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Pushing the Boundaries

Matthew 15:10-28
University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
August 20, 2017

         By this point in Matthew, Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees has been growing more polemical by the chapter.  In this latest installment, he chastises them for following tradition so blindly that they lose sight of the word of God.  He takes their fixation on clean and unclean and redirects it—focus not on the hands, but on the heart, he says.  It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it.  As he has done at other points in Matthew, Jesus takes the common understanding of the law and broadens it to elicit a more holistic obedience.  And then he promptly leaves for Tyre and Sidon.

All this talk of clean and unclean is the backdrop as Jesus leaves the largely Jewish territory of Galilee and heads north for the borderlands, toward Gentile territory.  As if geographical clues weren’t enough indication of trouble ahead, Matthew introduces the character of a Canaanite woman.  “Canaanite” may sound familiar to your ears from all those Old Testament stories about the Israelites and the Promised Land that first was named Canaan.  But by the time that Matthew wrote, that language would have been long ago left behind, like someone today speaking about New York and calling it New Amsterdam.  Matthew is reaching way back in his listeners’ memories for vocabulary to make the point that this woman is of an enemy people.

The stage is set for drama.  The boundary lines are drawn, between chosen people and foreigner, between clean and unclean, between friend and foe.  As Jesus approaches the line, he is confronted by this woman in desperate need of healing for her daughter.

Matthew would keep her at a distance, identifying her as an enemy, but the woman insists on drawing close, using the language of Jesus’ own people to identify him: “O Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Her trouble is that her daughter is being tormented by a demon, and Jesus’ reputation has clearly preceded him to that place, because she thinks he can help.

But Jesus offers no help; the woman is met only with stone cold silence as Jesus does not answer her at all.  The woman persists, at top volume, so much so that Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask him to send her away.  He speaks to them, succinctly: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  In this he is being consistent with the original mission that he and the twelve set out on.  Jesus told them in the beginning not to go nowhere among the Gentiles, but to concentrate their proclamation of the good news among the lost sheep of Israel.  The boundary is drawn, and the Canaanite is on the wrong side.

The woman grows still more desperate; refusing to be turned aside, she kneels at Jesus’ feet and pleads, “Lord, help me.”  And Matthew tells us, unbelievable as it is, that Jesus meets her plea with these heartless words: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  I read up on the history and usage in the Greek of that phrase “the dogs” this week; trust me, it sounded no better in Jesus’ time than it does in ours.

Over the years, interpreters have tried to soften these words of Jesus.  They say that, in speaking to the woman this way, Jesus was testing her, waiting for her to rise to the occasion in faith.  They have observed that the Greek word used here for dogs really means “puppies,” and suggested that this diminutive noun is somehow less offensive.  They have said Jesus was only teasing, that if we saw the twinkle in his eye, we’d get the joke.

There may be some who are comforted by these explanations, but the woman herself is not among them.  Still lacking the one thing for which she asks, she turns Jesus’ words back on him and insists, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

And in that moment, something happened.  I’ll let the Reverend Leanne Pearce Reed take it from here:

“Jesus changes course. His words of rejection are transformed into words of praise: “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then, her daughter was healed.

What happened in that moment, when that mother would not take no for an answer, would not give up on her daughter or on Jesus? We can’t know for sure. But I’m convinced that Jesus was changed by this encounter. After all, we affirm that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. And to be changed, to be transformed — well, that’s part of being human.

So perhaps in that moment, Jesus looked at this woman, finally really looked at her, and in the fierce love of this Canaanite woman for her child, Jesus saw something of God’s fierce love for this world. A fierce, mama bear kind of love that goes beyond all boundaries and conventions. A passionate love that longs to enfold and protect each one, a love that embraces all as it embraces each — as a precious and beloved child of God. A love that does not give up.”[1]

When Jesus leaves the Canaanite woman, he goes back to the crowds.  And when they ask for bread, he turns a few loaves and some fish into a feast for thousands.  It’s a familiar story; in fact, it would be particularly familiar if you were reading straight through the gospel, as this is the second time in as many chapters that Matthew tells it.  In chapter 14, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000, with five loaves of bread and two fish; in chapter 15, after his encounter with the Canaanite woman, he feeds a crowd of 4000, this time with seven loaves.

Maybe the duplicate entry slipped by Matthew’s editor.  Maybe the story was so alive and important in Matthew’s community that he couldn’t not include both iterations of it.  Or maybe, as many believe, this second feeding story was Jesus feeding the Gentile community.  He goes out to feed those who had not yet been fed.

