Thursday, August 21, 2014

Getting to the End

Part of my spiritual discipline is to read the upcoming Sunday's lessons every day during the week. At some point--usually in the morning--I navigate my web browser to the site and look at what's coming up on Sunday. This week, a funny thing happened. I made it half way through the week before I noticed the last line of the gospel lesson.

The last sentence of the reading is, "Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah" (Matthew 16:20). Someone in our weekly staff meeting pointed that sentence out to me, and I reread it thinking, "Wait a minute! When did that get in there?" I'm not 100% sure why I missed it, but I think it was partly because Peter's confession--"you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"--was so bold that my brain did not pick up what my eyes read in the last line. In other words, I was so excited about the revelation of Jesus' true identity that I didn't hear him say to keep it a secret. I wonder if the disciples felt the same way.

In my role as a priest, I am occasionally told things before they become public. "We're getting a divorce, but we haven't told the kids yet." "We're expecting a baby, and we need your prayers, but we aren't telling anyone about it yet." "I'm getting ready to retire and close my business, but that isn't public knowledge yet." Usually, when someone shares news like that with me, they don't need to tell me not to repeat it. It's pretty well understood that clergypersons keep things like that to themselves. Still, sometimes the news is so big that I find myself pastorally reacting to the first part without considering the second. "Oh, you're getting a divorce" runs through my mind long before "Wait, you haven't told your kids? When will that happen?" In truth, sometimes the not-telling is bigger than the news not being shared.

How would Peter and the other disciples keep that news to themselves? This isn't an ordinary sort of realization. We're not talking about someone who found out she has cancer or who just got a big promotion. This is the messiah. Note that the NRSV capitalizes the "M" and the "S" in the titles given to Jesus by Peter. That reflects an interpretation that Peter isn't just attributing anointedness to Jesus--that he has messianic properties. By saying "the Messiah," Peter means the one we've all be waiting for. How do you keep that to yourself? Why would Jesus want them to keep it a secret? What does that say about Jesus' messiahship--that it wasn't time to share it yet?

Sometimes we, like Peter, discover a truth that is bigger than we can imagine, and it takes us a while to figure out what it really means. With a gift from God above, Peter stumbles onto the truth about Jesus. He makes the intellectual leap, connects all the dots, and identifies the miracle worker he's been wandering around with as the one Israel has been waiting for. Although the truth was out, it wasn't time to share it yet because, even though Peter said the right thing, he didn't know what he was talking about. The verses that follow show Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, Peter objecting, and Jesus saying to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" That's because knowing the answer doesn't mean understanding the concept. It's not that Peter made a lucky guess, it's that he had the right answer even before he was ready to give it. What about our faith?

Have you ever met someone who had recently experienced a conversion of sorts and who couldn't stop talking about their new-found truth? Although they usually can't see it, others quickly discover that they can be pretty annoying. Have you ever been that person? I have. The good news is that getting the right answer is an important first step, but it is only the first step. The journey of faith is about figuring out what to do with the truth that God has led you to see. Inspiration comes in a moment, but understanding takes time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge: Why the Church?

When I saw this week's Acts 8 BLOGFORCE challenge--to answer the question "Why the church?"--I was immediately taken back to a sidewalk encounter I had in downtown Montgomery several years ago. It was the middle of a hot summer day. I had left Kiwanis and was walking back to the church when I saw someone I had not had contact with in almost ten years. He had been my co-counselor at a summer camp in north Alabama. We had spent a summer working there together, and one of those months was spent in the same cabin, looking after ten boys as if we were their parents. We made sure they brushed their teeth and changed their underwear. We tucked them in at night and took them to the bathroom if they woke up needing to go. There were a few moments when our "parenting styles" came into conflict, but we worked them out. We departed on good terms, but our divorce had been prearranged, and neither of us made an effort to keep up.

