Staunton Mennonite Church
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This past week I spent a couple of hours working on a project. (Actually a lot of hours on a number of projects). I spent some time this past Thursday researching, designing, buying materials for, and finally building a compost bin at our home. This bin is a place where Sonya and I will take our scraps of food, our banana peals, apple cores, lawn clippings, fall leaves, and so forth, throw them into a contained pile, and allow them to break down into a nutrient rich, bacterially active supplement for the soil in our garden.
Now some of you might be thinking, Kevin, I’ve been to your home. You don’t have a garden. And you would be correct. We do not have a garden. Not yet, that is. The hours of planning and work, the money spent on materials (I made the bin for around $25), all were done to develop a fertilizer over a period of time for a garden that we don’t have.
So all of the work that I did was in anticipation of something in the future. We will not “reap the benefits” of this work for at least a year. And it may be many years until we see much change in the soil. We have a pretty hard clay in our backyard and a little bit of compost added each year will not make a huge difference. So why go to all of that effort? Why bother making the compost bin, bringing out our garbage on a regular basis, turning the compost weekly, only to see little if no immediate change? And what guarantee do we have that it will even make a difference? Well, we are investing in the future, that’s why we are doing it. And even if we are not the ones who reap the benefits of a built up soil, I am sure that someone will appreciate the improved fertility of the area that we have designated as our future garden.
Today I would like to look at the scripture listed above to see that this Canaanite woman was investing in the future as well. And she had to overcome a number of obstacles to do so. She had to overcome her gender and she had to overcome her ethnicity. But for her, it was well worth it. It might have been a bit of a risk, but to her, it was a good investment.
Our scripture says that Jesus and his disciples left Gennesaret, likely because they were in need of some rest after all of the healing and teaching that Jesus had been doing. So they want to get away from everyone and head off to a place where it is likely that nobody knows about Jesus. So they go all the way up to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is in the area of Phoenicia in the Providence of Syria. But evidently the word has spread about this man Jesus and the many that he has healed, because a woman from that area comes to him and begins shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus just kind of ignores the woman. Maybe she will go away. He is on vacation. But she doesn’t go away. She keeps calling out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”
The disciples come to Jesus and they say, Jesus, maybe you could send her away. She is interrupting our personal time here. So Jesus tries to send her away. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he tells the woman. But she still does not give up. She comes closer, kneeling before his feet and asks him again for healing for her child. And then Jesus replies with what seems like the most un-Jesus-like thing I have ever heard attributed to him; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I can’t fully understand why Jesus answered her in such a way, which seems so out of his personality. We can speculate as to whether he was testing her, or we can try to make light of the comparison between the woman and a dog (calling her a cute puppy or a beloved family pet). But the truth is this response from Jesus reflects the common understanding of the worth of this person.
In the first century, women were little more than possessions. Sure, they had come a long way from the days when Solomon had his thousand women friends, but women sure didn’t have the status of men in Jesus’ day. They were second-class citizens that were kept around to make food and make babies.
The different churches today can go back and forth on issues like women clergy, male headship verses mutual submission, and so forth, and it would be very unlikely that every Christian in the world would come out in the same place. We surely have differences of opinions within this church on the interpretation of the scriptures pertaining to these subjects. But I hope that we can all agree on this: women are not possessions, they are not dogs, they are human beings.
But this was a challenge for this woman. She would not have been respected in her own society because of her gender. But she wasn’t even dealing with people from her society. She was dealing with Jews. She was not Jewish. She was an outsider even in her own town. We know from stories like that of the Good Samaritan that the Jews didn’t always, or maybe I should say that they rarely had warm fuzzy feelings toward their neighbors. Jews were pretty ethnically exclusive. Ethnically, this person was not a part of the in crowd.
So we have a woman, a Canaanite woman, who would have been seen by most Jews as little more than a dog. This lowly position is reflected not only in Jesus’ comment, but in the fact that the disciples never try to get the woman to Jesus. They try to have her sent away. Yet she sought out a private meeting with Jesus. The word had gotten around that this man was something special, that he could heal people, that he might be the Jewish Messiah, that he might even be God in human form. So she makes it a priority, in spite of the gender and ethnic hurdles she needed to cross, to meet this great healer. And why did she make such an effort, enduring the name calling from our savior? Because she had a daughter that was possessed by a demon.
This woman was willing to cross over gender barriers, to cross over ethic dividers because she loved her daughter so much. She wanted to see her daughter live a full life. She wanted what was best for the next generation. And she was willing and persistent enough to see to it that her daughter would have a better life. She was willing to sacrifice her own comfort to assure the future of her daughter. And Jesus commended her faith for doing so.
I think we could all learn a lot from this Canaanite woman. It seems to me that we do a lot of complaining about children, but do little to help them. We complain about the crime rate, the unemployment rate, the poor educational systems that so many children are being brought up in. But we do little about it. We complain about the way that young urban people are being sent to jail only to be back out on the streets in a few years, not able to find work, not able to change their lifestyles, not able to keep themselves from going back to jail shortly after being released. We complain about it, but are we willing to do something about it? Well, I think that it is time that we become like the Canaanite woman and stop complaining about our children and start doing something about the sources of the problems.
