It was my first youth group trip, a weekend retreat up in the mountains. I knew a couple of the kids, having gone through confirmation with them the year before, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was “friends” with anybody in particular. And for the first half of the trip, I got the distinct feeling that I was on the outside. It wasn’t that anyone went out of their way to exclude me, or that people were intentionally shutting me out. It was much more subtle than that – what I remember now, many years later, are the inside jokes, a single line of which would send the whole room into fits of laughter.
And then, over lunch one day, I heard one of the other kids quoting a Monty Python routine. Nerd alert! Well, by the end of the meal, he and I were as thick as thieves, reciting whole scenes verbatim in our worst British accents. I had a friend now. The rest of the group’s inside jokes didn’t intimidate me; I had my own, now.
Have you ever been excluded?
Exclusion comes in many forms; and even the most innocuous versions, like that of a church youth group, can be difficult. But some are quite insidious – exclusion because of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, physical appearance, political affiliation, age, family situation.
The one thing that they all have in common is that they all make the point: “You are not welcome, because you are not like us.”
The lesson from Genesis this morning comes at the very end of such a story of exclusion, and is a reminder of the violence that exclusion can bring. Joseph is one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the one who wrestled with the angel a few weeks ago and came away broken and blessed. And if we remember the story of Jacob the father, he played favorites. He gave Joseph that fantastic, multi-colored coat, and Joseph seemed to lord it over his brothers.
I’m not sure how successful you can be as one excluding eleven, but Joseph gave it his best shot. And his brothers reacted violently against him. They first plotted to kill him, but decided on the much more “humane” option of selling him into slavery. And now, all these years later, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right hand man. All is forgiven in this instant of reconciliation and embrace, Joseph himself clarifying the moment’s theological significance: what his brothers intended for ill, God used to save them from themselves.
Exclusion can lead to violence. We know the examples of this in our own world:Rwanda; Somalia; Sudan; South Africa; Afghanistan; Israel/Palestine; Yugoslavia; Northern Ireland…and it reaches our own shores: the shame of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, to name two of the more obvious examples.
Where does it come from? What creates this desire to include some and exclude others which can cause violence both overt and subtle? I’m not sure, but I think it stems from trying to answer the question “Who’s in?”
We are guilty of categorization. And what’s odd is that our categorization often leans toward defining ourselves by what we are “not”. When I lived in Chicago, being Presbyterian mostly meant “I’m not a Catholic.” Here in the South, it means, “I’m not a nitwit.”
And far too often, I hear us at OPC say about ourselves that “I’m not a member of a mega-church.” It’s often easier to say what we are not. So what is it that we are? Who are we at our core, and how does that define us? And how does it help us answer this question that seems to obsess us so: “Who’s in?”
The lesson from Matthew this morning sheds some light on this. I find it to be one of the most intriguing and difficult texts in the New Testament. At first brush, Jesus seems to be playing against type. He is in a foreign land, a land of Gentiles, non-Jews, people who most certainly are not “in” as the people of Jesus’ time and tribe would have defined it.
And as this Canaanite woman comes to him seeking mercy, he first ignores, then rebuffs, and finally insults her before she is able to get the result she wants, healing for an ailing daughter. Does even Jesus get sucked into playing the game of “who’s in”?
Some of you took part in our Connect group last Spring, reading the book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The author, Kenneth Bailey, walked us through some of the parables and stories of the New Testament, helping us to see them with the benefit of a mindset closer to that of those at the time of Jesus. And one of the texts he wrestles with is this very lesson of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.
Bailey points out that this meeting has to cross two social boundaries of the day: the first, that between Jew and Gentile; the second, that between man and woman. To get a glimpse of how women were viewed at the time, hear this quote from Ben Sirach, written about two hundred years prior: “A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach.” Not exactly material worthy of Susan B. Anthony…
What Jesus ends up doing, Bailey says, is taking the disciples through a process of confronting their own deeply held prejudices and, in the process, learning something about the nature of faith.
The very first word’s out of the woman’s mouth are a statement of faith not only in Jesus’ power as healer, but also in his identity within the broader salvation story. She calls him “Lord,” a theological title, and also “Son of David,” a statement of both Messianic and Jewish significance. Jesus’ response is utter silence, as would have been the custom of a rabbi of his day. She is not only not Jewish, she is not a man. She is not worthy of response.
The second moment comes, when the disciples beg Jesus to get rid of her, he draws the ethnic line in the sand: “I came to the house of Israel.” It is a rebuke of her on tribal grounds, even though she seems to know his national significance better than his own people do.
The third moment is the most uncomfortable: she persists, and Jesus calls her a dog. Dogs in the time of Jesus were not objects of affection. They were a step above pigs in terms of cleanliness. The term “puppy love” would have been an oxymoron. Dogs had two roles: vicious guards, or slimy scavengers. It is the latter which he calls her, because you don’t starve your own children in order to feed those who feast on garbage.
And this is the critical moment in the story. Remember that Jesus isn’t on home turf. He is in foreign territory, and has just called this woman “filth” in the presence of her own people.
Bailey’s analysis of the story is most critical here, saying that Jesus is holding up a mirror to the disciples by putting this woman through the ringer, giving them a very uncomfortable lesson in self-reflection. We can almost imagine them recoiling in horror, “Well, we might think that, but we wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, and we’re certainly not going to say it out loud!”
It is at this moment that the woman becomes the teacher. She responds, using Jesus’ own words against him with a flicker of humor: “Even the filthy dogs get the table scraps. You wouldn’t deny scavengers the chance to scavenge, would you?” And at that, Jesus responds in an outburst of joy: “Great is your faith! Let it be done as you desire.”
At this point, even the most thick-headed of the disciples would have recognized what is at stake. Nowhere in Israel have they seen the kind of character that this woman has exhibited, the courage to demand she be taken seriously, the risk she takes on behalf of her daughter’s well-being, the faith she has in the power of Jesus as healer, Messiah, and divine Lord.
It takes a while for the lesson to sink in, but is a short distance from this moment to Peter’s realization that “God shows no preference,” to Paul’s proclamation that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…male nor female,” and to our own Presbyterian affirmation that God “calls men and women to all ministries of the church.”
There is no exclusion in the true body of Christ; God’s community embraces all.
Or, as the American poet Edwin Markham put it, reflecting the perspective of one on the outside:
He drew a circle to shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
Over the next few weeks we will be exploring what it means to exhibit Christian hospitality, to evangelize with integrity, to live faith lives that are truly invitational. And so today is merely a starting point, as we recognize what it is we are inviting people to. Our calling is to be a community not merely of inclusion, but of divine embrace. And in that distinction is all the difference: on the surface, Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is a lesson in confronting stereotypes, how we so often make assumptions that allow us to put people in boxes or dismiss them altogether.
And yet, the gospel is never just a superficial morality tale. Instead, it is a lesson in how we recognize faith in the most unlikely of places. Life comes out of death, love out of fear, salvation out of hopelessness, wisdom from the mouth of a Gentile woman. We embrace the other not because we want to be politically correct, but because we want to risk the possibility that we might gain heavenly wisdom.
This is the community that God has created, the circle that Jesus has drawn. And this is what we invite and welcome others to. Who’s in? Are you?