“God is Change”

St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
August 16th, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:[10-20 omitted], 21-28

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to You, O Lord.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.

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Grace and peace to you beloveds, from God who is Creator, Christ who is Liberation, and the Holy Spirit who is Breath. Amen.

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This is a text of old prejudice. It’s a text of healing. And it’s a text of change.

There are a lot of hierarchies and systems of power that are at play between Jesus and the unnamed Canaanite woman in this story. The disciples dismiss her outright, and in their language, I hear an underlying accusation that she is too much, too loud, taking up too much space. She is marginalized due to her experience of gender in the world. Jesus ignores her, initially upholding a divide between their cultures, even as we know Jesus ministers at the margins. We don’t know the woman’s class background – some historians place her in a position of economic and cultural power over Jesus and his ministry, so why was she seeking out his help? Is the shared and combative history of the Canaanites and Israelites why Jesus says that his ministry is only for the lost sheep of Israel, not for old enemies? Jesus continues with a racialized and gendered slur, calling the woman (and by extension, those in her community) a dog. The world as-it-was would end the conversation there. The distance between Jesus and the unnamed Canaanite woman was wide when their interaction began, and then Jesus and the disciples added additional harm in their language, which should’ve made clear that the woman was not welcome to God’s grace.

But the woman was not willing to accept the world-as-it-was, where old prejudices and harm define the relationships that are possible. She knows that Jesus, even as he comes from a more marginalized culture, has something Divine to offer. She knows that she deserves to be heard and cared for, even as she comes from a more marginalized gender. They have something to offer each other, even as Jesus pushes her away with harmful language. The woman holds onto the potential for change, and changed relationships. I wonder if she is hoping for the same interdependence that sheep and dogs can have – they are not enemies, but collaborators in survival.

Her reply to Jesus has been interpreted many ways, and is fairly contentious. Is she accepting her position of marginalization by accepting the term dog? Is she being subversive and reclaiming the slur, similar to how queer has been reclaimed by some in the LGBTQIA+ community? Is she saying that she knows God is so abundant even crumbs from God, broken loaves and fishes, will be enough? There’s no way to know for sure, and we can notice the ways God is revealing Godself through this story – revealing a God of healing, and change.

I personally wrestle with the healing texts of Jesus, and I wonder if you do too, especially ones that seem to imply a direct link between faith and wellness. “Great is your faith, let it be done as you wish.” The woman’s faith is directly linked to her daughter’s healing. Yet our lived experience might tell us something different – that no matter how great our faith, suffering and death are still a reality in our world. That no matter how many times we cry out to Jesus for mercy, healing as we wish it doesn’t always happen.

I do find it important to make a distinction in Jesus’ ministry between healing and the exorcism of demons, especially for this text. My own faith background, which is very white, very western, hasn’t necessarily given me tools to understand the demonic. And, I’m not willing to discount the experiences and testimony of my interfaith and ecumenical colleagues who take demons and evil spirits seriously. A worldview that includes spirits creates more space for communal rather than individual lives, and gives us a framework to externalize evil. To acknowledge evil in our structures and systems and our relationships with each other. So in this text, I wonder what demons specifically are being exorcised through the faith of the unnamed woman in her exchange with Jesus.

The demons of interpersonal harm?

The demons of old prejudice?

The demons that say these two people have no need of each other?

Could it be that the woman’s faith in something else – her faith in the possibility of wellness for her child, her faith in the possibility of a different type of relationship with Jesus – is what exorcises her daughter? Her refusal to pass on the old prejudices, old hierarchies, to her child? Her faith in the abundance of God? Her belief in change? Is that the faith Jesus commends, that exorcises the demons of the world-as-it-was from her daughter?

One of my intentions for internship this year is to read more books. Growing up, I read a lot, but college and grad school turned it into a task that I was always behind on, instead of a space of imagination, dreams, and wonder. I’m starting with Parable of the Sower, a speculative fiction novel written by the late Octavia Butler. It was written in 1993, set in 2024, and it is not far-off from a possible trajectory of our world and our shared life with Creation. It’s a work of fiction, and it’s deeply theological. The refrain that is sticking with me when I read today’s Scripture, is that God is Change.

 From the Parable:    

“All that you touch

You Change.

             All that you Change

             Changes you.

             The only lasting truth

             Is Change.

             God is Change.”

In the story of the unnamed Canaanite woman, Jesus changes. God changes. God-in-flesh is not stagnant, but is constantly revealing Godself.  There is a transformational arc in this story, that changes attitudes of gender, of culture, of marginalization, of community. There is a change away from hierarchy, and towards something closer to interdependence. A rejection of “dog” as a slur, and an invitation to partnership between dogs and sheep for survival. Jesus and the disciples and the Canaanite woman and her daughter are all bound together through God, and through grace.

I think about the relationship between harm and accountability in this short piece of Scripture. Jesus and the disciples do harm in this conversation – in the ways the woman was ignored, in the language used towards her. There was historic harm done between their peoples. And even with that harm, the potential for change was never eliminated. Jesus was willing to be changed, modeling that behavior for the disciples, and for us. The old prejudices that the woman, the disciples, and Jesus brought to the interaction were not the end of the story. I wonder if they recognized the potential in each other to find common ground, liberation, and healing.

If God is Change then God constantly invites us into Change.  Into transformation, and interdependence, with God’s grace.

Where is God inviting you to change in your life?

Are there ways you are being asked to change your relationships, to be accountable to past harms, or to name your needs and refuse silence?

Where are you being pushed to dream, to imagine, different possibilities than the world-as-it-is?

And how can we support each other as we change, and grow together?

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