Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Let me begin by stating the obvious. I am neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian. I have never been to Israel or Palestine. I am not a student of their culture and I certainly know very little about the political history or the current politics that fuels the conflict between these two nations. For sure, I could summarize my understanding of what the fighting is about; but to do so would be an injustice to both sides. I find it difficult as a citizen of the world community to sort out what is fact and what is myth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is the conflict too complex for me to understand as an outsider? Is the fighting about religion or it is about land or both? Historically, the conflict has been going on for centuries, but is the fight over the same thing all these years? Some would say that most Israelis hate most Palestinians and most Palestinians hate most Israelis, but is that true? And everyone knows what a peace deal looks like supposedly. Is a two-state solution really the answer? The questions feel as complex as any solution to the conflict.
There are several good reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated and hard for many of us to understand—or at least what makes it feel so complicated for many of us to understand. First, it’s been going on for several decades. That means that working out any one detail means understanding years of history. Second, each side has a very different narrative of the conflict—what’s happened, what matters, and who bears the responsibility. And third, pro-Israeli/pro-Palestinian partisans often promote the idea that the conflict is complex and beyond outsiders’ comprehension, or that it is exceedingly simple—meaning, “our side is right.” Personally, I have found myself falling into both of these categories. One day I find myself thinking: “It’s simply is too complicated for me to understand so it’s best if I don’t engage in the conversation at all.” From this perspective, I have found myself as of late wondering if I am committing a “sin of omission” by not engaging in the conversation. I think about talking to my Jewish colleagues but then I get fearful that I will say the wrong thing and show my ignorance. From the other perspective, as someone who advocates for social justice and human rights, I find myself being cautious to speaking about the plight of the Palestinians because I don’t want to offend my Jewish sisters and brothers. And still, I am faced with my own silence on the issue.
This past week, I received an email from my colleague William Barber. The subject line read: “Friends I have really been struggling this week with Gaza violence.” The body of the email read: “What if we could have a group of clergy—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—gather for an honest assessment of the situation, its impact even here in NC, and issue a public call for prayer.” The email was addressed to four of us, including a local rabbi. Everyone on the list responded positively to the idea of a gathering with the rabbi writing: “I would like us to address the violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq—the mid-East deaths are staggering.” Staggering! A conversation had begun. The exchange of emails were a sign of hope for me as I, too, have been struggling to know how to enter into this conversation that feels so critical for people of faith.
It is with this backdrop that I began studying, again, the story of the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her sick child. As I re-read her story, I wondered: What would it be like to reflect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of this Canaanite woman. In some ways the parallels of these two stories are clear and in other ways they are not. For starters, the Canaanite woman was a Gentile, a non-Jew, speaking to a Jew. Second, the two stories occupy a very different context. And third, any questioning of Jesus actions or intentions raises concerns about Christology. Acknowledging those issues, I still want to think out loud with you about the connections between the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank through the eyes of this Canaanite woman.
We know this story from both the gospel of Matthew and Mark. While the story line is basically the same, there are some differences. In Matthew the woman is identified as the Canaanite woman while Mark identifies her as a “Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.” Both are telling us that she is a non-Jew. Matthew paints a picture of a demanding woman who comes “shouting” at Jesus. Yet Mark writes that “a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Two very different postures. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the woman as saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” While Mark writes that Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Both responses are startling coming from Jesus. In each gospel, the woman responds to Jesus basically with the same words, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And finally, in Mark, Jesus responds to the woman’s confrontation by saying, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” While Matthew has Jesus responding, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Regardless from which gospel you read this story the message seems to be the same. A woman who was a non-Jew came to Jesus asking for help for her ill daughter. Jesus was bothered by her request and responded uncharacteristically. At best, he was rude and at worst he was perpetuating an exclusive understanding of who is deserving of God’s love and compassion. It definitely was a fully human moment in the life of Jesus. But the woman kept her faith and persisted. She confronted Jesus with his own message of inclusion and compassion and he heard her.
