A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

15:16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

A Question or Two:

  • That which goes into the sewer doesn’t make a person unclean?  Really?
  • Why does Jesus call the mother a dog?  What would your mother say if you did that?
  • The mother said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  How did she hold her head when she said this?  How did she hold her shoulders?  Try a few different possibilities.

Some Longer Reflections:

There hadn’t been Canaanites in centuries.

Read that sentence again.  There had not been people who were properly called “Canaanites” for centuries.  So why does the storyteller refer to the woman in this scene as a “Canaanite?”

Do not answer this question too quickly.

This is a question to contemplate, not to dispose of with a snap answer.

Why does the storyteller have Jesus interact with a Canaanite?  In the parallel version of this scene in the gospel of Mark, Jesus meets a Syro-Phoenician woman, not a Canaanite.  That identification marks her as an inheritor of political, social, and economic power from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, that enemy of the Jewish people remembered for his cruelty (described in the books of Maccabees).  That identification makes Mark’s story a confrontation with a well-remembered historic enemy.  The scene in Mark is marked by sharp conflict (though it is often obscured by translators): Jesus’ words to the mother when he relents are best read as harsh (“For saying this, Go!”), and when the mother finds the daughter, she is “thrown on the bed, the demon gone.”  Why is she “thrown” (and why do translators cover this up)?  There is no answer.

But in Matthew, the scene is harsher at the beginning.  Jesus wants nothing to do with the mother, and she follows after him, shouting.  Jesus does not answer her at all, and his actions make him look like one of the Ultra-Orthodox (in any faith group) who angrily refuses any kind of contact with a woman, especially a foreigner.  The disciples are no better.  They are at least trying to drink the Ultra-Orthodox Kool-aid.

But at the end of the scene, Jesus is quite amazed, and genuinely changed.  “Great is your faith!”, he says.  He had no idea!  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  His sharpness is gone.  He is converted.

And the woman is called a Canaanite.

That means that she is being identified as one of the people marked for extermination in the book of Joshua, who shares a name with Jesus, by the way.  At the beginning of the scene, Yehoshua (Jesus) adopts the stance of his namesake from the distant past.  At the end, he is different.

So, what is going on here?

Maybe the storyteller is giving us a glimpse of a rigid Jesus, Ultra-Orthodox in his inclinations, who is changed.  If so, this scene is a foreshadowing of what I think happens in Matthew’s whole story.  For my developed argument for this interpretive line, see my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (The Pilgrim Press).

Of course I like this possibility.

But I think that there is even more here.

The storyteller is calling into the story, not just a mother, but also a memory, a remembrance, even.  The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when they invaded the land.  This is not idly done.  This remembrance makes this a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness, and as such, should not have been slaughtered.  The entrance to the Land of Promise (this remembrance implies) ought not to have been accomplished through genocidal slaughter, and the argument for that slaughter (they will lead you away from true faithfulness) is revealed to be false, at best mistaken, and more likely ignorant and inexcusable.

If that is what the storyteller is doing, this scene offers a pointed reflection.  I live in South Dakota (a state that carries the name of the people who lived in harmony with this land before European-Americans arrived and dispossessed them.  I live not very far from the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.  I have friends who teach at, or graduated from, universities that were constructed, in part, by the labor of people who were held as slaves, again by European-Americans.

What would it take for those of us who are descended from those European-Americans (for starters) to engage in a similar act of remembrance?  What would it take for us to say, with Jesus, “Great is your faithfulness!”

That’s a good question, I think.

3 thoughts on “A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

  1. [The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when they invaded the land.]
    [a glimpse of a rigid Jesus, Ultra-Orthodox in his inclinations, who is changed.]

    I normally “like” to twist this episode into a playfully/serious attempt by Jesus to point out to his “friends” that those “they” would usually call “dogs” are people capable of faith. I likely need to reflect on my inability to fully fathom the humanity of the I Am.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your bluntness and refreshing questions about this part of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s so true that it is what comes from the heart that matters. Unfortunately, some words from people are best not spoken.

    Liked by 1 person

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