We began the conversation with pleasantries--trying to fill in a decade's worth of personal history. I was wearing a clerical collar, which makes it hard to hide my profession. He asked about my church, and I nervously told him where I was serving as a curate. The camp where we worked was and still is a Christian camp with strong ties to a particular denomination (not the Episcopal Church). I recalled that many of the counselors were very committed to their own expression of church, and, while working there, I tried to avoid denominational conversations among counselors for fear of getting into a "how-can-you-believe-that!" argument. Standing on this sidewalk, having experienced a hardening of denominational lines in the ten years since we last saw each other, I hesitated to return the question, but southern etiquette required me to show interest, so I asked. Where do you go to church? The answer shocked me.

"I'm not going to church," he said, but he showed no sign of embarrassment or hesitation when he spoke. In fact, he said it proudly. "Really?" I said, not knowing how to interpret this brazen heathenism. "Yes," he answered, reaching into his jacket pocket. As he handed me some religious literature, he explained that the church is a sign of evil in the world, that it has become corrupted, and that real disciples of Jesus were following their Lord and Savior without any institutional affiliation. Part of me admired him for leaving the kind of denominational hardlinership that we had experienced at camp, but another part of me quickly recognized that he was nuts. (Remember, I'm the one wearing the clerical collar--he was talking about me!) He launched into an explanation that I cannot really remember, but I left thinking three things: 1) I have no idea how you can be a Christian without any affiliation with church, 2) his strategy had merely substituted the formalized doctrines of "no church" for the church he had left, and 3) I wanted to avoid bumping into him in the future.

The church is the body of Christ. The Son of God is still incarnate, and the collection of believers that exist on this earth are the manifestation of that incarnation. The world might not need all of the churches we've got, but the church exists because there are believers. In other words, one doesn't need to belong to a church in order to be a Christian. One is a part of the church simply because one professes to follow Christ. In a very real way, the question "Why church?" has a simple and unavoidable answer: "because there are Christians." You can't have one without the other--no matter how wayward you believe that the institutional church has gone.

Throughout history, there have been repeated movements to reestablish the primitive church of the apostles. These groups argue over things like whether there must be one cup at Communion, whether music is allowed in worship, and what sort of headdress women are required to wear. Often, these movements are propelled both by a desire to get in touch with ancient expressions of Christianity and to leave behind a current expression with which the group is unsatisfied. The point is that human beings will always be dissatisfied with the institutional manifestations of Christianity, and they will continue to tweak them and abandon them and reestablish them and all because church is unavoidable. It is who we are.

This seems to be one of those times when churches are reinventing themselves. Shifts in secular culture, advances in science and technology, and internal disputes within the church have led us to a point where people are asking questions like "Why church?" I, for one, am not discouraged. Think about the apostle Paul and the challenges he faced in his various churches. He had a hard time getting them to respect one another's authority (1 & 2 Corinthians). He struggled to get them to sit down with one another (Galatians). He even had a hard time convincing them to believe in the basic principles of the faith (1 & 2 Thessalonians). But the institutional church--with its orders of ministry and forms of initiation and hierarchical affiliation and financial controls--arose with alarming speed. Within half of a century after Jesus' death and resurrection, the church (largely as we know it today) already existed.

When I think of the question "Why church?" I feel a tension between the human institution that modern Christians know and with which they claim affiliation and the sacred institution ordained by Christ as the entity against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (see this Sunday's gospel lesson). But remember that Christ is fully human and fully divine. That is the basis of the incarnation, and it is the foundation of the church. We are a painfully human institution, but that is why God became flesh--to experience pain. We are a broken body, but that is why God's Son came to earth--to take our brokenness upon himself. Why church? Because we are the body of Christ--literally. That's where we start. We can be no other. What it means to be that body and how we are to respond to that identity are questions for another day...and another BLOGFORCE challenge.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violence Begets Violence

This article was featured in today's parish newsletter at St. John's in Decatur, AL. If you would like to read the whole newsletter, please click here.

