Sunday 20 • 20 Aug 2017

Genesis 45:1-15
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 15:21-28

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

We had made our way through the early morning crowded traffic; we had passed through the various military and police checkpoints. Those on duty armed with their machine guns waved us on without a second thought. We stood out. For the past several days we had looked rather different from those around us – since we were not of “Middle Eastern appearance” as the police profiling back in Sydney describes.

We were in Beirut. Once upon a time (not so very long ago considering its history) once upon a time it t had been touted as the Paris of the east, ... but a civil war later, a Syrian invasion come and gone, Israeli jets no longer overhead and making their presence felt, Beirut was trying hard not to be tense – poised as it was between property developers with high end retail and restaurant after restaurant, on the one hand, and the remnants of abandoned, shell-marked houses of long since-fled residents. And everywhere were refugees – in a country the size of Newcastle to Wollongong – about 2 million refugees in various stages of desperation.

Saturday morning; we had negotiated our way through the south eastern suburbs adorned with the flags of Hezbollah; we were safely ensconced in our friend’s car en route to Sidon –the ancient city where the apostles Peter and Paul met; the city of Sidon which was for some time Paul’s place of residence and where, it is said, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman who led him to change his mind. In the gospel of Mark she is a Syro-Phoenician woman (we might say Syrian Lebanese).

Such an old city: we parked by the harbour – not too far from the remains of the castle the crusaders built; we strolled past the fishing boats, and made our way to the souk – that is, a market area, a bazaar crammed full of shops, very narrow streets, laneways really, full of strange aromas, alive with people buying and selling – and haggling. It was a far cry from the world back in Sydney in which I live out my faith.

We found ourselves all of a sudden in an open square. We stood before an old church building where a children’s programme was being run by the UN for Palestinian refugees – Palestinians in the south, Syrians in the north and east. I took a quick photo of the sign on the door. It was like one of those ‘no smoking’ signs except, in this instance, there was no cigarette inside the circle but rather an automatic assault style weapon.

A man comes up and draws alongside us: he is a local; he wishes to be hospitable; he is Muslim; he wishes to give us a cup of coffee except we’ve just had one – but he beckons us, nevertheless, to come into his shop which has been a coffee shop for the 900 years. (No Gloria Jeans, no Starbucks here!) He then leads us down a short passage and we enter a small chapel where services of Christian worship date back to the year 230 AD.

We come back out into the square. Now in front of us is an ancient house and it likewise bears a sign. It reads the house of the Canaanite woman; it claims to be the house wherein our reading from the gospel this morning was acted out. I am not sure what to make of that claim. Is it true or is it just a popular fiction that has been handed down through the ages? Is it a piece of tourist marketing (though there are not many tourists these days in Sidon)? Who knows?

Reading the story set down for today my mind nevertheless flies to this place, to this time, to this city where once upon a time, our host, a UCA minister from Sydney, whose doctoral research I am supervising once lived. Throughout the course of the day we will hear of what his family – and many other families – experienced during the war with Israel. Here a family member is killed, there is where his house was until a bomb landed on it and his parents thought he had been killed; there a friend was killed; over here was the olive grove where he and his sisters were coming home from school, one day, when all of sudden, Israeli jets - out of the blue - strafed the place.

And while my wife and myself will shortly meet his family who fled to a village in the hills, he has not brought us to Sidon for some war time voyeurism; he has brought us to Sidon as a matter of faith; he wishes to show us the chapel that commemorates the meeting of Peter and Paul – and to show us this house of the Canaanite woman. It is humbling to be here.

This is a story from the ministry of Jesus that is remarkably apt for our times. Jesus has left behind his homeland of Galilee; his wandering ministry has taken him away from the inland area on the other side of the mountains to the coastal region of Sidon and Tyre. He is no longer in the ancestral lands of the Jewish tribes. The peoples of this part of the world will be known as the Phoenicians; the woman who accosts him is a Canaanite (one of the indigenous peoples of the promised land that had been conquered many times).

The moment she cries out to the -Son of David to have mercy – the moment she does this she is crossing over two of the boundary lines that were so strongly enforced in those times – Jew and Gentile, male and female.

