21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just 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.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
It’s been an interesting week to be a pastor, as there has been a lot going on this week that has required my attention. I don’t mean on this campus, here at North Decatur, though last week’s worship service and lunch were obviously very special. I mean that as I have done my usual social media thing this week on the internet, I keep reading clergy colleagues and religious commentators say that the sermon this week, this sermon right now, must deal with the death of Robin Williams and the developing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, or risk being totally irrelevant. The idea is that a sermon should connect the Bible with what is happening in the world, like the theologian Karl Barth said, that the preacher should have a Bible in one hand a newspaper in the other. If you’ve been here for a while you know that it is my style to address things that are happening in the world, but I must say that I have been struggling with how to talk about these two seeming separate but vitally important issues: speaking a message of hope in the face of the suicide, and speaking a message of justice in the face of the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. Add to this that we’re talking about healing this week, which is a really touchy subject when both Robin Williams and Michael Brown have both died, when there’s nothing we can do, no prayer we can pray, that will bring them back.
So I did what I do when I don’t know what to say, I went to the Bible, which is as good as place a start as any, especially, you know, for a sermon, but I have to tell you that sometimes it is the case that the deeper I go into the Bible, the more disturbed I find myself. It was especially that way for me this week as I studied and meditated upon the Gospel story for this morning, the story of the Caananite woman.
Not only does Jesus put off the mother of a poor tormented young woman when she comes to him for healing, his response sounds almost racist when you bring it forth into today’s world. The Caananite woman kneels in front of him, begging, and Jesus’s response is, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, you’re wasting my time and keeping me from other people who need me. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, when you look into the language of the day, the idioms and what have you, but still, it leaves me disturbed to think that not only did Jesus compare this poor woman to a dog, but he very nearly refused to heal her at all.
It all makes me wonder what we’d do if she showed up here, the Caananite woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon whose daughter clearly had mental health issues, if she showed up at North Decatur United Methodist Church, in the shadow of Dekalb Medical Hospital, down the street from the great Emory University, around the corner from a number of mental health agencies on Winn Way and a slew of long-term care facilities. As I try to understand Jesus’s response, I have to wonder, what would we do? What would you do?
This is not such a foreign situation to us, as we sometimes have folks come in struggling with some mental health issue or another, so I figure you’d do what we always do. Sit with her, offer her some water, maybe some food if she were hungry, ask her some questions about who she is and where she’s come from, and if it were clear that she had significant untreated mental illness, we’d find a way to get her to the hospital, because in our modern world, that is what you do with people who need healing. You take them to the hospital.
But none of this was available to the Caananite woman and her family. None of these options existed. There were no trained nurses and doctors. There were no hospitals. All there was, was Jesus. So Jesus is where she went, to request healing, and so as I try to understand Jesus’s response, I have to remember that the circumstances were awfully different, that Jesus had people begging him all day long to help, because there was nobody to care for them, no antibiotics, no mental health care, no state-of-the-art isolation unit at Emory University. I don’t mean to entirely write off the comment about the dogs; I am just saying, there’s much healing to be done that when this person blocks Jesus’s path I understand Jesus’s frustration. And then she says, even the dogs get the crumbs from the table, and at this, Jesus takes pity on her. He tells her to get up, for she has had sufficient faith to make her daughter well.
And all’s well that ends well, I guess, but it is a problem for us, in 2014, this idea that if you just have faith, whatever demons you find yourself wrestling with will just go away. It doesn’t work that way. It is particularly troublesome when you find yourself feeling like you’ve fallen down the well of depression with no way out, because when you combine a message that says just having faith will make you well with an end result that you are not being healed, well, the only logical explanation to that equation is that you haven’t had enough faith. For those of us struggling already, that kind of idea can be enough to do you in.
I was in a meeting here at the church when Stacey texted me Monday night to share the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide, and I remember coming home and opening Facebook and feeling like it seemed that everyone I knew had lost a member of their own family. If you looked at Facebook on Monday night, you probably had a similar experience. None of my friends actually knew him, and yet people just ached after the news broke, especially because it seems like such a waste, suicide. It robs us of people we love and leaves us without a proper explanation. I’ve not been immune to this in my own life, with my own loved ones, and so I felt like many of you did, that the death of Robin Williams ripped the bandage off a wound deep within our hearts that was just starting to heal.
And so when we talk about issues of health in the Bible, especially about mental health, it is so important to recognize the differences in the times we live. The healing that Jesus does happens in a world without doctors and nurses, at least reputable ones with any training worth speaking of. We can get stuck in a mindset that says, just pray about it more and it will be ok, but that’s not where we are today, thank goodness. We have whole industries connected to health care, to mental health. If you are struggling with depression, first, know that you are not alone, even in this room. And know that while I hope you will pray, the kind of healing that Jesus provides does not preclude you from seeing a doctor. Jesus expects it, I think, that you will get medical help, or else God wouldn’t have given us doctors in the first place. Some of the most devout believers throughout the centuries have struggled the most with the demon of depression, so don’t think you have to do it alone, or that somehow your struggles are between you and God. If you need help, get it. If you need my help, tell me, and we’ll walk this particular road together.
