things, like theft and lying, not to mention murder. The last thing on his no-no list is
slander - to speak words that defame someone. Isn’t that what Jesus just did?
Perhaps our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, disturbing as it may be - because we
need Jesus to behave like God - perhaps this Gospel story offers us some comfort, even
some good news. Here’s what I mean: Even Jesus, the Son of David, the one we call the
son of God, struggled. Even Jesus, the human being, needed to grow up, day by day,
into his own understanding of God’s generous, all-inclusive mercy.
“If this shocks you,” Bible teacher Debie Thomas writes (“Is It Good News Yet?”),
“then maybe you grew up, as I did, with Perfect Jesus. ‘Perfect Jesus,’” she says, “was
technically human, but he never messed up, he never doubted, he never backtracked,
and he never, ever had to say ’Sorry!’ So, if he happened to speak with harshness rather
than compassion; or if he behaved in ways that were rude; or if he called a hurting,
pleading woman a dog? Well, he had ‘perfect’ reasons for doing so.”
The problem with “Perfect Jesus,” Debie Thomas argues, is that he doesn’t exist.
“Jesus is as fully human as he is fully God. He struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he
grows, he falters, he learns, he fears. He’s authentically one of us. Even (the real) Jesus
has to learn,” she concludes, “how radically good the Good News is.”
Sisters and brothers, it’s the Canaanite woman - the one who is not a Jew, not a
man - she teaches the real Jesus about real mercy. She turns his image on its head.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (15:27).
“It’s a brilliant response,” Debie Thomas says, “cutting to the very heart of Jesus’
boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship.
After all, he eats with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners. The table is precisely where
Jesus shows the world who (the real) God is” (ibid.).
Friends, that’s not just table fellowship. That’s real, vigorous table fellowship.
That’s the kind of conversation that wears people out. But look where it ends! It ends
with the Real Jesus allowing that woman to teach him about real mercy. The Real Jesus
allows her - this ethnic, religious outcast of a woman - to school him in his own Gospel.
The Real Jesus never loses a debate with anyone else in the Gospels, no matter how
vigorous his opponent. But the Real Jesus concedes to this audacious, female foreigner.
Look what Jesus says and does next: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done
for you as you wish” (15:28). And their kind of table fellowship, made much more
vigorous by the Canaanite woman, produces mercy and instant healing for her daughter.
What about us? When it’s time, dare we enter into some vigorous fellowship with
our companions on this Christian journey, our friends in Christ, the people we love, so
that some real healing can happen? This is my prayer: That we, more and more, are not
afraid to speak our truth in love to one another, no matter how vigorous things get.
Yes, we will need to take a break from all that vigor, from time to time, because
our journey together can make us plumb tuckered out. But if we trust - if we believe this
woman and Jesus show us the way to real, Christian fellowship; if we seek to have the
kind of faith the Canaanite woman has; if we become, in the words of our Gospel hymn,
“dreamers who faithfully dare” - who knows what kind of fellowship awaits us?
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1508 South White Station Road
Memphis TN 38117