Last Monday, Ronald Friesen was able to join a group of people from various churches and various organizations from around town in the distribution of back to school gift cards. Gift cards were given out with the intended purpose of being used to purchase school clothes, pencils, paper, backpacks, and other items. There were some goods distributed there as well. And these things were not just given out on a first come first served basis. There were certain groups invited to come and received these gifts. The poor, the single mothers, the grandmother raising here children’s children by herself. These were the people that were invited to come and receive these gifts.
But this wasn’t just charity. It wasn’t just a bunch of rich white folks giving some money to some poor folks. This was an attempt to correct an existing problem. This was people from the community trying to improve their community. See, the children without “nice” clothes don’t want to go to school because they are going to be made fun of and picked on. Nor do the children that don’t have their own school supplies. Poverty breeds poverty. The poor in our area will have poor children that will grow up to be poor adults if they can’t afford to send those children to school, to provide them with the essential learning materials. And we as rich middle classed Americans can choose, do we want to pay now and help change the system, allowing these lower-income children to go to school, acquire a decent education, and get a good job? Or would we rather wait until they are all grown up and pay for the same people to get their electricity turned back on, pay welfare with our tax money, or drop our money in a tin cup as we walk by? We can pay now and help to correct the system, or we can pay later and allow the wretched system to continue.
I am glad to say that we as a church were well represented by our giving to these under-privileged children. We accumulated $340 worth of gift cards for the lower income families. Evidently we think that the future of these children is worth investing in. Evidently we think like the Canaanite woman who believed that ethnic and gender boundaries were not going to keep her from improving the future of her child. Nobody said it would be easy, but by coming together and with God by our side, we can change the future by investing in children today.
I shared with you a little bit a few weeks ago about the Jericho and Damascus Road Outreach here in Staunton that intends to be a place where ex-offenders can come to find employment in a faith-based environment. I had the chance to sit down with the woman who is heading up this ministry, Elaine Rose, this past Friday. And I have to tell you, she is quite inspiring. Elaine told me her story, how her son was getting into trouble, getting into fights, and was actually set up to be killed. He was shot at one night at a party and Elaine told me that the entire room was full of bullet holes. Even her son’s clothes had bullet holes in them. But he wasn’t hit. It was then that he knew he needed to change his life, and it was then that Elaine heard God calling out to her to invest in the future of local children because if she didn’t, there might not be much of a future to invest in.
Elaine walked me through the building that is currently being renovated on Beverly Street where they will have the restaurant and smoothie bar set up. The 16-25 year old ex-offenders that enter into this program will be employed at the restaurant and given the opportunity to learn a skilled trade, such as that of a beautician, chef, electrician, and other trades in mandatory classes each Monday. There will be Bible Studies, there will be mentoring, there will be a 24 hour Outreach Team available for counseling. There are also plans for urban gardening, an outdoor patio with local artists performing on a regular basis, and even some communal living opportunities for the young adults. This is meant to be a community-building opportunity. Because it is not only meant to provide a way for ex-offenders to reenter into society after incarceration, it is meant as a way to prevent the crimes from ever happening in the first place. It is a lot harder to steal from someone after breaking bread with them.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But how much will it cost? And where will the money come from? Elaine Rose helped me to understand this one a bit. Yes, it will be costly to get this program underway and to keep it operating. But she said that to house an inmate for one year costs about $40,000. That money comes out of our paychecks in the form of income taxes. She asked me, “Now wouldn’t it be better to take that $40,000 per inmate and invest it in keeping them out of prison in the first place?” I had to agree.
Now I can’t imagine that the state is willing to give a lot of money toward a faith based program like this, but I sure am. I would much rather improve education and opportunities for ex-offenders instead of paying for them to go back into jail. The system is not working. It is time that we got uncomfortable with the status quo and did something about it.
So I come back to my compost bin. But let’s call it what it really is. It is a pile of garbage. It is stinky. It will attract flies and rats. Most people would simply toss away the garbage and forget about it. But I am focused on the future of that “garbage” not the present state of that garbage. Because I know that God can transform that garbage into something useful, something valuable. I am not going to say that the compost pile isn’t going to be work, even with God’s help in decomposing the material. I know it is going to take work. I am going to have to go out to the pile every week and turn it with a pitchfork. I am going to have to sort my garbage and take it out to the bin regularly. And even after the garbage has been transformed into a nutrient rich fertilizer, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to have that nutrient rich fertilizer produce a bountiful harvest. But I know it is possible and I believe it will be worth it.
The Canaanite woman knew that Jesus Christ could heal her daughter. But she also knew that she had a lot of obstacles to overcome just to have the opportunity to petition to Christ for the healing. But she knew it was possible and to her the work was well worth it. The future of her child was at stake.
Maybe your children are all grown and moved away. Or maybe like me, you don’t have any children. But we all know children, and we all know children that need healing; healing from a system that will cause many children to amount to less than they are capable of being. Healing from broken families, broken hearts, and broken relationships. These children need the transformative power of Jesus Christ.
It is my hope that we will be like that Canaanite woman who overcame many obstacles for her child. Whether it is ethnicity, gender, or what ever other obstacle we find ourselves up against, I hope that we will be able to endure and overcome these obstacles. And hopefully, like the compost pile that I have begun, with the help of God, we will be able to take what much of society looks at as garbage and use that to produce bountiful harvests in the name of Jesus Christ.