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Season of Pentecost, week 9, Common Lectionary year A.

Dilemma and Promise.   (Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 45:1-15)

 By Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

There’s an old radio programme that I used to listen to back when I was a preschooler, it came on just after I’d had my lunch, and my mother used it as a way to try to settle her wild child for an afternoon nap. It was called “Listen with Mother” and it consisted always and only of a voice reading a children’s story. I can still sing the signature tune, and can still imitate the inflection of the calm, British voice who would begin every story with

“Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.”

Are you sitting comfortably?  Really? That’s not so easy with this particular Gospel story.

If you want comfortable, you’re going to have to look elsewhere in the Gospel for one of those stories where Jesus is portrayed as the generous, wise, compassionate teacher, healer, forgiver, encourager, because this is not one of them. Far from being comfortable, this story is unnerving, perplexing in its portrayal of Jesus as at best tired and off his game, and at worst, as prejudiced and crabby as we can get on our worst days.

Jesus on an off-day has caused a dilemma for Christian readers of this text ever since, because somehow, although we want and need Jesus to be human, just like us, but we don’t want him too much like us. We need him to be dependable, solid, holy, and yes, God-like. Trying to hold these two poles in balance has kept Christians busy for two millennia, and this story either does, or doesn’t help.

So some commentators –wanting a dependable Jesus – try to resolve the dilemma,explain away the rudeness, prejudice, the racial slur,and paper them over with explanations like “he didn’t mean it, he was just testing the disciples, or the woman,”  and so on.

But there are a few commentators who venture in another direction:

what if Jesus is faced with choices, just as we are, daily; the choice whether to live into the fullness of God’s dream, or to play life safe? While this makes for a more uncomfortable ride, the possibilities it opens up for our understanding of God in our world may be worth it. Let’s see!

To do that we need first to take a short step back, to the verses just before we pick up the story. As I said to you in the introduction, Jesus has been put on the hot seat by the religious elite, who are supremely bothered by his apparent disregard for some of the specific requirements of the Jewish faith. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last, and he doesn’t hold back, telling them they have missed the point that what God wants is for his people to be engaged in acts of mercy, not endless intricate sacrifices and rituals.

Jesus escapes their inquisition, and then enter stage rear a foreigner,a woman, shouting. Shouting words even we recognize:

Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison!

Lord, have mercy, Lord, Son of David, have mercy!!

Mercy.

That word again. It’s such a simple word, common enough in everyday speech, that I had assumed, in preparing for this sermon, that I knew what it meant. Doesn’t mercy imply that there is a supplicant needing another person (or God) who has power, to forgive a wrong doing, or perform some act of kindness and charity?

That definition rather neatly describes Joseph’s choice in response to his once powerful brothers, who are now begging for his help, and are “at his mercy”[1]

At first glance it appears to fit the scene here, a foreign woman with a sick child,having heard tales of Jesus’ miracles of healing, comes to him crying out for mercy.

But is that all mercy means? – a power-down indifferent benevolence, designed to shut the supplicant up and send them on their way with a handout? Leaving the powerful one feeling good about themselves, but somehow untouched by the incident? If so, mercy is pretty anaemic, bland and even heartless.

Mercy, when we encounter this word throughout the Bible is bigger, deeper, broader in scope. Hesed is the Hebrew word. Many times the word is translated not as ‘mercy’  but as “steadfast love” especially when the word is associated with the actions of God towards humanity. “Steadfast love” is no longer impersonal, juridical, indifferently charitable. Love that stands fast involves relationship and commitment, and involvement.

To say that God is Merciful is to say that it is the character of God to choose to commit to a relationship with creation that heals the weakest and most vulnerable. And as Jesus had just declared before we catch up with him, it is this same mercy that God longs for in us towards our fellow creatures.

That sort of definition is hard to hold on to. The Bible is full of stories where humans shrink mercy down to the carefully rationed handouts of a precious, rare commodity, rather than the overflowing generosity of a God whose love knows no bounds.

Then along comes a foreign woman with a demon possessed child, an outsider three-times over, who cries out to Jesus, “May I have some of that steadfast love that heals too?” Jesus choice then is the same as ours now. How wide is God’s mercy? How strong is God’s commitment to relationships heal the weakest and most vulnerable? And how wide is my mercy and my commitment to healing relationship?

We know what we expect. We expect Jesus to rush quickly to her aid, heal the child, and move on. But the story would soon be forgotten, one among many other healing stories, and not really about the radical implications of what ‘steadfast love’ means for us in a world filled with foreigners with sick children.

Instead Matthew shows us the contours of the dilemma that we face in our own world filled with overwhelming need, played out in the actions of none other than Jesus.

– First the silence in the face of the overwhelming need.

– Then the limitation of what we can do to what is manageable. “I only have enough for my family.”

– Then there is the qualification “We can only help those who will eventually be able to help themselves.”

We see this in ourselves, in our governments, in our church organizations; the wise stewardship of precious, rare resources. To these limited visions of mercy, prophetic words spring forth from a nameless foreign woman, strong enough and true enough to make Jesus’ choice, and ours, clear.

 “With God’s mercy” she declares, “there is enough for all. For God’s commitment to relationships of healing blessing will not be caged by religious rules, and ethnic embargos, but will slip through the cracks, pour off the table, and flow like water into the parched earth of need to do its work of healing.”

And that’s the promise which answers the dilemma. All we have to do now, is choose.

 


[1] OED:“the clemency or compassion shown to a person who is in a position of powerlessness or subjection.” or “an act of clemency to someone who is in the wrong.”

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