Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 21 • 24 Aug 2014


Genesis 45:1-15
Romans 11:1,2a,29-32
Matthew 15:21-28


Rev. Chris Udy


Two weeks ago

we began our study series
on literary treasures
of the Old Testament.
The first book we looked at was Jonah,
and Jonah is essentially the story
of an argument between the prophet and God.
The commentary we’re using for the study
includes a line that reads:
“God often seems to enjoy dialogue” -
and certainly, as the story develops,
the conversation between Jonah and God
sometimes gets quite vivid.
Jonah’s given a mission:
to go to the city of Nineveh
and deliver God’s warning.
But when Jonah finally goes,
and the people of Nineveh repent,
and the city isn’t swept away by God,
Jonah is disgusted.
Jonah’s problem with God
is that God is forgiving,
where Jonah had been looking
for a God of judgement and wrath.
 
Usually, dialogues with God
seem to work the other way around.
Abraham, for example,
begins his dialogue with God
by trying to save the people of another city - Sodom.
God had expressed deep concern
about reports he’d had from Sodom
saying that he intended to go, himself,
and see whether what he’d heard was true.
Abraham was concerned for his nephew, Lot,
who lived in Sodom city,
so he wanted to make sure
God would do the right thing
and not be indiscriminately judgmental.
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous
with the wicked?” Abraham asked.
“Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city;
will you then sweep away the place
and not forgive it
for the fifty righteous who are in it?
Far be it from you to do such a thing,
to slay the righteous with the wicked,
so that the righteous fare as the wicked!
Far be that from you!
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
 
Abraham had clearly found
a tender spot with God,
probably some memory
about Noah and the flood,
because God replied
“If I find at Sodom fifty righteous people in the city,
I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
But Abraham wasn’t finished,
and his argument continued
“Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,
I who am but dust and ashes.
Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking?
Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?”
Abraham would have had
a stellar career in economics –
or selling the budget -
turning numbers upside-down like that -
but apparently God isn’t all that fussed
about statistics either,
so he replied “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”
Abraham was now on a roll
so he kept going:
“Suppose forty are found there.”
“For the sake of forty I will not do it.”  -
and so on it continued,
until Abraham had argued God
into sparing the city if even only 10 good people
could be found within its walls.
 
Jonah and Abraham
are arguing with God for different reasons:
Jonah wants Nineveh city punished,
Abraham wants Sodom city saved -
but in the end the issue isn’t numbers and statistics -
ultimately the argument is personal;
it has as much to do with Abraham, and Jonah,
and their relationship with God
as it has to do with cities and populations
and what people do
and what happens to them in crowds.
A census might be useful
for planning schools, or public transport,
or describing what Australia is like as a nation,
but it isn’t all that helpful
if we want to meet and get to know our neighbours,
or if we want to understand our friends
or the members of our family.
Advertisers and politicians
might need and want to deal with us
as markets and electorates,
but most of us would prefer to be seen as persons,
people with names and faces,
who can think beyond a quick fix or a slogan,
and who feel for other persons -
especially when we look beyond
a culture, or a class,
or a lifestyle or gender,
and see that in almost every way
other people love, and fear,
and hope and trust as we do -
and that our experience of the world -
the human experience of life -
is not an experience of cities, or nations, or cultures,
but of persons.
We experience life;
we engage with the world;
we live with each other, and with God,
not as races, or genders, or even families,
but individually, person by person, one by one.
 
So when Jonah argues with God,
God is as concerned about Jonah
as God is about every person in Nineveh.
When Abraham argues with God,
God is more responsive to Abraham,
and to Abraham’s sense of justice and compassion,
than God is impressed by numbers and statistics.
And when God is confronted
with a mother’s love and fear for her daughter,
as Jesus was in our gospel reading for today,
the healing that results
is as much for the mother, and even for God,
as it is for her child.
 
This is a very significant story about Jesus -
and for some of us it can be disturbing.
There are some who’d like to believe
that Jesus never had to learn and grow -
that he was never confused,
never less than loving and accepting
to everyone who ever came anywhere near him -
but in this story Jesus isn’t as nice
as we’d like him to be.
Matthew says he was travelling
in the region of Tyre and Sidon -
up on the Mediterranean coast
beyond the borders of Galilee.
What he was doing there,
Matthew doesn’t say,
but a local woman, a Canaanite -
we’d call her Lebanese -
discovered who he was
and started shouting out to attract his attention.
“Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David,”
she yelled;
“my daughter is tormented by a demon”.
 
