Proper 15, Year A
In my experience, three forces running counter to discernment tend to pop up a lot -- especially where theology and politics (by which I mean power systems, not just party politics or civics) intersect (and isn't all theology really about politics too, if you think that God is the source of all legitimate power and authority?).
The first force is the conviction that you're already fully aware of what God wants. Give in to that, and you won't even start a process of discernment -- why bother, if you already have full access to everything God has to say on the subject?
The second force is the conviction that there's a person or group you don't need to listen to, as s/he or they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to contribute. Just think about what that would have done for the early church if, say, Ananias had decided that Jesus would never appear to someone who was an avowed, practicing, and notorious persecutor of the church, let alone call such a man as apostle to the Gentiles.
The third force is the conviction that if you knew what God was up to before, no further discernment is necessary. I think this last one just might be the most insidious for Christian leaders. After all, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, incarnation of the god who is the same yesterday, today, and forever -- right? And furthermore, changing course implies that the first course was a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a trustworthy Christian leader, you won't let anyone think that you've made a mistake either.
These temptations are particularly strong for leaders who, in their heart of hearts, feel both that authority is about knowing a great deal more than others in the community and that they don't really know enough to justify being in a position of leadership. Parents and priests are prone to it; while neither giving birth nor being ordained confers miraculous infusions of knowledge or maturity, congregations and families often have vastly inflated expectations for what three years of seminary or three decades of living will do for you, and we're often afraid that any course corrections will cause us to lose face, and will confirm what they probably already expect: we're not Jesus.
But how well does that picture we have of the ideal, unwavering Christian leader, the one who doesn't need to grow because s/he's already a spiritual giant, the one who treats engaging with other points of view as a sign of undesirable weakness, match the canonical picture of Jesus? Not well, if this Sunday's gospel is any indication.
In it, Jesus is confronted by a woman who calls out to him demanding his help. It's not at all surprising that Jesus doesn't answer her. I've blogged many a time about Jesus' culture being an honor/shame culture. In such a culture, answering someone who confronted you like that would register for all onlookers -- and for anyone who heard the gossip from the onlookers, which would spread like wildfire especially if anything unconventional happened -- as an admission from the person who responded that the challenger was at least an equal. Once Jesus responds to the woman, that's what everyone watching things thinks -- that Jesus is no better than she is.
Unless, that is, she's appealing to him in the proper way, as a subject to a king. Her address to him as "Son of David," and by extension king of Israel, might suggest that -- if, that is, she were an Israelite. Perhaps -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- that was on her mind when she cried out, and she'd hoped to pass as such -- anything to bring mercy to her daughter. But Jesus' reply to her makes clear that even if he's king, she's not his subject. In other words, Jesus took away his one face-saving excuse for what's about to happen.
What's about to happen is that Jesus is going to give in to her. She challenged him, and by answering, Jesus made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd. But then, after acknowledging that she is not an Israelite, Jesus engages her in more argument ...
... and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes course at a woman's word, and commends her for challenging him. I've heard people say that Jesus didn't really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely what he was doing, and he was testing the woman's faith to see whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for her daughter. And I don't buy it, for the simple reason that this isn't how the crowd who witnessed the historical evidence would have interpreted it and more than Matthew's readers would have, and I don't believe that Jesus would play mind games with a woman desperately seeking a cure for her daughter to score a point so obscure that nobody in his culture could have gotten it.
I think we're on more solid ground in thinking that what was going on was this:
Jesus was changed in that encounter. He chose to listen to someone whom others would have ignored, and he chose to act in compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how a true leader discerns mission.
The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz said of her visit to Auschwitz, "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place."
Discernment isn't about knowing who not to listen to either. Conventional wisdom would hold that someone who took counsel from a strange woman, a Canaanite woman, a woman who shouted out in the marketplace when she should have been home caring for her daughter, was not a good person from whom to take advice. And yet, Jesus, who compares himself to Wisdom herself in Matthew 11:18-19, is still open to hearing wisdom from the Canaanite woman.