A few weeks ago—before Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri—I heard an interview on NPR of R. Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol, who spoke about the recent use of deadly force in his agency. The part of the interview that really caught my ear was his recollection of a mistake he had made while serving as Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington. Having heard from his officers that they had felt underequipped during a hostile protest on the first anniversary of the World Trade Organization demonstrations, he went against his instincts and allowed them to “harden up” with full riot gear during a Mardi Gras celebration a few months later.

When the alcohol-infused crowd became raucous, things escalated more quickly, and a young man was killed. Of his decision, Kerlikowske said, “Well, to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you're talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look, let's, let's tone this down. Let's calm things down…’ It's pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you're hardened up. I regret that today.” In other words, the crowd’s violent tendencies were exacerbated by the police, who, because of their riot gear, added to the tension rather than deescalated it.

Recently, I have read several pieces that clergypersons have written about the shooting of Michael Brown, the police’s response to the incident, and the community’s outrage over the death. Some of them draw clear conclusions about what happened and who is at fault. Others are more speculative, exploring the societal implications of the death of a young unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer. My tendency is to trust that in time the truth about what happened eventually will come out, and thus far I have resisted the temptation to decide who is to blame, but I confess that I have already reached one conclusion: the violence will not stop.

In Matthew 26, we read that, after supper, Jesus and his disciples had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. That night, Judas led a great crowd armed with clubs and swords to that place so that they might arrest Jesus. When confronted by the authorities, Peter took out his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. But his attempt to defend his master was thwarted by Jesus himself: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew makes it clear that a victory by force was within Jesus’ power—“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”—but that was not the means by which God’s triumph would be declared. Instead, Jesus submitted to the violence that awaited him so that, through his death, God’s real victory might be achieved.

We live in a world where the powerful rule by force, but we worship a God who reigns through the power of peace. On the playground, bullies get their way by scaring the other children. In the streets, gangs control the community through intimidation. On the world’s stage, developed nations exert their will through economic and military might. But, in God’s kingdom, the meek inherit the earth; the righteous turn the other cheek; and the peacemakers are blessed.

In a bible study yesterday, someone asked that we pray for an end to the violence…and then he paused, not knowing how to put into a few words the long list of places where peace is absent. Indeed, violence seems to rule the day. We pray for peace in Ferguson, where protesters clash with police. We pray for peace in Gaza, where civilian casualties are mounting. We pray for peace in Syria, where fighting knows no limits. We pray for peace in Iraq, where religious militants are taking over parts of the country. We pray for peace in Ukraine, where nations seem ready to spill innocent blood. We pray for peace around the world—in every country, in every city, in every household.

Peace begins with us. We worship a God who demonstrated his might by choosing death on the cross, and we are called to take up our own cross and follow him. His example must be the pattern for our lives. The cross is not a weapon but a symbol of submission. If violence will ever cease, it must begin with us. We must put down our guns and knives and swords and clubs and tear gas and stones and instead wield the symbol of our faith as a sign of strength through weakness, power through powerlessness, and victory through defeat. Peace is not the business of diplomats or far-away governments. It is not the work of mediators in war-torn areas or negotiators in riotous communities. It is the work of the church. It is the work of the faithful. It is the work of you and me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Putting Christ Back in Christianity

“That preacher is the next Billy Graham!” an excited worshipper said after hearing a young clergyperson deliver a powerful, heart-wrenching sermon.

“He’s a prophet—a new Martin Luther King!” a member of the crowd exclaimed after listening to the brilliant oratory of a rising star who called for justice.

“The future of the party rests on his shoulders—the next John Kennedy!” a pundit declared, summing up the attitude of the whole political convention.

Comparisons to great historical figures are dangerous. They might contain a thread of truth, but, in time, they usually disappoint us. Maybe the next John F. Kennedy is out there somewhere, but I doubt any of us know who she or he is. Perhaps the next election cycle will send important, selfless, visionary people into office, but we cannot expect a cookie-cutter replica of someone from the past. We might dream of it being true, and we might even stretch comparisons too far, but they almost never work because life doesn’t work that way.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matt. 16:13-20), using a self-referential title popular in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus asks his disciples who the Son of Man is. The answers include John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah. In other words, people can tell that Jesus is someone special, but they haven’t quite pinned him down yet. Like a team’s new quarterback, Jesus’s style of play is being compared with that of the hall-of-fame talents who have gone before. He’s a little like this and little like that. But, whoever he is, they can tell that he’s a great figure worthy of the most reverential comparisons. We’re not talking second-tier, here. This is as good as it gets.

