Sometimes we forget that Jesus was just like you and me. Yes he was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, but he was also a human being with the same struggles, the same temptations and the same needs as you and I have. Jesus was not God dressed up in human skin, a divine figure pretending to be a man, he was fully human and therefore like the rest of us he had his limitations – limitations of time and space. He couldn’ t care for everyone, heal everyone, and speak to everyone. Can you imagine what it was like, the crowds pushing in on him, people traveling from miles around? Everyone wanting something, needing something – touch me Jesus, heal me Jesus, help me Jesus. Unfortunately, He had to set limits; like the rest of us he had to pick and choose.
In Matthew’ s gospel Jesus makes it clear that his primary mission is to save the people of Israel. When he sends his disciples out to spread the news of the Kingdom he tells them they are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And in our Gospel for today he tells a foreign, Gentile, pagan woman that he cannot help her for the same reason. His mission is to his own people. It sounds cold, uncaring, not the Jesus of Agape love we are used to hearing about, but it is a story that smacks of the truth. One man can only do so much and we see in this passage that even Jesus had his limits. His initial refusal to help the Canaanite woman and her daughter disturbs us, but it reflects the realities of life – all of us have to say no even when we might like to say yes and Jesus was no different.
What I find more interesting about this passage is the Canaanite woman’ s faithful persistence. Matthew does not tell us anything about her religion but we know that she is not Jewish. She is a pagan, from a people understood to be the ancient foes of Israel. But she has a strong faith. She knows that Jesus is more than another wandering preacher. She knows he is from God. She knows that Jesus can help her daughter and more than anything else in the world she wants to help her daughter. And so out of faith and love she breaks every rule, crosses every line to save her child. As a woman, she isn’ t supposed to speak with men outside her family – but she does it anyway. As a Canaanite and a pagan she has no business approaching an important Jew, she can expect nothing but contempt and scorn – but she does it anyway. She crosses the lines of gender, race and religion because she wants freedom for her child, freedom from the evil forces that claim her life.
In some sense this nameless woman should really be the patron saint of all Gentile Christians – all Christians who are not of Jewish descent including most of us. You and I, we are Gentiles and through this woman’ s faithful persistence Jesus made room for Gentiles at the master’ s table.
August 6 was the 40 anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the law that put an end to poll taxes, literacy tests and other schemes intended to discriminate against African Americans and others in our society. National Public Radio did a series of very interesting interviews with several veterans of the civil rights movement in honor of this anniversary. They talked with leaders and others who were present for the Bloody Sunday march to Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. It was a fascinating series of interviews. At one point they spoke with civil rights leader Dr. Joseph Lowery who was able to use a little humor when recounting the tragic absurdity of some of the tactics used to keep Black people from voting. Dr. Lowery told the story of a young college graduate living in southern Alabama who went to register to vote. In order to put him off the registrar told him that he first had to recite the preamble to the Constitution ( We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union – and so on). This young man did not know the Preamble but he did know the Gettysburg Address. Nervous and afraid, not knowing what else to do, he began to recite this famous address – Four score and seven years ago . . . Standing there looking straight ahead he recited the entire speech ending with that famous line – that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. The registrar was shocked and after pausing for a minute he looked up and said to his colleagues – By God, that boy sure knows the Preamble, don’ t he!
In light of our gospel for this morning and forty years after this mile stone of the civil rights movement, how many of us are lovingly and faithfully willing to cross the line for the sake of another? Many of the heroes of civil rights had a faith in God’ s goodness and justice that transcended the barriers of race, gender and religion. They used that faith to change the fabric of this nation. Like the Canaanite woman, they were not willing to stand by as others lived trapped by evil and so they crossed the line in order to set them free. At the least they risked humiliation, scorn, and disapproval. More often they risked being beaten, imprisoned or even killed. But just as the Canaanite woman had faith that through God’ s love her daughter’ s life could be different, these good people had faith that through God’ s justice our country could be different.
Where is that faith today? Where is it that we see people crossing lines once thought to be taboo out of a sense of love and justice? Does it happen in our own lives? Are you and I taking risks in order to better the lives of others? When I was in seminary I volunteered to work with a woman who had a very unique ministry. She was in her late fifties with grown children and lots of time on her hands. She lived in New Haven, Ct. where she found the homeless situation in the city very disturbing. So she set out to do something about it. She created her own one woman organization dedicated to the needs of the homeless. Rather than making a soup kitchen, food pantry, or shelter where the homeless would come to her; she crossed the line and went to them. Her entire organization was all about going into the alleys, slums, underpasses, flop houses, and parks in search of the homeless. Instead of trying to coax them to social services, she brought social services to the homeless. She was incredibly brave, going into places and situations that frightened me as I followed behind her. But she had a faith that would not let her accept the status quo; a faith that said life can be different if we are only willing to cross the line. She forever taught me that one person can make a difference.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. He was right. Today there are still so many lines to be crossed in the name of love; so many risks yet to be taken – lines between Christians, Jews, and Muslims; lines between so-called Christian fundamentalists and liberals; lines between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics, lines between straight and gay. If, like the Canaanite woman in our lesson for today, we love very deeply then we cannot help but cross some of these lines. Our God wants nothing less from us. And maybe, just maybe if we are faithful enough we may hear our Lord say – great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. Amen.