The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
August 18, 2002
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 + Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 + Matthew 15:21-28
It is the third of a series of miracle stories leading us to what is probably the most significant event in Matthew’s Gospel outside of the Passion Narrative. It comes next week.
Like two before, this one is not what it seems to be on the surface. A deeper look at the text; the setting, the characters, the narrative conversation, and the interplay of words and deeds gives us reason to see and hear more than what Mark provides in his earlier telling of this story.
With Mark, it is a simple matter of a miracle cure.
With Matthew, we have reason to wonder: “Where is the miracle?”
There are seven verses here. Only one of them is devoted to a cure. Jesus says: “Let it be done for you as you wish. And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.” That’s all there is to it.
But six other verses concern Jesus and the disciples revealing what may seem to be a rather shocking attitude of disinterest and dismissal.
The first clue that there is something really important here is the language. Matthew uses terms that are archaic for his time. Tyre and Sidon, Canaanite, Son of David, God of Israel: these terms are not in use at the time in which Matthew sets the story. It would be like referring to someone from the State of Georgia as a “reb” or a “Confederate.” The only possible reason for using that kind of language would be to suggest some other inference or some other reference by the language. These terms in Matthew’s text are old, out of date, and heavily rooted in Old Testament overtones that would suggest that the attitude here is an old one – an old prejudice that has been around for a long, long time.
Even Jesus seems subject to this prejudice. He doesn’t look so good in this situation. The one who proposes leaving 99 and going after the 1 who is lost is about to pass by this woman without even a word. He won’t even acknowledge her presence! The disciples, with the most disgraceful of motives, force him to deal with her because they’re tired of her pestering. They don’t like her either.
Now if you stand back and look at this picture, ask the question:
“What is more significant and surprising here, the cure of this woman’s daughter or the fact that Jesus and these disciples change their mind and decide to share what they have with someone they don’t particularly care for?”
This is a miracle story all right, but it is not the miracle we might first suspect. While the story certainly has some historical elements, it reveals more about us, the early church, and Jesus Christ than we may be comfortable with seeing.
At the same time it reveals something of God as well.
Unpleasant as it is to admit, most of this world is under our table waiting for some scraps to fall. We are very conscious about what is ours, and we are very determined to keep it. This Jesus of history and his disciples are very conscious of their privileged position among the “Chosen People.” They are Jews, not “Canaanites.” They are very aware of their power and their privilege.
In the story, I believe they heard the voice of God. It sounded like a woman foreigner who came begging, not for herself, but for her child. The miracle is: their change. What they considered theirs alone, they decided to share, perhaps not for the best reasons at first, but eventually they got it right. Perhaps we may be hearing the voice of God calling to us from under the table, across the border, or with an accent.
The miracle stories are not all told, and the best of them are not about healing. They are about conversions and changes in the human heart. They tell of enemies that begin to speak to one another, of ancient distrusts and prejudice collapsing in the face of grace and the real truth about our relationship to one another and our God.
Perhaps we might listen today very quietly and carefully to see if God is calling out to us, and hope that God has not and will not, like the woman of the Gospel, give up on us.