Still, though, something is missing. Jesus is different from all of them. How so? “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That’s a risky thing to say—far riskier than comparing Jesus with one of the greatest prophets of the Jewish tradition. To call someone “the messiah” is to elevate the talk to a whole new level. There is no room for disappointment anymore. Either you’re the messiah, or you’re not. There’s a difference between being great and being God’s anointed one. Ontological categories that only have room for one make for bold and dangerous identifications. What will this mean—to call Jesus the messiah?

Jesus lets us know that Peter is right—that God the Father himself has revealed that truth to him. It’s a break-through moment that has its own observance on the liturgical calendar (The Feast of the Confession of St. Peter on January 18). That means that with Jesus no comparison is accurate. He’s not like any other. He’s unique. That is a fundamental principle of Christianity. Jesus is the God-Man. He’s the incarnate one. He’s not just a prophet with a wonderful message. Despite what our 21st-century sensibilities might want us to say, he’s not just another way up the mountain of psycho-social fulfillment. He’s different. We can’t dismiss the uniqueness of Jesus as an accident of history—an anachronistic doctrine worth revisiting. Without Jesus being like no other, our faith falls apart, and we might as well turn all of our churches into art galleries and concert halls.

After Peter’s amazing statement, Jesus says something remarkable: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Forgiveness of sin is something that belongs to God alone. Jesus gets in trouble for this right from the start of his ministry. (For example, read Matthew 9:1-8, where Jesus proclaims the forgiveness of a paralytic before offering him physical healing.) Jesus shows the world that he has the authority to forgive sins—authority given to him (note “Son of Man” in Matt. 9:6) by his father. Jesus then gives that authority to his apostles. That isn’t possible unless Jesus is who he says he is. And, if we have any hope of being reconciled to God, we need that authority to be real.

This Sunday is a chance to explore the uniqueness of Jesus. Thus, it’s a chance to ask, “Why are we Christians, anyway?” More and more, it seems the instinctive answer has something to do with “being good” or “doing good things for other people.” But, if that’s the case, we aren’t Christians; we’re just secular humanists who like a midmorning snack of bread and wine. Let’s get back in touch with the particularity of Christ. He is more than a teacher, more than a prophet, more than a spiritual guru. He is the one who has the authority to reconcile us to God and to give that power of reconciliation to those who carry out his ministry in his name. We’re still months away from Christmas, but let’s not wait to put the Christ back in Christianity.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ordinary People with Nothing to Lose

August 17, 2014 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

American Beauty is one of those movies that a priest cannot recommend from the pulpit because of its salacious content, but, tucked in amidst all of its titillating scenes are several eye-opening moments of deep theological reflection. One of those comes near the beginning of the film when Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, is fired from his job for clear insubordination. In the exchange with the human resources officer, Lester demands a lavish severance package, using extortion and unveiled threats of the basest sort. When the H. R. guy calls him a “sick [fellow],” Lester responds, “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”

