Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2020
Before we dive into the gospel story for today, we need to set the scene by rewinding a thousand years before the time of Jesus. After four hundreds years of slavery in Egypt and forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites have finally reached the border of the Promised Land. They come to the Jordan River. Moses has died along with his whole generation and a new leader, a new commander takes his place. With strength and courage, Joshua stands before the people of Israel and gives them their marching orders for entering the promised land: “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites…” (Joshua 3:10). And so they did.
The Israelites go from the wilderness into the land of promise by crossing that literal and figurative boundary, the Jordan River. But of course, as Joshua knows, other folks are living there. The land is already occupied by the Canaanites and a host of others. According to the Book of Joshua from which I just read, a military campaign ensues. The army of Israel crosses the Red Sea and wages war against the inhabits of the land, including the Canaanites. Under Joshua’s command they battle the Canaanites, killing some and putting others to hard labor. This is the story of Joshua the Israelite against the Canaanites. This story continued into the Book of Judges, a story of Israelite against Canaanite. A story of animosity. A story of vengeance. A story of war. A story of hate. A story of us and them.
Fast forward a thousand years and another Israelite named Joshua walks straight into Canaanite territory. Of course, the name “Jesus” is simply another way of translating the name “Joshua” from Hebrew. And notice from our reading of the Gospel of Matthew that this new Joshua, this Jesus, goes into land belonging to the Canaanites, the district of Tyre and Sidon. As good Old Testament scholars, our brains ought to be sending out alarm signals. Joshua the Israelite is invading the land of the Canaanites! We ought to be conjuring up images of Joshua crossing the Red Sea with his armed men. We ought to be prepared for a war story, of armies and generals and commanders and hard labor. We are ready for a fight, a fight like one from the days of old – Israelite against Canaanite.
But graciously, that is not what we read. Instead, we read about a woman desperate for any help she can get for her daughter. We read about a man gracious and compassionate and loving. Yes, he has his followers. But it is not an army, but a ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors. We read about old divisions, old differences, old wars, fading away. I know that it is easy, and nowadays quite popular, to read this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in a negative light. But that’s simple, and too cheap. Compared to the thousand years of open violence between the Israelites and the Canaanites from the time of Joshua to the time of Jesus, I would say that this conversation is actually quite lovely. Because again, as good Bible reading Christians, we ought to expect that an Israelite named Joshua would be leading a war against the Canaanites. But that is not what happens.
What does happen? Well, what happens is that this woman, this nameless Canaanite, this desperate mother exhibits the true nature of faith in the Lord Jesus. She begs him to help her daughter who is being tormented by a demon and she asks for mercy. And of course, being the merciful, compassionate Savior, Jesus heals her daughter instantly.
Read this passage too quickly and you’ll miss the whole point. The old story is being written. The old divisions between Israelite and Canaanite are gone. Jesus has done more than heal the woman’s daughter, he has healed the old wounds that have festered for a thousand years.
But more than that, Jesus shows to us that this new movement, this thing called the Kingdom of God, this thing called the Church is not defined by human distinctions. Male or female, Israelite or Canaanite, no longer matters. What matters is a faith in the Lord Jesus. We, you and I, are one with the Canaanite woman. We are one with anybody who begs Jesus for mercy and prays him to heal our wounds. Anyone and everyone who begs Jesus for mercy and prays the prayer of faith to him is now in this thing with us together. That is the new identity. And that is indescribably good news – the battle between peoples can now come to an end because God will take in anybody from anywhere, even a Canaanite.
But I also have hard news. The battle isn’t over, it’s only changed. Go back and read it, don’t skim over it too quickly. Remember, the Canaanite woman’s daughter is being tormented by a demon. The new Joshua, Jesus himself, has come not to wage war against the Canaanites but to fight the demons. Jesus is a general like Joshua of old, invading enemy territory. But Jesus is a commander for good and compassion and love and decency, and he is invading the territory of sin and evil and hatred and mistrust.
Now, I’m not the kind of person that thinks there is a demon behind every door. But I do know there are powers of darkness that would prefer us to hate each other. There are powers of darkness that would prefer for us to be sick rather than well. There are powers of darkness that like it when we humans bicker and feud and wage war against each other because that distracts us from the real battle. And the new battlefield is the human heart.
My friends, I ask you to be aware. Keep an eye out for those dark powers that are driving you to sickness, and death, and evil, and hatred of other people. Remember that in the Kingdom of God, those old distinctions are gone. As Saint Paul says, in Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, no male and female. Those battles we wage against other people only show that we are losing the real battle – the battle within.
So when you feel yourself being backed into corner, when you need some help, when you feel that darkness circling around you, when you are tempted to scorn other people, to look down on them, to mock them – call upon that mighty commander you have in the Lord Jesus. In the day of trouble ask him to fight the darkness within you – so that you can live that abundant, liberated life you want to live. Take the example of that nameless, faithful woman who we are proud to call our sister in the faith and call out to Jesus with that simplest of prayer: “Lord, help me.”
Note – I drew heavily from Stanley Haurewas’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew for this sermon (142-145). The book is entitled “Matthew” in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series.