Jesus meets this woman at the boundary line, and through their encounter, the boundaries get pushed out further still.  Her persistence expands the scope of his mission, so much so that Jesus’ earlier instructions to his disciples–“Go nowhere among the Gentiles”—becomes the “Go ye therefore to all nations” at the end of the gospel.  This encounter turns Jesus’ ministry still further outward, pivots him toward a still wider world that God made and God love and God came to save.

Boundary places are often sites of conversion.  We push (or are pushed) out from the center of our comfort, past the usual, if lamentable, social patterns which keep us nearest to those most like us, and we tread into unfamiliar territory, where we encounter the other.  And there, where our unquestioned assumptions, our unexamined prejudices, and even our conscious beliefs systems bump up against another, right there, we might find ourselves changed.

Last fall, the Washington Post published a lengthy profile on Derek Black, a one-time white nationalist.[2]  Bob Dunham mentioned it in a sermon back then, but I found myself returning to it again this week in light of recent events.  Derek Black was 19 years old when he was considered the heir-apparent to the white nationalist movement.  He was the godson of David Duke and the son of the creator of the website Stormfront.  He hosted a radio show that popularized the notion of white genocide, launched a white nationalist website for children, and held local elected office in Florida.  He spoke of taking the country back; he looked forward to a day when the land now called the United States would be inhabited only by those with white skin.

And then he went to college, and was a quick enough student of those around him to determine he should keep his racism under wraps.  He’d get up early every weekday morning and go out to the parking lot to call into his radio show, cued in by music from Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy.”  “Then he hung up and went back to the dorm to play Taylor Swift songs on his guitar or to take one of the college’s sailboats onto Sarasota Bay.”

One day another student, unknown to Derek, ran across Derek’s picture while researching online terrorist groups.  He outed Derek as a white supremacist on the campus list serv, causing Derek to withdraw into off-campus housing and avoid public spaces.  Derek’s increasing reclusion was interrupted one day by a text message, from a guy who’d lived in Derek’s freshman dorm.  Matthew Stevenson, was hosting a Shabbat dinner and wanted Derek to come.  Matthew was the only Orthodox Jew on campus and, absent a community of his own faith, had taken to drawing Christians, atheists, black, and Hispanics around his table as he drank a bit of wine and said the traditional prayers.

The decision to invite Derek hadn’t been an easy one for Matthew, who had known some anti-semitism in his life and read enough of Derek’s posts to know Jews were among those who must be expelled from American soil to make it a white nation.  But he decided the best shot he had to affect Derek’s thinking was to get to know him, which is how Derek ended up standing on his doorstep with a bottle of wine.  The few who had gathered were polite enough out of respect to Matthew, and the whole evening went smoothly enough that Derek came back the next week and then the next.  One bite of bread after another, one hesitant gesture of friendship and then another, and gradually Derek’s vision of an all-white nation gave way to a grateful contentment in the community of diversity he enjoyed at Shabbat dinners.  He publicly renounced white nationalism and his affiliation with those who adhered to its principles; he apologized for the words and actions that had harmed people of color, people of Jewish descent, and activists; he turned his energies to studying white privilege and institutionalized racism.  His decision meant that his family cut off contact with him; conversion is a costly act.

But in the end, there is healing.  Matthew doesn’t tell us that the Canaanite woman wears Jesus out with her asking; there’s no sign that Jesus is suddenly persuaded by the flawless logic of her argument.  No, Jesus softens when he sees her faith.  He beholds her throat scratchy from shouting, her knees bruised from falling to the floor, her eyes brimming over with passion, and he sees faith.  The content of faith in this story is not a profession of belief, not even a posture of obedience, but a relentless insistence that God’s mercy is for all, even, and especially, this one who asks for it.

Lately I have found myself more consumed with the question of what it means to live as a person of faith in this broken and fearful world.  The powers of evil loom larger; the amount of violence we ingest in any given day feels like more than any human soul can bear.  There is an urgency in the air which summons forth from us a response, but there seems to be little clarity or unity around what that response should be.

I wonder, then, what it looks like to follow this Canaanite woman in the way of faith.  To journey with this marginalized one to the borderlands as she goes out in search of Jesus, to join her in her shouts for mercy, her pleas that Christ might exorcise the demon that has taken hold of our society, to persevere in the fierceness of love through all manner of harassment and shame, and above all to hold unflaggingly to the truth that God’s mercy is for all, for all, for all.


[1] Leanne Pearce Reed, Sermon preached at the meeting of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, August 17, 2017.  Personal Facebook post.

[2] “The white flight of Derek Black,” by Eli Saslow, Washington Post, October 15, 2016.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor


Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112


Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.