Lesson St Matthew 15: 21 – 28
We live in unsettled and unsettling times. The virus has brought all sorts of stresses to everyday life. At home and abroad, there is political upset and upheaval. Far from being safer and more stable, the world seems more dangerous and volatile. There are personal sadnesses also, including the train derailment near Stonehaven. In your own story, there will be anxieties and perhaps new burdens to carry. Though the weather for several months has been glorious with hours of sunshine and scorching heat, some of us may feel beleaguered: the continuing restrictions on public worship seem unfair and we truly miss the friendship and spiritual nourishment of being together.
I have a sense that, amidst all the drama and turmoil of our world, as people of faith we live on the edge. We live between two worlds: the world of politics, power struggles, poverty and personal suffering and the reality of God; the spiritual life, the life of peace, tranquillity and eternity. In our Gospel lesson today, in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, the scene opened when Jesus left behind the demands and familiarity of his Galilean home and journeyed to the coast, to the lands of Tyre and Sidon. ‘Coast’: the very word suggests a liminal space, a boundary or threshold between two worlds: the messy, sometimes painful world of human affairs and the healing solace of the Ethereal, the Sacred.
Jesus had had months of travelling, teaching and preaching and, finally, He withdrew to the fresh, cool breeze of the Mediterranean coast. I like to think of Him standing at the water’s edge, breathing in the warm sea air, His eyes dazzled by the vastness of the sea and His ears filled with the rhythmic sound of breaking waves. So often in His life, Jesus withdrew from the crowds, from the many voices calling after Him; the strained faces and the suffering. In our Reformed, Presbyterian tradition, perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on words and actions: our worship is full of words and our churches measure themselves by activity, by the amount of practical caring we undertake. In the life of Jesus, there was a place, a significant place, for withdrawal, seclusion, solitude and inner silence.
How many times do we read that Jesus got up early while it was still dark and sought a solitary place, a lonely place, where He prayed? At times, He stood alone by Lake Galilee or, at night, went out to a mountainside by Himself. He taught His disciples to pray in private and, during His final hours of freedom when arrest and death were near, Jesus knelt alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus went to the coast.
It was while on retreat that Jesus was met by ‘a woman of Canaan’. Her daughter was grievously unwell and in desperation she called out to Jesus. In the King James Version, we are told, ‘He answered her not a word’. However, she persisted and knelt before Him. He replied, ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs’. This is a difficult text because, on the face of it, it appears as though Jesus referred to this desperate woman as a dog. He had used that insult before. In His extended teaching following the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’. For Jesus, the bread of which He spoke was the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures. Vigorously, He encouraged His followers to feed spiritually on the poetic stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Elijah and the Psalms and not to mingle with Gentiles, with Canaanite dogs. Yet, He walked for days to the coast, to the Gentile country of Tyre and Sidon.
What is most striking in His encounter with the woman is that, when confronted by her, He remained silent. He paused, stood still and gave no answer. His disciples called on Him to rebuke her and send her away but – remember – He had chosen to journey to this place. In that motionless moment, what do you see happening? I see His eyes meeting hers, the gentle eyes of a tender God penetrating deep into her soul; in the heat of the day, it was a silent, intimate sharing, soul to soul, deep calling to deep. In response to the demands of the disciples, mischievously as if predicting her reply, Jesus recited the traditional thinking: God’s word meant nothing to dogs, to Gentiles. In heartfelt honesty, she spoke of her faith and her primal need of God’s touch. With love, He commended her for her faith and told her that her daughter had been made whole. Wholeness is more than a cure; it is fulfilment, shalom, and inner healing. The daughter was made whole and the woman too was made whole.
In 1996, a group of Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Sufi Muslims met on an interfaith retreat in Poland, on the grounds of two former concentration camps. Every morning they walked an hour from Auschwitz, where they slept, to Birkenau. They gathered on the railroad tracks where, fifty years earlier, the sick were separated from the healthy, the homosexual from the heterosexual, and children from their parents. Sitting down in the snow with their breath visible before them, they sat in silent meditation twice a day. Amidst the pervading memory of human suffering and horror, some present spoke of joy. One said, ‘It was as if the souls of those who died were handing over to us the feelings that were prematurely taken away from them….This gift of life was completely unexpected’.
The coast, that liminal space, can be anywhere. Our moment of silent encounter with Jesus, with the Sublime, sensitises us to suffering but also restores, makes whole, our souls, birthing us new life. Sit with Jesus on the coast. Amen.