And once we've discerned a genuine call, that doesn't mean it's what we're called to do at all times and under all circumstances, let alone that it's a call for all humanity. As I've blogged about before, I don't think that Jesus was blowing smoke when he talked in Matthew's gospel about a call to go to the House of Israel, even when there's persecution coming from Israelites. I don't think he was blowing smoke or playing mind games in this passage when he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel either. But I think that Jesus had a deeper sense of call, a deeper sense of what it would mean for him to be faithful, and that it included entering into relationship -- real relationship -- with others. That's what love means. And real relationship, loving relationship, changes everyone involved. Christian leaders are called to "keep the main thing the main thing," as they say, and the main thing in Christian community is that quality of relationship.
Thank God for that! Thank God that, as our scriptures testify, God is Love, and God is changed in loving relationship. God saw that humankind was inclined toward evil, and resolved to blot out evil people from the earth (Genesis 6:5-7). After the great flood, God sees the inclination of the human heart toward evil (Genesis 8:21), but God resolves nevertheless to hang up God's bow, God's weapon, forever (Genesis 9:12-17) -- never again to try to destroy evil by destroying evildoers. Jesus sent his disciples to the House of Israel, where he said he was called to gather lost sheep -- and then a pushy Canaanite woman unveils something more -- something that leads the risen Jesus to commission an apostle to the Gentiles. Just when we thought we'd seen the limits of God's love, that love grows.
Thus says the Lord: "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
-- Isaiah 56:1-7
Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.
Thanks be to God!
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Dylan, thank you, once again for confronting me with Jesus. I have struggling with this gospel all week. I've gone through every commentary I can get my hands on, have spent several hours trolling sermon sites on the web, and just writing my own reponse to it. I think you're on to something here: Jesus is in the process of becoming the Savior of the world--and it takes the world interacting with him to make him into the only One who can save it. I'm thinking too, that there may have been a parabolic dimension to what happened here (taking Mark's version into account): Jesus is deconstructing the bigoted anti-gentile attitude that his disciples maintain by acting just like them. Then his healing of the woman's daughter confronts them with the realization that Jesus is the whole world's Messiah, not just a Jewish savior. In any case, you've given me a start on Sunday and it's only Thursday. At least I won't be up all night on Saturday for a change. Pax Christi!
Posted by: Deacon Tim | Aug 11, 2005 9:55:41 PM
For me this particular woman is an example of faith in action. She is facing insurmountable odds. First she is not where she is supposed to be-outside of the box Secondly, she is rejected by the church simply because she is borne on the wrong side of the tracks. How many times have I experienced that scene? How many times have I fed scrumptously & denied others a slice of bread, simply because they are from the other side of the tracks.
I tried desperately not to associate with this woman. I truly felt we had nothing in common. But now I see her in a different light. She is looking for a way out of her situation. So often we do not pray in certian situations because from our standpoint the outlook is hopeless. She is at an all u can eat buffett but she is not allowed a crumb. How mant times have I come into the presence of the Lord standing in need of something that money could not buy? How many times have I seen others eating and yet my plate remains empty ? Even now as I blog, I stand at the table begging, waiting for things to be different- justice, equality, my own personal needs...
But what I like about her is that dispite her circumstances, she dared to ask! She dared to believe that things could be diffrent. The power of belief is incredible. She has a hunch, a theory, a beleif that The Lord never sends a hungry soul to an empty table...
Posted by: darryl | Aug 12, 2005 8:59:46 PM
Dylan, I said before how you inspire me to think outside the box. Like Tim above, I have been struggling with this passage all week, trying to glean a kernel that I could pass along to my parishioners on Sunday.
Jesus' attitude has always bothered me here. Your explanation seems so simple I don't know why I didn't see it before.
That Jesus would change his mind, or God would change his call to me has been a foreign idea, too. I have to give that much thought and prayer.
May God always be with you
Posted by: Joel | Aug 13, 2005 3:10:11 PM
I like what I read here, too. I am building my message around the themes of unity and mercy. Both are seen in all the texts for the day. You capture both in your remarks.
Posted by: Dave Stratton | Aug 13, 2005 8:53:47 PM
Dylan, thank you once again! You can't imagine how helpful were your insights into the forces against discerning the mind of Christ. In our church, which is United Church of Christ, we are still dealing with some significant fallout from the General Synod resolution on same sex marriage. So I'm preaching today on HOW we discern the mind of Christ and how to stay open to newness in that and how to do that together in the midst of diversity.
I also can't help but see reflected in this story Cindy Sheehan who is knocking on the door of the president's well-scripted, not-open-to-new-information life and asking for something on behalf of her child.