This is exactly the sort of appeal
Jesus would have responded to immediately
if he’d been back in Galilee
and the woman had been Jewish -
but here, and with this Lebanese woman,
Jesus didn’t answer at all.
He simply ignored her.
 
This must have continued for some time,
with the mother shouting out,
and Jesus doing nothing -
until finally his disciples had had enough.
“Send her away” they urged him,
“she keeps shouting after us”.
 
So finally Jesus turned to speak
to the mother who was worried about her daughter,
but instead of offering her help or comfort,
Jesus said “I was sent only
to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
 
Jesus saw himself as Jewish,
and he saw his mission as Jewish -
and that’s understandable.
No one person can be everywhere at once,
or respond to every need there is in the world.
Everyone needs boundaries;
everyone has to focus their attention
on doing something that’s both possible and helpful,
and we do need to give priority
to those with whom we have
a family or community connection.
But this woman’s family connections
hadn’t been able to help her with her daughter,
and she was both desperate enough
and confident enough
to impress her needs and appeals
on a foreign healer.
So as Jesus turned to go,
she came and knelt down in his way
saying “Lord, help me.”
 
And this is the part of the story
some of us find confronting.
Jesus, apparently still refusing to help,
said “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.”
 
There are some who suggest
that Jesus was being playful
and that the word he used
can be translated ‘puppies’ as well as ‘dogs’ -
but I’m not convinced
that makes it any better.
No-one wants to be seen as less than human,
and what Jesus said is not just insensitive
to a mother worried for her daughter,
it also sounds insulting and demeaning,
not only to the woman,
but to her daughter, and her family,
and her neighbours,
and the people of her city.
Even if he was joking and being playful,
the joke was cruel,
based upon and adding to
an attitude of prejudice and bigoted disdain.
 
But this woman wasn’t a dog to be kicked aside,
and she obviously believed
that if Jesus came to see
that there was more to her
than his blinkered prejudice allowed,
then both her daughter and Jesus
might be healed.
So she answered
“Yes Lord, but even the dogs
eat the crumbs that fall
from their masters’ table.”
 
There are many people who wonder
whether prayer is something that changes God
or something that changes us.
They wonder whether God is so busy
with populations and numbers and statistics
that God couldn’t possibly be concerned
with the hopes and needs
and worries and fears of individual persons.
But if the Bible is any guide,
God seems to appreciate people
who argue their way through boundaries
and categories and divisions
to become persons -
people with names and faces,
people whose experience of life and of the world
touches and moves and impresses God
to the point that God responds:
God learns and God changes.
 
That’s exactly the way it happened with Jesus.
The woman who refused to be reduced
to a joke and a racial slur
made such an impression on Jesus
that she not only found healing for her daughter,
but she also changed Jesus -
she changed God.
The story of her courage, her persistence,
her boldness and her sense of humour
found its way into the Bible,
and it’s been told for 2000 years,
and it’s helped us understand Jesus - and God -
a great deal better.
By the time she was finished with him,
Jesus wasn’t just the Messiah for Jewish people,
he was bringing home lost sheep
from every nation - including ours.
The Canaanite woman helped him - and us -
to see that God is not limited
to loving just one family, or one race,
or even one religion -
she argued God into an openness
to Canaanites and Greeks and Romans
as well as Jews,
and she helped to establish foundations
that Paul and others would build on
in the years and generations to come.
 
So let’s be argumentative with God!
First because that kind of prayer
certainly does change us -
it deepens our experience
and makes us more aware
of possibilities and needs
both within ourselves and in the world -
but let’s also be persistent
because arguments with God
also help God to grow to God’s potential -
they give God something that he seems to treasure -
people who engage with God
in spirited conversation,
and people who help God -
and themselves -
grow bigger, and more loving and more just,
and more inclusively gracious and generous -
they help themselves and God
become the best they can possibly be.