12 Pentecost, Proper 15 – August 20, 2023
I recently learned how a lobster grows. Did you know that a one-pound lobster can grow to be a three-pound lobster, even a ten-pound lobster? So, the question is, how does a lobster grow while protected and confined by a hard shell? I learned that when a lobster becomes crowded in its shell and cannot grow anymore, by instinct, it travels out to some place in the sea, hoping for relative safety, and it begins to shed its shell. This is a dangerous process – the lobster has to risk its life, because once it loses its shell and becomes terribly vulnerable, it can be dashed against a reef or eaten by another fish. But that is the only way it can grow. Staying trapped in a tight shell would cause the lobster’s stagnation and premature death.
And so it is with us, right? We are designed to grow, to mature, not just physically, but also emotionally, spiritually. Br. Curtis Almquist shares: “Someone has said that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I know that I am much more faith-full today than I’ve ever been before in my life… in part because I am certain of much less than ever before in life.” Posing the question a bit differently. “This may sound a little risky. What don’t you believe any more? Have you been spiritually weaned from anything you once held dear, felt certain about? I’m not in any way suggesting that, in the past, your belief in God or your experience of God was not real or true. Nor am I suggesting that God was not really present in the ways you once knew or sensed God. Quite to the contrary. It seems to me that in Jesus, we see how God is very prepared to stoop to us, to meet us on our own plane, to catch our attention and bid us follow in ways which are familiar and safe and inviting. Christ waits for us; Christ also waits on us and comes to us.… and yet, God is More. Always More, in ways beyond which we could have thought or imagined or experienced. There is larger life outside of the hard shell.
In today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in foreign territory, namely, the “district of Tyre and Sidon”. It marks a transition in the focus of Jesus’ ministry. It show us Jesus changing.
Matthew’s story features a Canaanite woman. The reference to “Canaanite” evokes historical conflicts and defines the woman in terms of age-old prejudices that a first-century Jewish audience would have understood. Jesus seems to be going by an old script for such interactions. To our ears, what follows is appalling but to the faithful in Matthew’s community, he reacts to the woman’s request as they would expect of a rabbi in those days. She represents Israel’s notorious ancient foe—the Canaanites! Traditional religious practices and prejudices, designed to guide Israel’s relationship with “outsiders” and “enemies”, would support Jesus’ brusque dismissal of her desperate concern for her daughter. First, he gives her the silent treatment. Then the disciples get into the act: “tell her to lower her voice!” “she’s being annoying!” Then Jesus says (in words that seem to shore up his rabbinic credentials) “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. It only gets worse! When she comes kneeling before him, Jesus insults her. She looks to him like a dog begging for crumbs under the table! It is ritualized humiliation.
The tension in the encounter is released with a simple statement of faith. This Canaanite woman has named Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of David,” but when she declares her utter dependence on God’s Grace, Jesus’ tradition-shaped heart breaks open. “Woman, great is your faith!” he declares.
Before our very eyes we see Jesus changing, awakening to the reality that God was choosing and desiring to love not just those of Jesus’ own background and experience – his fellow Jews – but also to love us, those of us who were born as Gentiles. The breadth of God’s love is dawning on Jesus before our very eyes.
So, what about our ongoing conversion? Are we willing to take some risks and shed our hard shells to grow? Are we willing to change our minds, like Jesus? What about our relationships with others? Do we tend to believe that we are always “right” and others who are different than us, in the “wrong”?
Simone Weil, the French philosopher, says that our most profound and reverent posture toward another human being is “hesitation,” of pausing before we judge or exclude or pretend we can fully understand another person. It’s a respectful pause, especially toward those who are different. We hear the wisdom in the Letter of James’ saying, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Perhaps it is a good thing to listen a great deal more, rather than to presume that you are right and need to put others in the right. We tend to think of Jesus as looking and acting like us. Let’s not presume that any more. I want to grow into the image of Christ, who consistently identifies with those who are least or last or lost on me.
God is always More. And if God, to you, is not something More – more, in ways beyond which you have thought or imagined or experienced – then God will likely be something less, probably something created in your own image. Conversion is about our ongoing invitation from God to change, to come to maturity in this life, “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” who himself changed — his own heart of love broken wide for the whole world.
The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again. The Canaanite woman has the best lines in this story, but Jesus has the last word: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Not “Canaanite woman” but simply “woman.” She will never be defined by national or racial or religious prejudice again. She is now a mother like any other who desperately seeks help for her child. And for this mother’s sake, Jesus heals her daughter. And perhaps Jesus heals us, too, from the temptation to hang on to old stereotypes and habits that prevent us from embracing our common humanity.
Is it time to shed our hard shells to grow in grace? Jesus is with us as we take this journey of faith and life. Amen.