That’s the story of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel lesson—an ordinary woman with nothing to lose. She was from the region around Tyre and Sidon—an area north of Jewish territory. She was a Gentile, and Matthew labels her as a Canaanite to les us know that she came from a culture and religion that were not acceptable to faithful Jews like Jesus and his disciples. Normally, she would have nothing to do with Jesus just as he would have nothing to do with her. But her daughter was possessed by a demon, and, like most of the mothers I know, she was willing to do anything to help her child.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” the woman cried, but Jesus answered her not a word. Undeterred by his refusal to acknowledge her plea, the woman kept pestering the disciples, begging over and over for help. Finally, annoyed at her persistence, the disciples came and asked Jesus to send her away, but Jesus replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Still unwilling to accept defeat, the desperate mother flung herself at Jesus’ feet and implored him to heal her daughter. But Jesus looked down at her and said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—a direct refusal of the harshest sort. But the woman did not give up. She had nothing to lose.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Those are the words of a woman with nothing to lose. She knew that the only way her daughter would be healed was if Jesus would grant her request. Her faith was born from that place of desperation—the recognition that her only hope was Jesus. So she gave it her all. To her, humiliation meant nothing. The faith that she showed did not come from her ancestors. She had not learned about God in the synagogue. Instead, this Canaanite woman, who had no place among God’s people, demonstrated an unrivaled faith that was born from a desperate mother’s only hope.

Where does your faith come from? Is it something you inherited from your parents? Is it based on something you heard a preacher say? Or have you known the faith that comes from having nothing to lose? You might not feel as desperate as the Canaanite woman, and I hope you’re not as twisted as Lester Burnham. But we are all just ordinary people with nothing to lose. God alone offers you a love which can carry you through this life and beyond. God alone is your salvation. God alone can rescue you even from death itself. If the God who made us and loves us is our only hope, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves down at his feet, empty ourselves of all that we have, and give our lives to him completely? Amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Faith of a Foreigner

We are a “Track Two” parish, which means that we read the second of the optional Old Testament readings on the Sundays after Pentecost. That is a feature of the Revised Common Lectionary. Track Two is closer to the old Episcopal lectionary, which pulls in Old Testament readings that theoretically tie in thematically with the other readings. Track One, on the other hand, is also known as the option with “semi-continuous readings” because its Old Testament readings move more or less straight through a particular part of the Hebrew Bible. This year (Year A), those readings have been in Genesis. Some of the greatest stories of the bible are found in Genesis, and there have been several weeks this summer when I have read the Track One option with moderate preacher’s envy as I dream of preaching on a text that isn’t ours. This Sunday, however, I’m grateful for Track Two.

In Isaiah 56, the prophet declares,

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.

I doubt that Sunday morning is the right time for a sermon about the development of Judaism during the Babylonian exile, but it’s worth mentioning here that the words of Isaiah 56 reflect some substantial theological shifts that occurred during and after the period when the people of Judah were separated from their homeland and their temple. These were surprising words for a people who had been ransacked by foreigners. This was quite a turn from the days when the Lord asked his people to kill every man, woman, child, and animal that dwelt in the land they were coming in to occupy. This is a new teaching—not just to accept the foreigner living in your land but to include foreigners in the ritual temple worship—the religious cult that had always been exclusively Israelite. At some point during their darkest hour, God’s people recognized that the vision of that great day when God’s reign would be established across the earth incorporated the participation of foreigners in the religion of Israel.

But not just any foreigner would be included. Only those who “join themselves to the Lord” in a faith that is defined by loving the Lord’s name, serving him, keeping the sabbath, and holding fast the covenant would be accepted. What sort of foreigner might this be? Who might qualify? And, more importantly, when would this great day ever be accomplished? When would God’s house truly be a “house of prayer for all peoples?”

One day, when he withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was met by a Canaanite woman who came to him seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter. At first, he ignored her. Then, when pestered by his annoyed disciples, Jesus declared that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Finally, the woman came to him, begging for help, and he dismissed her as one would shoo away a stray dog. But the woman had faith—enough to see that salvation’s crumbs that fall from Israel’s table were all that she needed. And Jesus honored that faith by giving her what she wanted and by praising her for her faithfulness.

Times change. Sixty years ago, a black man could not even sit at a southern lunch counter. Now, we have a black president. Ninety-five years ago a woman did not have the right to vote. Now, women’s votes are courted by every national candidate. One hundred fifty years ago our nation was divided over whether a human being could be owned by another. What about five hundred years ago? What about two thousand years ago? What about four thousand years ago?

