“LISTENING TO THE EDGES”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 26, 2022
Matthew 15: 21–28
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that moment.
I like this passage because it is so ordinary. It is easy to forget that throughout his lifetime, Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature.” Jesus was a work in progress just like any of us. He just did it better than any of us. If you have any question about the humanity of Jesus, read this passage.
This Canaanite woman was beyond the edge of Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry. She did not belong to Jesus’ understanding of his mission. In fact, she was a member of an ancient enemy of the Jews. Jesus says explicitly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And when the woman persists, he goes further and dismisses her as undeserving of his care—“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” For Jesus, this ‘lost sheep’ belonged to another flock and she was on her own. It is one thing to leave the ninety nine to seek the one if they are all directly under your care, it is quite another to run across someone else’s lost sheep. We take care of our family first.
In real life it is very difficult to extend our sense of family much to the margins of our world, much less, to the enemies in our world. It took a minute for Jesus to see beyond the category ‘Canaanite’ woman to simply a desperate woman seeking help for her daughter. As long as he viewed her as a category, he could dismiss her as a person. When I asked for specific examples in our FIRL groups of people having to cope with people beyond their personal edge, the consistent theme was that changes occurred only when people started to actually connect. One woman described a grandson covered in tattoos. In her generation (and mine), only the ‘lost children’ wore tattoos. She still isn’t a big fan, but this particular grandson continues to regularly call and check in on her. She has come to enjoy a person she would have easily dismissed. In real life it is nearly impossible not to profile other people when we never actually meet them.
Similarly, another person spoke of his discomfort with the homeless (especially the panhandlers who hung around the church). He found them intrusive and he didn’t like it. Over a period of time, his attitude had shifted and I asked him how that had happened. Initially, he did not answer. But after some thought he re-entered the conversation and told us he thought it was because as a desk volunteer, he regularly handed out sandwiches to these same people. And while not always the case, he found the encounters to be congenial, polite and ordinary. ‘Homeless’ people simply became people— and when that happened, his attitude shifted.
There is a man (you can easily Google him), Daryl Davis, who was the only black child in a white cub scout troop. At ten years old, he was carrying the flag in a local parade when people started throwing rocks and bottles at him. Having grown up as a diplomat’s son and educated in integrated schools, such hostile behavior was a confusing mystery to him. He has spent the rest of his life seeking to understand the source of such animosity. To learn more, he has sought out and most extraordinary, befriended KKK members. He now has a closet full of KKK robes sent to him when these men left the Klan. He has been willing to encounter people way beyond the edge in order to actually meet people. He lives a faith that love matters and every bit of kindness matters.
This man’s example is rare. Most of us are more likely to react as Jesus did. First he ignored and then he actively dismissed the Canaanite woman. It was only because she persisted well beyond the social norms that Jesus took enough notice to listen to her. Just as it is not easy to listen to the edges of our world, it is not easy to speak when we are the ones on the edge. All of us have felt stereotyped and marginalized in some way. It may be our age (too young to know anything or too old to be relevant), our gender, our age, our politics, our faith—the list goes on and on. But however it happens, we are swimming upstream if we want to be heard. Our fears are not imaginary, they are ordinary. In real life, there are many times men do not listen to women and many women who enter conversations expecting to be dismissed—and vice versa. There are plenty of grounds for our stereotypical expectations. But as ordinary as these categories are, they interfere with actually meeting people. It takes conscious and usually uncomfortable effort to fight these impediments. And to be clear, just because we make the effort does not mean, there will be a good ending. Just this week a 57 year old female Methodist pastor was killed by a man she was ministering to. In real life, reaching to the edges is sometimes fatally dangerous. That was certainly Jesus’ ultimate experience.
The Canaanite woman became Jesus’ teacher. She knew Jesus was a Jew and she had no reason to think he would listen. She approached him anyway. In the story Jesus, in fact, does dismiss her. And as a practical point, she did so without responding in kind. That is the tricky part. She stayed personal. She did not label Jesus. She simply continued to make her request known. That takes courage, a willingness to hold her ground and a capacity to not get distracted by an unwelcome response. In real life, if you are on the margin, you can be pretty confident it will be difficult to be heard. You are wasting your breath if you stay indignant or think the other person should change. And you are wasting your time if you stay silent because you rightly expect an inhospitable response. The only control you have is how you present yourself. This woman did one hell of a job. In theological terms, this woman trusted her God given “I am”. That requires great faith.
I believe that witnessing that faith is what altered Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. He finally saw this woman—not in terms of categories, prejudices or stereotypes. He no longer saw a Canaanite woman. He saw a desperate mother who risked rejection to plead for her daughter. She was part of Jesus’ shift from living within his own bubble (serving the lost sheep of Israel) to the vision of the Great Commission—”Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Listening to the edges requires humility and the willingness to suspend our certainties. It is exactly those traits that are required to listen to God. Perhaps that is what it means to listen to the edges. If we are brave enough to listen, we will grow. If we are brave enough to speak, healing becomes possible. Jesus did both.
Follow Him. Let it be so.
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