A few years ago, at a Sotheby’s Auction in England, a first edition of the book De revolutionibus, in English known as On the Revolutions, sold for over one million dollars. That’s not bad for a title that Arthur Koestler declared was “The book that nobody read.” If one had to judge only by the title, you might think that On the Revolutions, was about the American, French, or possibly other popular uprisings. Given that the author was Nicolaus Copernicus, and the full title of the book translated from Latin is Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres—one can see that the valuation of the book rests upon the role that it played in changing humankind’s perception of our place in the universe.
Perhaps you have met the occasional person today who acts like they are at the center of the Universe and everything revolves around them—the fascinating thing about On the Revolutions is that 500 years ago, at the time of publication, everyone assumed that we as humans were at the center of creation—that we lived in a universe where God inhabited the heavens along with the sun, moon and all the planets—all which were believed to revolve around the earth. In his lifetime Copernicus was reluctant to publish his work placing the sun at the center of our solar system both because of his fear of public ridicule, and because he knew that his work would be seen as a challenge to the ultimate authority of the Church. Nicolaus Copernicus was deeply aware of both how tightly people could hold onto conventional wisdom and the way institutions resisted challenge to their authority.
Tomorrow, among the millions of people who people will view a full or partial Solar eclipse—most will not realize that after Copernicus published On the Revolutions it took another 100 years of dedicated work by scientists like Kepler and Galileo to complete the Copernican Revolution that forever changed the way that we think about our place in the world. In this Context, it is interesting to contemplate the magnitude of experience usually required for us to change our minds.
A long time ago I remember talking to a sales person who always anticipated resistance and so he began his sales pitch by asking the potential customer if they thought of themselves as an open minded person. The sales person’s experience was that many people already had a fixed framework for viewing the world. When you think about it there are many realms of life where one is penalized for changing one’s mind. Politicians encounter this all the time—the candidate who flip-flops is often portrayed as pandering, and yet there are times when a change of mind might actually point to a new insight and a real leap of growth. In my experience, when we approach reading and interpreting the Gospels, we usually look for consistency of thought and action—and this is especially so in the case of examining the life of Jesus. With all this in mind this morning’s Gospel presents us with a challenge because it is difficult to square the initial response of Jesus to the Canaanite woman with that of a caring and compassionate Savior.
As background for this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has engaged in his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in the Galilee region of northern Israel. We are not given a reason why Jesus and his disciples travel to a non-Jewish region, a territory about 40 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. In the first century, Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities located on the Mediterranean Sea. And there it is that Matthew tells us that a Canaanite woman approaches and shouts—acknowledging the elevated status of Jesus—and pleads with him to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. After the initial silence of Jesus—we note the annoyance of the disciples who say Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. When the focus shifts back to Jesus he responds saying simply I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
It strikes one as more than odd that the reaction of Jesus already borders on callous—not offering to help a woman who is pleading on behalf of her daughter. When one thinks about how difficult it would be to go out into public and to plead and beg for healing—the next step is extraordinary. The woman kneels before Jesus and simply says Lord, Help Me.
As measured by the rest of the Gospel the next phrase uttered by Jesus is almost unfathomable. He Says It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. It’s stunning that Jesus would speak this way. At this point some commentators intercede on behalf of Jesus and say look—this is simply a case where Jesus is caught with his compassion down. This line of thought imagines that Jesus has been laboring without much of a break—and well—this woman just catches him at the wrong time. That reasoning would hold more sway—if the response of Jesus were just not so insulting. Taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs—is a cutting remark—Brutal—when placed in comparison to the request.
At this point one would not expect the Canaanite woman to withstand such an insult—but amazingly she manages to utter “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” It is a completely unexpected utterance. One of: determination, composure, and grace—to which Jesus finally responds Woman, great is your faith—and he heals her daughter.
It is an amazing exchange—for one’s sees the whole world view of Jesus suddenly open and expand. What for Jesus began as a mission solely to the people of Israel—has expanded to a foreign woman of the larger Gentile world. In a world dominated by tribalism Jesus is able to extend a healing hand across established religious divisions. The thing that is fascinating to me is that the woman somehow ceases to be seen as an annoying outsider to the faith clamoring for attention, but rather she is eventually treated simply as a woman with a sick daughter.
Some preachers have ventured to title their sermon on this text Canaanite Women’s Lives Matter in an attempt to highlight the blatant injustice and prejudice experienced by this first century group. I would observe that while such a label is apt and draws upon parallels in our own day—it is far too narrow to capture the full importance of this encounter. This healing is followed by instances where other classes of outsiders are welcomed and included. Jesus and his disciples had already extended their mission to those traditionally excluded: lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, and soon after the Canaanite woman’s healing, Jesus welcomed a Samaritan woman and then healed the servant of a Roman Centurion. Each of these encounters provide further insights into the inclusiveness of God’s Kingdom.
Our christology—the way that we understand Jesus to be human and divine—usually leans towards emphasizing the divinity of Jesus. This tends to blind us from seeing moments where Jesus achieves human moments of real insight and growth. This is not a small point for if we claim that Jesus shares our humanity—then we should rightly look for a Savior who shares in our predicaments and struggles.
In this case, it is of some comfort to know that our efforts to overcome tribalism—our attempts to see beyond: our own people—our own group of comfort, is something that might take work and require growth. It is a measure of maturation to come to the realization that our race, our gender, our class our orientation, or even our Church, may not hold exclusive claim to the center of the Universe. The revolutionary lesson of this morning’s Gospel is that we ever are in need of finding ways to engage one another.
Over the past two weeks we have been reminded that this is the lesson that various “hate groups” have failed to grasp—and that attempting to lay exclusive claim to any form of tribal purity will ultimately fail. It’s as futile as trying to go back and argue that the sun really revolves around the earth. It was encouraging to see pictures of tens of thousands peaceful protesters gathering in Boston yesterday, and on Friday in Portland, Oregon, where the rather cleverly titled “Eclipse Hate” rally seemed to go off without incident.
The other important witness of the Gospel for us today is to note that Jesus and his followers did not occupy their time looking for groups to oppose—rather they bore positive witness by sharing the message and good works of the Gospel far and wide. To this end, The Southern Poverty Law Center offered the Boston rally and others the good advice to avoid direct contact with groups like the Neo-nazis or white nationalists since interacting with them only gives them a larger platform for spreading their message of hate.
In the weeks and months ahead we might be reminded that the revolution that Jesus set in motion—was most often seen and experienced through simple human encounters. We participate in that revolution when we set aside our tribal preconceptions and let God’s redeeming love shine through us—revealing that it is God’s love that can be found at the center of the Universe.
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 20 August 2017, Year A. Lessons: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20],21-28.