The tension that makes Sunday’s gospel reading worthwhile is the friction between the expected faithlessness of the Canaanite woman (reflected in Jesus’ treatment of her) and the surprising discovery of real faith within her (reflected in her statement about gathering up the crumbs). To ask why Jesus was so cruel to her is, in a way, to miss the point. He was supposed to ignore her. She wasn’t supposed to get it. Jesus’ treatment of her isn’t as much about Jesus’ internal motives as it is about society’s expectations of a Canaanite woman. He needed to treat her like that in order for us to marvel at her faithfulness. Whether there was a part of Jesus who knew exactly what would happen isn’t important. We need him to be surprised because we need to be surprised. The woman’s faith is that unbelievable. Like God’s inclusion of the foreigner, her faith is so remarkable that no initial treatment is too harsh—no comparison is too degrading. We must inhabit that place of shocking inclusion by starting from the shocking reality that we shouldn’t be included either. But, by God’s grace, we are. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

All In a Name

In the bible, names can tell us a lot about the subtext of a various situation. I have a feeling that if I knew my Hebrew bible any better I would make a lot more of the connections that the New Testament authors are trying to lead me to. One of those, I think, is found in Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:10-28). After withdrawing to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is met by a Canaanite woman, and I don’t think it’s an accident that she is described as such.

When was the last time you met a Canaanite? References to Canaan or the Canaanites only appear three times in the New Testament—once in this story,  once in Stephen’s account of salvation history in Acts 7, and once in Paul’s speech in Antioch in Acts 13. The latter two examples are historical references—men reminding others of what happened a long time ago. Matthew’s use of the word is startling because it places a present-day woman in an ancient context. (Note that Mark uses “Syrophonecian” to describe the woman in 7:34—also an anachronistic term but one that Matthew seems deliberately to have shaded to provide a more powerful contrast by digging deeply into Israel’s history.)

The Canaanites were the people who occupied the land before Israel came in and took it from them. They weren’t just Gentiles. They were the ones standing in the way of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the ones whose indigenous faith needed to be eradicated before the Israelite religion could be established in the land. This anachronistic reference brings this story to a whole new level. We are no longer dealing with a non-Jewish woman. Jesus is confronted by a representative of the exact opposite of Judaism. That means this story isn’t just a shocking tale of Jesus’ rejection of the woman but an incredible story of her faithfulness and eventual inclusion in the healing ministry of David’s son.

In other words, the word “Canaanite” shifts this story from “Why did Jesus do that?” to “Of course Jesus did that!” The reader isn’t supposed to dissect Jesus’ motive in excluding her. That isn’t the interesting part. The reader is led by Matthew to assume his harsh behavior. The part that leaves us scratching our heads is the faith of the Canaanite—the one whose ancestry was defined from Israel’s perspective by faithlessness. The right way to take Jesus’ harshness seriously isn’t to try to understand why he was being cruel or racist but to marvel at the theological shift that is accomplished in the end.

In the preceding verses (15:10-20), Jesus confronts the Pharisees about religious dietary practices. There was a dispute between them about how fastidious a faithful Jew would need to be in order to honor his or her religious heritage. Must a cup or plate be washed in a ritual fashion? Must the hands be washed for ritual purity and not just for hygiene? Jesus’ answer shows that purity or impurity starts within. It isn’t the prescribed observance that makes someone pure; the observance is a reflection of the purity that is found inside the heart of the believer. In this dispute, Jesus is pushing the boundaries of religious acceptance. Matthew is setting the stage for what follows. The encounter with the Canaanite takes the disputed question in the preceding bit and blows it apart.

It is no accident, I think, that the epistle reading is from Romans 11: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” Within forty years of Jesus’ death, the Jesus movement has transformed from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to “Believe it or not, God is still faithful to his covenant people.” The story of the Canaanite woman is the transformation of the Christian movement in miniature. Jesus is harsh to her because he is supposed to be—that’s what the religion of the day would expect. That Jesus accepts her reveals that God is able to honor the faithfulness of even the least likely person. There are no religious boundaries anymore.
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