Sunday, August 14, 2005

Proper 15

Matthew 15

21Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession."

23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us."

24He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."

25The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said.

26He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."

27"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

28Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Before I begin, I need to say that I am not opposed to rich people. I say this for two reasons: first, taking my inspiration from God, all are loved equally, even the rich. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we in Canada are "rich" in almost every circumstance when we compare ourselves to the poor in other parts of the world. In other words, those in Canada who take issue with the rich, are really taking issue with themselves.

For me, summer is about sailing. And having spent a good deal of time on the racecourse this summer, I am here to report on an exciting new development in Lake Ontario yacht racing. It's called the Beneteau First 36.7. Rather than try to describe the boat myself, perhaps I should let their website speak, sharing the breathless enthusiasm that this boat fosters:

The First 36.7 is a competitive One Design Racer outfitted with the finest available equipment and offered at an unbeatable value. Inspired by the First 40.7, the most successful and prolific performance yacht of her size in the last 20 years, the 36.7 is truly exhilarating on every point of sail. With over 280 boats on order worldwide, racing sailors of every experience level are hailing her as the most exciting new racer on the water.

Now before you leave your pew to get this exciting new One Design Racer, I need to caution you that you will need to scratch together about $200,000 to buy this boat. And if you want the really nice sails, you may need to pay more.

In many ways, there is nothing unusual about a new boat appearing on the lake or the varying degrees of envy this engenders. Humble crew members like me hanging over the rail of an aging racer, filled with a small handful of deadly sins while watching a group of sailboats is nothing new. What is unusual, however, is the number. In just two seasons the number of these boats on the start line has gone from zero to 22.

Suddenly it all starts to make sense. Staring at 22 shiny new boats at $200K a pop creates a bit of a sensation. Unfortunately, one of the sensations I felt was to feel a little uneasy. We are back to a classic dilemma of living in our society. While it is fun to admire a shiny new boat, and to even dream about having one, for most of us, it belongs to another class. And while the church has tried to tone down it's overt critique of wealth at various times, the question remains how do faithful people regard the presence of such wealth in a society that contains glaring examples of poverty. Or, how was this wealth achieved? Does the appearance of exceptional consumption signal good things for our economy or does to indicate a growing gap that worries sociologists and some economists of late?

Poor me, trying to enjoy my holiday on the water and instead I'm forced to ponder the struggle between the working class and the owners of the means of production. Oh well. Perhaps I will call my boat "The Karl Marx."


25The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said.

26He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."

27"Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

28Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Preachers, including this one, most often preach this passage as a story about Jesus' expanding sense of his mission. At the beginning of the passage he makes the rather definite statement that he has come "for the lost sheep of Israel" alone. He has not come to teach and heal among the non-Israelites, but rather insists that his own Jewish community will be the focus of his reforming time and energy.

This time, however, I decided to take a little detour and determine the significance of the unnamed woman's Canaanite identity. The Canaanites were the population that already occupied the promised land of Israel. In the book of Joshua, the Israelites enter the land God has given to them, and find they have competitors. The book recounts the displacement of these various peoples, which (as we learn from a variety of sources) was incomplete.

So Canaan was a territory and the Canaanites were the remnants of the previous occupants of the land. Scholars agree that the word "Canaanite" refers to a number of tribes and city-states, and not simply one group of people. Scholars also tell us that the Israelites and the Canaanites were identical in almost every way: racial, ethnic, and linguistic. Much of their culture was common. Only their religious practice was distinct from Israel. While they also had a "God most high" named "El," they had a variety of lesser gods and goddesses including the oft-mentioned Baal, described by Walter Brueggemann as a "young and assertive" god. Think of Jude Law among the pantheon of middle-aged Hollywood stars. Clearly Baal was a god on the move.

Perhaps you're wondering when I'm going to link this back to sailing, but you're going to have to be patient.

Despite the foundational narrative that describes the Israelites claiming the land promised to them, the reality on the ground was quite different. Scholars agree that the Israelites more likely carved out a place for themselves inside the existing social order and spend hundreds of years establishing ascendancy. The land was organized into a network of city-states along feudal lines. The Israelites entered at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, subject to the control of a powerful elite (all Canaanites) who exploited the mass of peasants beneath then to create enormous wealth.

The scholarly argument is that the Israelites defined themselves in this context as the opposite of their Canaanite uppers. As peasants, the Israelites spent the long years of adjustment to this situation defining themselves in a new and distinct way: socially, economically and religiously. In fact, they mixed all three. The quest for justice, the desire to care for the most vulnerable, and all the various laws that support these desires came from the experience of being oppressed, first in Egypt, and then in Canaan.

With this new understanding, suddenly the little conversation where Jesus is quite rude makes more sense. This is not a conversation between Jesus and an outsider, this is a conversation between Jesus and a representative of a people he was predisposed to hate. Jesus, who saw the world through the eyes of a peasant (because he was one) would have approached this woman as someone that fell outside "his mandate" and also someone that represented generations of oppression. He called her a dog much in the same way that radicals would call capitalists "dogs" nineteen centuries later.

Our theme, then, should properly be "Jesus, the radical who changes his mind." Or "Jesus, the God who learns." This remarkable, unnamed woman defeats Jesus with his own words, and claims her place as a child of God. Her great faith, and her willingness to challenge the status quo overwhelms Jesus and results in healing. Jesus' mission has been expanded, but more importantly, Jesus has been forced to be consistent. His radical inclusiveness, his desire for justice, and his willingness to challenge the existing structures must include everyone, inside and outside the covenant with Israel.


It is easy to dislike others. We seem genetically pre-programmed to define others as "us" or "them." Read the paper on any given day and you will find examples of the way we seek to decide who we are and to whom we belong. Should the new Governor-General give up her duel French citizenship, because having it makes her less "us." Her husband seems too sympathetic to the FLQ, does that make him less "us." Did the new G-G vote for Quebec or Canada in the last referendum? Us or them? And it goes on. And, of course there is the whole Canada/U.S. thing, the ultimate "us and them" question that seems to come pre-formed from our mother's wombs and manifests itself in every waking our of our Canadian identity.

For people on the left, and for a few in the middle, the question of wealth is an "us and them" question. They live among us (or at least they live in nearby neighbourhoods) and they have their houses and cottages and yachts and cars and all the other things that we admire and will likely never have. We admire and then we begin to smolder. Where did the wealth come from? Did they work for it or did they inherit? Did the money arrive in an ethical manner or were people below them exploited? Do they pay their share of taxes, or is most of it sheltered somewhere in the Caribbean? I could go on, but I better stop here.

When I was young, and I received my state-of-the-art left wing education at wonderful York University, it was easy to read and think and nurse some easy conclusions about the rich. When I got to Queen's and began to study for ministry, I got more of the same, but in a wider theological framework. God stands with the oppressed. God weeps when the poor suffer.

But I learned something else. God loves everyone. God forgives with an intensity you and I will never fully comprehend. God ignores our T4 on the way to welcoming us to the heavenly banquet. Of course, we continue to have much to do as brother and sister living side-by-side with a finite amount of resources and the reality of human sin. But ultimately the message is love. God loves those we fear. God loves those we hate. God loves people who voted yes for sovereignty and God loves those who own shiny new boats.

Our task is to overcome ourselves, and form relationships: relationships that will draw us together to help each other, to see each other through new eyes, and to find the Heart of All Compassion together. Amen.


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