Date- August 20, 2017
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Title: Draw the Circle Wide
I need to confess that I have some story with the text from today. It was the text to preach from when I was taking the preaching course at Boston University. When you prepare a sermon or speech, there is a principle that you need to have one theme sentence. After hearing my sermon, Dr. Dale Andrews, my preaching professor, challenged me, “Man, do I hear that you are trying to say that this text is so mysterious that you don’t quite understand?” I answered, “Yes, that is correct.” “Why?” he asked again. “Well, how can Jesus call this poor woman ‘a dog’ and say such harsh words? I just don’t understand why he would do that.” He challenged me more seriously, “Why can’t you call Jesus a racist if he is one then?” I said, “I can never call Jesus a racist.” I went back to dormitory but still deeply troubled in my heart.
How about you? What do you think? Do you think that Jesus is a racist in this story? If we want to understand why Jesus is treating her harshly, we need to understand the context where Jesus and the woman come from. This conversation is happening in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are cities located on the west coast of the current Israel. These cities were occupied by mostly Gentiles who flourished by successful trade. While many of these gentiles were growing rich with trade, they often exploited from the Jewish community in the land that depended on agriculture. So, imagine for a second that Jewish community that suffered from the political and social oppression by the Roman Empire and at the same time experiencing poverty while the Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon were experiencing abundance.
When Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is pointing to his own people and community that needed some good news for that day. Jesus is arguing with the Canaanite woman that we are the ones that are suffering now. You already have enough for today. Jesus is drawing the circle of his own community. And he is pointing out the circle where she belongs. It is a mentality of us versus them, mentality of we versus the others. I believe that such mentality is what caused the tragedy of violence in Charlottesville, and triggers division politically in our society today. I would like to believe that most people in our town would not participate in such a mob bringing torches and wearing hoods. But even those who do not participate would hold such a view that it is about us versus them.
It is about whether we are republicans or democrats. It is about whether we are citizens or non-citizens. It is about whether we are born here or not born here. It is about whether we are evangelical Christians or progressive Christians. It is about whether we are whites or blacks. It is about whether we are heterosexuals or homosexuals. The list can go on and on but what holds these together is that we draw our own circles regarding who we are and it is by our human nature that we want to protect our interest, tradition, history, culture, or people intact. And we even see from our text today that Jesus is participating in belonging to his own circle. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He even goes further rejecting the request of this woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Ecumenical doctrine among many Christian churches affirm the belief that Jesus is the perfect God and at the same time the perfect human being. He was born into a Jewish family of Joseph and Mary. His family gathered for the celebration of Sabbath, and celebrate the Passover in remembering how God delivered God’s people from the slavery in Egypt. He and his friends went to the synagogue and were taught in the Torah and other Rabbinic tradition. He walked around his town watching poor people being beaten by the Roman soldiers because they could not pay the taxes. He saw his own women being ridiculed and made fun of by the soldiers. After all, Jesus is a Jewish young man who knew his tradition and shared the struggle of his own community. When we see our own family or community suffers, isn’t it what we are supposed to do? We protect our people. We put our people first. We fight for our people.
But you see here, the writer of Matthew tells us that this Canaanite woman is persistent. She insists Jesus grant her wish because it is not about her; it is about her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. It is possible that she tried everything. She went to see a doctor but was told that there is nothing wrong physically with her and no treatment available. She went to see a priest of her own religion but was told that there was nothing he could do. Whether you come from America, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, or any other countries, I believe that the one thing that is universal in all cultures is that we are willing to do anything for the well-being of our child or to save the life of our child. And this woman is even willing to suffer the humiliation from Jesus as long as she can hold onto the hope that her child would be healed.
And she makes an incredible statement that shows how far a devastated mother or father is willing to go. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She is saying, “I may not hold the equal status as you or your people. But I still beg you to show mercy to my dying child.” “I ask you to show compassion to my suffering people.” And Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the scripture tells us that her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus had the circles where he belonged and where she belonged. They could not be crossed over. But he crosses the circle here. He changes his mind. And this to me is the good news I believe that God is giving us today.
Or I would like to believe that he is drawing the circle wider because he does not abandon his own people, the Jewish community that suffers politically, economically, and spiritually. He continues to be their Messiah sharing the good news and performing the miracles. But because of the faith of this Canaanite woman, Jesus now even goes to the towns in the Gentile area and minister to the foreigners. It is not like Jesus is simply abandoning the circle A and move on to circle B. But he draws the circle A bigger and wider so that he can include circle B. In our society, we are experiencing many changes – our value, our family, our people, our politics, so rapidly that we feel like we are losing what we once stood for. And Jesus definitely understands that because he is a perfect human being. But he draws the circle wider to embrace those who are considered outside our family, our community, our religion and share the good news.
Some people might consider such a message as political. Oh, it is social gospel message. But it is also deeply rooted in personal holiness, our relationship with God. It is because we are once considered as the enemy of God. In Romans 5:10, Paul says, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Our sins alienated us from our relationship with God making us believe that we can be happy in this world without God’s love for us. And the consequence of such alienation from God is death. God could have stayed in God’s own circle. But God comes to us by sacrificing God’s only Son, Christ, so that we might live eternally with God. And God does that for us who were once considered as the enemy of God, who is God calling us today to reach out and be reconciled with?
In our troubled time watching the hate groups of KKK and Neo-Nazis marching in the middle of the university campus in Virginia, I am drawn to a picture of Jewish mother holding and kissing her daughter one last time before they were executed by the Nazi officer. I hear the cry of the mother who is shouting, “Have mercy on me; my daughter is about to be killed.” In our troubled time with the bombings and shootings in Syria, I see the picture of many Syrian mothers who hold the dead bodies of their children crying, “How long should we suffer such evil today?” I see the CNN interview with the mother of Heather Heyer who got killed by a car plowed into a group in Charlottesville. When the anchor asked her if she had some words for the person who killed her daughter, she said, “I want to be the voice she can no longer be. But I would rather have my child back.”
Let me ask you this morning. Who are the cries of mothers that Christ calls us to listen to? Who are the cries of people that Christ calls us to draw our circles of relationship wider? In the middle of our society broken with ignorance, hatred, and stereotype, I find the good news in Christ who understands us deeply as he was also the perfect human being but give us strength to step out of our comfort zone, step out of our own community of interest and right, but meet and love people in other circles radically as God loves them in God’s grace and mercy. I pray that God empowers all of us, our community, and our world to live in such radical love today. Amen.