I guess this proves I’m getting old. I just took a vacation to Branson, MO, of all things. Yet, it’s one of the more entertaining vacations I’ve ever taken. So chalk it up to “wisdom.” Two weeks before my vacation was to start, a church member asked me if I would mind visiting one of her neighbors who’s been in the hospital. He’d been in the intensive care unit for ten weeks. He’d gotten pneumonia and was on a ventilator. Things were pretty dire. The friend’s wife said she would like her pastor to stop by to see them. Because of her request, I think I can relate better to Jesus’ reaction to the request of the Canaanite woman.
You see, I was pretty busy those two weeks. I had the extra work of getting things in place for two worship services while I was gone. Several others things developed that required my attention. So I was feeling a little overwhelmed with the responsibilities of my own congregation. After all, I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of St. Matthew by the Lake. Why should I take the time and energy to step outside those boundaries to help someone who obviously wasn’t going to a church of their own or they’d have asked their own pastor to go see them, pray with them, comfort them?
Well, I wasn’t as rude as Jesus was to the Canaanite woman. I didn’t completely ignore the first request like Jesus did. I certainly didn’t refer to her unchurched friends as if they were dogs. I said, “Yes, I’ll see him,” but it was the thoughts running through my head as I walked away that were similar to the reaction Jesus had for the woman in this text.
The woman was a Canaanite. She wasn’t a daughter of Abraham. She wasn’t born inside the right bloodline. She probably worshipped idols. These things made her the scum of the earth in the eyes of the Jews. And up until this point in the Gospel of Matthew, she was outside the lines of Jesus’ responsibility.
We all draw lines. We do it for our protection. We think we have to make distinctions based on what others have taught us. There are Christian denominations, including some flavors of Lutheran, who draw lines around themselves and claim they have sole access to
the love of God in Jesus Christ. Many in the Christian Church think there’s a line drawn around them and no one outside the lines will be forgiven or spend eternity in a nice place.
For a while, even Jesus had a line drawn in his mind around the lost sheep of the house of Israel. These were his people. They were his only concern. That is, until he met an idol-worshipping untouchable who showed greater faith in the goodness of God than he had seen inside the house of Israel. I think it’s refreshing to see that Jesus was capable of growing, of expanding his own understanding of who he was and what he had been called to do. He was not only a Messiah sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but he was God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world. He stepped across the line and answered her prayer.
There’s another way we draw lines that restrict the goodness and healing power of God. Monday morning, I received a phone call on Monday. A woman I didn’t know, representing an agency I’d never heard of, asked if they could send a representative to give us a presentation about how we could feed poor people in Central America and the Caribbean. My first reaction (inside) was one of limitations and boundaries, that we’re a small congregation going through our own financial crisis, and we have some other missions that we’ve made commitments to helping. We can’t save the world. We have to draw some lines somewhere. Except that I failed to trust that the power of God is not limited. It’s unlimited.
Maybe that’s how Jesus felt at this time, too. “I’m only one person with more work than I can handle in a sixteen hour day. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” Why shouldn’t we draw the line somewhere? Except that it’s when we step over our self-imposed lines that we might find what Jesus found…faith greater than he’d seen inside the lines of the house of Israel. Jesus erased his own lines of exclusivism in religion. He healed an idolater’s daughter because of her faith.
What about you? What lines have you drawn around yourself? Who will you help first because they are the right religion, the right color, the right nationality, the right political party? What lines have you drawn that exclude people who aren’t like you? Who will you give your money to and who won’t you give your money to? What lines have you drawn that say God’s grace is only reserved for someone like you and the group you’re in?
I really think you and I are most like the Canaanite woman in the story. We weren’t born into the chosen house of Israel. Most are Gentiles, born outside the inner circle of the children of Abraham. We are the Canaanite woman, begging and pleading for the health and wellbeing of our children, for Jesus to cast demons out of them, praying for daily crumbs of bread, for shelter over our head, that we don’t lose our retirement income in a stock market crash.
Thank God the Canaanite woman opened the eyes of Jesus to see that he was called to step across the lines of the lost sheep of Israel. Thank God that she was sent to help Jesus recognize that people outside the Jewish tradition can be people of great faith. It behooves us in the Christian Church, who think we’ve replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people, to make sure that we do not draw lines that exclude any people from the gifts of a God who has opened the gates of blessing to all people.
Over and over, God calls us to step over the lines we’ve drawn, to love and embrace people we don’t understand, people who are not like us, and to give up the notion that there is not enough of us to go around. The Bible says that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be rescued. No matter how much or how little we have to give, be it five loaves and two fishes, we are asked to place what we have in the hands of the One who has unlimited power to multiply it…if we only will have faith.
And then to be grateful that Jesus stepped over that line to save us, too. God’s grace is far greater than we can ever dream or imagine. Grace without lines or boundaries.