So when I talk about the healing that comes from Jesus, I want to be clear that I’m not saying that we should ignore the need for doctors and nurses. But the question I sometimes wonder is this: given that we have doctors and nurses and MRI machines and chemotherapy, what is the purpose of the healing that comes from Jesus anyhow? It is a modern question, and an important one. If we don’t need Jesus to heal our illness, why bother coming to church at all?
The answer, I think, is in the insult itself, the idea that this woman is no better than a dog, because it’s not like Jesus turned the phrase himself. He was recognizing that this is how the readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have seen her, how society worked back then. She was a gentile, and in the prevailing Jewish culture of the day, she was unclean. She was to be regarded with suspicion, even without opening her mouth. Even worse, she was a woman, and in the first Century, when all of this happened, she was seen as less than a man. And at first, even Jesus seemed to accept this arrangement, as if yes, we’ll put up with the Gentiles as long as they stay in line, as long as they don’t cause too much trouble, as long as they accept their status as equal to the dogs that sleep in the shadows during the day and howl in the streets at night.
The answer is in the insult, because the healing that Jesus offers may manifest itself in physical healing, but there’s not a doctor in Atlanta, not a medicine in all the world that can cure that kind of illness, the disease of prejudice, of broken relationship, of the kind of systemic cultural practice that keeps one group subjugated, that makes the Caananite woman utter what I think to be the saddest words in all of scripture: “yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Her words are so dry, so beaten down, that they carry within them the assumption that it isn’t even worth arguing with Jesus over whether she’s any better than a dog. It’s more effective not to question the assumptions that come with her status, and argue from there.
I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman this week as I’ve been following the developments in Ferguson. Don’t let the media fool you; the situation isn’t perfectly cut and dry, and the vast majority of police are public servants of great integrity, but we have a problem in this country, and it’s not as simple as it’s been portrayed. I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman and the assumptions that were made about her, because there’s been no rash of looting. It’s happened, but it’s rare, and by Friday night, the number of protestors protecting local stores and shops in Ferguson, Missouri, vastly outnumbered the opportunistic criminals who wanted to turn their anger into a quick buck. I’ve been thinking of the Caananite woman, because the assumptions she lived with look an awful lot like the assumptions young black men carry with them. I feel a little unqualified to talk about this, as I carry with me what the educator Peggy McIntosh calls the invisible knapsack of white privilege, but I’ve done a lot of reading this week, especially from writers who are black, especially from writers who are black males, who talk about the things they must teach their sons in order to avoid being shot. The thing that grabbed me by the heart this week was the story of a man teaching his son what to do when he got unfairly interrogated by police. Not if he got unfairly interrogated, but when. And I thought of the Caananite woman this week when I came across a piece in the satirical newspaper, The Onion, entitled, “Tips for Being an Unarmed Black Teen.”
- Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
- Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
- Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
- Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
I don’t mean to rag on the police. They have incredibly difficult jobs, and there are more heroes among that bunch than I know how to count. But then, the problem isn’t the police. It’s us, it is the way in which we carry within us the assumption that there are different levels of people, that whether it’s race or wealth or sexual orientation or nationality or morality or the difference between a clean Jewish carpenter and an unclean Caananite woman who is so beneath the prevailing culture that she can’t even keep her own daughter in line, we assume that whoever gets it deserved what they got. I’ll tell you the difference between the kind of healing you’ll get next door at Dekalb Medical and the kind of healing Jesus offers. You can find a good doctor who can set your bone or help you deal with depression, but good luck finding anybody in the whole hospital who can help heal the rest of us from the kind of thinking that says that any unarmed person deserves to be shot, no matter the color of his skin, no matter what he may have stolen, no matter what he said.
And good luck finding a doctor who can restore the social status of such a woman as this, a woman who is seen as nothing more than a dog, until the Son of God looks deep into her eyes, like the pastor does on God’s behalf, every time a person is baptized, like the pastor did when you were baptized, called your name, recognized you rightful place as a child of God, and echoed those grand words of scripture, “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Friends, it is one of the great temptations of modern life to say, oh, that’s so far away, it’s not my problem, let them fight it out. But what a pity, to feel so separated from others that we feel as if we have no role to play, when it is the case that we are all God’s children.
I don’t know what God is calling you to do, how God is calling you to participate in the work of love, but I guarantee God is not calling you to just give thanks that what is happening is only happening to those people, because in God’s world, there are no more “those people,” for each of us is a child of God. There is no more clean and unclean, but only those of us in need of healing, which is all of us, together.
The Caananite woman came to receive healing for her daughter. But like us, the woman was herself in need of healing, and but for a chance meeting with the savior, she might’ve lived her whole life long thinking she was only good enough to eat the crumbs that fell from the table, and here Jesus comes along and offers her a chair.
Look. I’ve gone on long enough without giving a good answer about the difference between physical healing and divine healing, so let me end by admitting that I don’t have a good answer. The work of God is a mystery. I can’t draw you a diagram of when you need a doctor and when you need Jesus, except to say that the answer is “sometimes” and “always,” respectively. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.