Have you ever felt desperate? As in genuine desperation? Have you ever experienced so much despair... that you’d do just about anything for a remedy... or a solution?
Now (listen to me) I’m not complaining... so don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say... I’m just using this as an illustration: In the church office we encounter desperate people a lot. Conventional wisdom tells us that people who’ve reached rock bottom have no where to look but up... but they usually call the church office first!
Of course, many times people find themselves in despair or desperate situations because of their lifestyle and life choices... no doubt! They create a storm and despair when it starts raining!
For example... there are some who’ll spend their grocery money on lottery tickets... filled with delusional dreams of getting rich... and escaping their situation... only to find that when they lose it all... they’ve only made matters worse.
Some come ringing the church doorbell hoping to get a quick handout from a bleeding heart... to feed their addiction to drugs... alcohol... or whatever. There are people who are desperate enough to take from the truly needy in order to get their next fix...
One of the hardest things to do, as a minister, is to discern who actually needs help, and who doesn’t. Who are we helping... as opposed to who are we enabling? Wrestling with such is part of being good stewards with the limited funds we’ve been entrusted with.
Of course there are lots of other things in life that cause desperation. Unemployment... family problems... broken relationships... illness... death... and the like can all certainly push the strongest of us to the limits of despair. We’ve all experienced it... we can all relate, in some way, shape, form or fashion.
In our scripture lesson for today, we encounter a Canaanite woman in the throws of despair.
In fact, she was so desperate that she stepped outside the normally accepted conventions of her day... seeking relief!
Which is common enough, I suppose. After all, when most any of us are surprised, or overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, we tend to act differently. Shock and fear cause us to do things (to say things, to act in ways) we ordinarily would not!
The Canaanite woman was desperate because her daughter was sick. Of course, we’re not told this in the story; but it’s not hard to imagine that this woman, this mother, had tried everything! Every doctor and ointment and prayer... everything she could imagine, she’d tried, in order to help her daughter.
Again, I say that because this Canaanite woman was desperate enough to break many of her culture’s rules... especially concerning encounters between women and men. She cried out to a man (who wasn’t her husband) in public... in the presence of others. But she not only shouted-out to Jesus, she threw herself at his feet when he ignored her. Then she argued with Jesus! She put herself in a position to be ostracized and reprimanded... but her desperation overcame her fear of the consequences. Her concern for her daughter... made her act out in ways she surely would have never done otherwise!
Jesus had just been teaching about how we, as Christians, should treat others. He was very cleverly sticking it to the Pharisees... who demanded the people keep every law while they themselves honored God with their lips but not their hearts. In other words; the Pharisees were experts in telling people “do as I say, not as I do!” They were hypocrites, according to Jesus!
So Jesus was saying, it’s much more important to consider how you use words, how you speak to others, how you praise God... than to think only about what you put into your mouth. Because it’s not what goes into a person that makes the person unclean... it’s what comes out! The mouth, our words, can build up, or tear down.
Which caused Peter to blurt out: “What do you mean?”
So... Jesus explained to Peter that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart... it reveals the character... What comes from the heart reveals the true person! What we say can bring life, or death.
Of course, what’s most surprising about this Lesson, this story from Matthew’s gospel, for me... is how vividly Jesus’ humanity is displayed for all to see!
I saw a meme this week that read: If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to see love, look to Jesus... If you want to see humanity, look to Jesus.
Jesus was fully divine, yet fully human! And being fully human, Jesus experienced frustration... and our Lesson today is a prime example. And you can sense his frustration here! Jesus’ followers, his disciples, were too dull to understand the basics of 101 Christianity. The Pharisees, the teachers of the Law, were trying to trip him up and were deliberately not getting it. And so, Jesus “acted-out” a little desperation himself!
Of course, at first, Jesus just ignored the woman. Which is a little surprising... it’s out of character for sure. Mainly because Jesus seemed to be ignoring his own teachings... you know, that whole “love you neighbor thing!”
And add to that... when Jesus disciples (who’d apparently been dealing with the woman, since Jesus was ignoring her) came to Jesus, asking him to “send her away because she keeps crying out to us for help!” - Jesus said, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” What? That kinda smacks in the face of the Great Commission, doesn’t it?
Jesus seemed to be implying that helping this woman, this Canaanite woman, is somehow beneath him.
But notice... it was the disciples who were bothered by this woman’s persistent pleas... it was the disciples who were uncomfortable with her desperate cries for help... not Jesus.
Jesus was accurately pointing to is his own mission... and it may seem crude and rude (to us)... but the fact of the matter is... Jesus’ original mission, was to redeem, or save, the lost of Israel... not a foreign woman’s daughter.
And despite our shock at Jesus’ words... it wasn’t the only time He’d said something like this! Remember the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee? Jesus’ mother came to him, saying “They’ve run out of wine!” - and Jesus was like, “So what!? What’s that to me?” Jesus replies. Not quite the way we’d expect him to answer his mother. He bristled at first... but then he relented... expanding his ministry, as he turned water into wine.
Jesus, in frustration, was basically saying... “It’s not the right time... I’m not here to be bothered by a Canaanite woman!” But once she engaged Jesus... and once Jesus could see her faith... He was moved to help.
It has to be one of the very best exchanges in the whole Bible... Jesus says, “It’s NOT right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs!” It’s pretty clear what the Jews thought of the Canaanites... But she pops back, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!”
At that moment, Jesus expanded his ministry again... broadening his mission, to include a non-Jew. This is a big step for him.
Matthew is showing us how Jesus’ mission and ministry was growing, tearing down the boundaries that limited the family of God to one race... and one nation.
Of course, Jesus would continue to recognize and heal all sorts of marginalized people. From beggars and lepers... to the blind, the crippled, children... you name it.
So what can we learn about ourselves here? Well, a couple of things come to mind. The obvious lesson is to ask ourselves, whom do we accept as our neighbor? Do we still hold the residue of racism in our hearts? Whom do we think of as less than dogs?
Living in our culture at this moment can be challenging. The “us” vs “them” crowds have never been more dug in! Fear mongers are on every side... right, left... conservative, liberal... We’re bombarded with images and words coming out of many of our own leaders’ mouths (on both sides) that make us cringe... and may even make us fear for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
Jesus reminds us,“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” We can’t control what other people say... but we can control what we say! May our words be seasoned with the love, mercy, and grace, of Jesus Christ.
Another thing we might learn: When we find ourselves in despair... we should cry out to Jesus! Take your desperation to Christ! Don’t let anything stop you!
Jesus will always hear the sincere pleas of the faithful... no matter who they are! He’ll even hear you and me!