How many times have you found yourself in a similar place as Jesus? You respond to a family member, a friend, a co-worker or even a stranger in a way that is not you and immediately you regret your words and actions. In a moment of anger, frustration, or even belief that what you are saying is justified you say something and the second you hear it come out of your mouth you know it is wrong. Oh, how many times I have been in that place. That was the kind of moment that Jesus had with this Canaanite woman. When confronted by her, he knew immediately he had responded in a way inconsistent with who he was and what he believed. And he immediately changed his response. If we take nothing else away from this story, we can hold on to this lesson that we must be persistent in confronting injustice where we encounter it. AND we would do well to follow Jesus’ example and acknowledge when we act in ways that are inconsistent with our message of love, compassion and inclusivity and change.
Imagine being the Canaanite woman. How hard it must have been to reach out to Jesus in the first place. She was a woman who had no cultural right to even be near Jesus. Her society had already told her that she was unworthy, less than, a second class citizen. There is no question that she was desperate, fearful for her child’s life. But she had heard of this man who could heal the sick and the possessed. And reaching out on her faith, she approached the healer man whom she had heard could perform miracles; and she asked for his help—for his compassion. Imagine being her and what that must have been like. What a huge risk. What courage it must have taken for her to fight her way through the crowds to even get to Jesus. And then being met with such harsh rejection. How many of us would have at that point dissolved into a puddle or hung our head and walked away? But caring more for her sick child than for herself—her pride, her ego, her dignity—she persisted. She kept reaching out, and reaching out with her faith. She probably never stopped praying—even as she was being rejected. She avoided taking a position and rendering accusations at Jesus. Instead, she bravely reminded him of his own faith—all are deserving. She persisted with compassion. She spoke truth to someone more powerful than her without violence. Now imagine looking through her eyes at the conflict in our world today—not just between Israel and Palestine. But in other parts of our war torn world and even here in our own country—in Ferguson, Missouri, here in North Carolina, along the borders of Arizona, California and Texas.
Battles are waging and people everywhere are fighting for their place in the world—for security and safety, for healing, for dignity, for respect, for mutual recognition, for human rights. Too many people are dying fighting for their place, for their own security and worth. The human loss is devastating, staggering in Gaza and Syria and Iraq. The human loss is a tragedy in Missouri, in North Carolina and all along the US borders where innocent children and parents are simply seeking to find their place in this world.
Looking through the eyes of the Canaanite woman, I wonder if our most faithful response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to conflict wherever we may encounter it is to pray without ceasing—with whatever faith we have we must pray for peace, for compassion, for understanding, for mutual recognition—and in prayer step out on our faith. We must also be willing to reach out across the barriers that divide us into nations, ethnicities and religious groups. The way we live our lives must be congruent with our understanding of how God created us—as one human family. We must have the courage to be persistent in advocating for a universal understanding that God’s blessings, by whatever name you call God, rest on all of humanity. And that God created this world without borders and walls.
I cannot, we cannot stop the bombs and bullets that rain over the Gaza strip and the West Bank as we sit here in this sanctuary. But I can, and we can be about the work of building bridges between Jews, Muslims and Christians here in our community. I cannot, and we cannot broker a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I can, and we can pray for those who are in positions of power to negotiate a solution. We can, like the Canaanite woman, reach out to God for healing, be persistent in our faith, and confront the prevalent but misguided notion in our world that God’s blessing is for some and not for all.
Pro-Israeli/pro-Palestinian, it is always easier to take a side and say that side is right. It is much harder to stand in between and work at building a bridge across the chasm of difference. But that is exactly what the Canaanite woman did. Jesus’ initial response to her comes from his small self, his tribal identity as Jewish. But the Canaanite woman appealed to his larger true self, that part of him that knew God’s love as available to all, and that everyone has a place in God’s commonwealth. The Canaanite woman stood on her full humanity to build a bridge between who Jesus was in that moment and who he was to be as God’s faithful disciple.
This week, I will host here at Pullen a small group of clergy—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—who are struggling with how to respond to the devastating violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. It is a beginning conversation. And I ask for your prayers that bridges will be built.