Posted by: Sharon | Aug 14, 2005 8:19:57 AM
Hi Dylan! I am a relatively new but regular reader of your blog. There are two comments I wanted to make about your post:
1) Part of my morning reflection on the Word given to us this Sunday included some thoughts about the almost blind and unbending conviction that one knows the mind of God. My prayerful discernment prepared me to receive with gratitude your statement: "The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion." That's wonderful, thank you.
2) Consider the way Matthew wedged this encounter right between Jesus' confontation with some Pharisees about the importance of washing hands before a meal (vv. 1-20) and the feeding of the multitude (vv. 32-39). Lots of good stuff here for reflection, such as the connection between the "scraps" that she receives and the "fragments" from the feeding, banquet themes, eating together around God's table (ecumenically speaking), who's allowed access to the table, etc.
Posted by: Andrew | Aug 14, 2005 8:57:14 AM
While I am NOT writing a sermon on this (fortunately for us all!) I found your comments very helpful. I have been greatly troubled by this scripture (still, again) and Sunday's sermon didn't do it for me.
I gotta work on that listening!
Posted by: Mary Beth | Aug 15, 2005 2:16:44 PM
Our parish priest recently preached that Jesus was guilty of prejudice against the Canaanite woman, and that Jesus also made some sort of mistake at the Wedding of Cana. In fact, isn't this some sort of heresy. Is not Jesus without sin? Does not Jesus have a divine nature? Jesus was without sin. To say that he did sin, seems to me do deny Jesus' divine nature. This is why it seems to me that St. Augustine was correct (below), and that some modern interpretations of this text are less than orthodox. St. Augustine stated: "she . . . cried out, eager to get help, and kept insisting. But she was ignored, not that mercy might be denied but that desire might be enkindled; not only that desire might be enkindled but, as I said before, that humility might be praised." St. Augustine, Sermon 77.1
Posted by: Miguel | Aug 23, 2005 1:18:33 PM
I read your blog regularly and enjoy it immensely. This weeks's reading about feasts and clothes reminded me of a teaching story by the Venerable Song Chol Sunim, a great Buddhist monk in the Korean tradition..
A collection of his Dharma talks can be found here: http://www.songchol.net/english/lectures/e-l-main.htm
- taken from "Respect All as Buddha" -
Centuries ago there was a national celebration, and all the senior monks in Korea were invited. Among the monks was one who lived an exceedingly frugal life. When he showed up at the palace gates in his tattered robes and wom-out shoes, the guards wouldn't let him in, and shooed him away. So the monk went somewhere nearby, borrowed some fancy new robes and returned. The guards started kowtowing left and right, and ushered him to the most honored seat in the room.
While the other monks were busy gorging themselves on all kinds of delicacies, this monk kept smearing the food onto his clothes. The other monks, startled, asked him why he was doing so. He replied, "Because the food is for the clothes, not for me," and he kept it up until his robes were covered completely.
The point is, of course, that you shouldn't treat people according to their appearance, according to what you see on the outside.
Posted by: Roy | Oct 5, 2005 5:11:53 PM
Yes. I think even Jesus's understanding of the wideness of God's grace was stretched by his encounter. As ours can be if we are willing to admit we remain learners all our lfe. Thank you fo your thoughts.
Posted by: Greg | Aug 11, 2008 10:38:31 AM
Thoughtful...and thought provoking. Necessary subversion. yearned for affirmartion.
Posted by: Mickey | Aug 15, 2008 9:37:45 AM
Thanks for the thought-provoking sharing in this site. This week's gospel is one of the most challenging and difficult texts for me to interpret and preach. For congregations having been saturated with fundementalist thoughts("thanks to" my predecessors!), to preach Mt 15:21-28 to them, saying Jesus wasn't know-it-all, he was also learning God's will like any human beings and finally he changed his mind, is very risky. It upsets their Jesus' image. It confronts them with the notion that the human Jesus's understanding wasn't perfect. It runs the risk of diminish his divinity at the same time uplifting his humanness.
Sermons that uplift Jesus' divinity are confirming/reassuring to their faltering faith, it sounds like a very good Jesus to believe in. It will be a perfect story about Jesus,yet His story would not be relevant to our life,namely, daily struggling with knowing more God's will for us.
Posted by: Jeff Shu | Aug 15, 2008 6:59:59 PM