Let’s open up the setting a little bit more. Jesus has made his way to this region following a rather volatile exchange with the Pharisees. Jesus had been criticized by them because he and his disciples had not washed their hands before eating. That act was no small deal: the washing of hands was built into the cultural ritual of the Jewish people quite apart from its obvious hygienic importance. This washing of hands was part of what was called a holiness code. Its purpose was to preserve purity.
So much of their lives were dictated by what was regarded as clean and unclean. Jesus is proposing a different way. How simply he puts it – that it is not what goes into our mouths that makes us unclean but what comes out of them. This was really radical talk by Jesus and not something that would endear him to the Pharisees.

One can feel the discomfort of the disciples who ask him if he knows how much he has offended them. And yet Jesus is not really denigrating the Pharisees so much as speaking a truth about the things that defile a person and society. What is said can so often befoul the atmosphere and make a society, make a person less than what they might otherwise be.

Which brings us back to the Canaanite woman. There is something about Jesus’ attitude to her that might make us feel uncomfortable. He seems to behave dismissively and rudely towards the distressed woman; he refers to her with the disparaging term of “dogs”. There is no racial discrimination act back then, of course; there was no section 18C for politicians to argue over – yet even so the term grates.

Back then “dog” was a common Jewish description of foreigners. This is not how we see Jesus. Is he not the one who called us to love our neighbour as ourselves? At first he is silent; he then speaks with his disciples almost as if she is not there. They have encouraged to him to send her away; it is almost as if Jesus agrees with them: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But he does not send her away as his disciples have urged. Maybe something of great significance is happening here, something that is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing of all: Jesus is forced to change his mind! This woman, this foreigner, is exposing how he has allowed himself to voice the prejudice of populist opinion. Face to face with the woman’s persistence, face to face with her deep love and care for her daughter who is tormented by a demon – and who knows what the back story of that family life might have been like - , Jesus turns, he sees her, he hears her prayer as she kneels in front of him.

It is a tense moment as he says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Her quick reply both shapes what will happen next and gives us an image of how we could all regard the openness of God’s table, because even the crumbs dropped by those who have the seats fall to the floor and feed the hungry ones who are waiting in hope, dogs or otherwise. What Jesus sees and responds to is her faith. He changes his mind and his heart and heals the unseen daughter, immediately.

There are echoes of other stories like the healing of the centurion’s servant, but this story is barrier breaking. It’s the kind of story that invites us to ask ourselves what barriers may we have constructed around us – barriers to do with who is included and who is not, who believes the right things according to our lights and who does not, who lives in the way we believe to be the right way and who does not?

There are so many challenges in this story: if we are to be the ones sitting at the table, who is it that sits with us? Who gets the crumbs left over, or do we sweep them up and put them in the bin? How much wastage is there in our land of plenty, when there are those who have nothing? These are systemic issues that we can feel powerless to address or change. They can be yet another thing that makes us want to retreat into our comfort zones. Some things dishonour and defile. What breaks through barriers, changes minds and hearts is an act of grace, an act of acceptance, an act of love.

All of which brings back to that house in the public square in the souk at Sidon. In the course of our visit to Lebanon we were struck by the sheer number of people looking for help: so many were women dressed in black, veiled head, clasping a baby, a toddler, and asking for mercy in the form of money to buy supplies.

Our host always carried spare coins in his car: he did so because, following those air strikes down in Sidon, his parents told him to leave lest he be called up to serve in one of the militias. He fled to Beirut where for some time he was homeless – a displaced person, a refugee in his own country – and yet even then he worked for the red cross in one emergency after another - and did so in the spirit of the Christ who seeks to serve, comfort, and heal.

The women and children in need were not dogs; nor were they the enemy or caricatures of what radio shock jocks, extreme politicians, and nervous citizens might say. They were the neighbour who was in need – there were limits to what could be done - and yet time and time again we heard the stories of those men and women, followers of Jesus Christ, who were striving to cross barriers and boundaries.

Had they always been that open to the one who was different? Had they always been able to draw alongside those whose way of life and religion were so often alien – or, like Jesus with the Canaanite woman, had they needed to change their mind, their heart? And, if so, what was it that would be the catalyst for such a conversion? Would it be the sights and sounds of those in need? Would it be a cry for a mercy? A plea for a child’s life? Or would it be a dawning realization that the cultural and racial prejudice that we all have to some degree is as nothing in the sight of God? Now some months later, no longer in Sidon, I wonder when was it the last time I changed my head, my heart, for the sake of someone else – for Christ’s sake.