A Change of Mind: Thoughts on who Jesus includes in the Kingdom — even Canaanites!

A Change of Mind

Starting in 2015, members of JMPC have been making an annual pilgrimage to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.

Twenty one members of JMPC have gone and three have gone every year.

We go there in partnership with Hebron USA.

Hebron USA works closely with its sister organization in Mexico, Hebron de Desarrollo Tzeltal AC as well as several presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

We have helped local communities build churches and schools and offered activity packed Bible school for the children.

I think I can speak for those who have gone that the trip is pretty cool, fun, educational and something to look forward to every year.

COVID 19 prevented us from going this year, but we will be planning on a trip next year.

Sadly, we have lost at least one pastor whose church we served two years ago.

I want to share with you how and why this ministry relationship between the two Hebrons got started.

A fairly large ethnic group in Chiapas is the Tzeltal people.

They are of Mayan descent.

Yes, Mayan.

Most are farmers from the mountains.

A good many of them are Presbyterians!

And they are discriminated against.

The cause of their discrimination is primarily ethnic.

They are shunned by those who look at them as inferior simply because they are of Mayan descent.

And also because they don’t speak Spanish.

They speak almost exclusively the Tzeltal language which is unknown to the “Spanish medical community”.

So, on those rare occasions when they go to the towns or cities to get medical care (which is quite a task) they are not well received if not outright ignored.

When they are able to access health services, language differences and prejudice often prevent them from receiving appropriate and adequate care.

To the Tzeltal people, a hospital is where you go to die.

Here is an example.

Around 2005, there was a gathering of the Presbyterian Senate in Ocosingo.

One of the Tzeltal pastors traveled with his wife who was pregnant with her 4th child.

While in Ocosingo, she went into labor.

They went to the local hospital where both she and the baby died.

No one at the hospital spoke Tzeltal and so could not communicate with her and when she died, could not communicate with the pastor.

To this day, he does not know what happened to his wife and child.

When word of this tragedy got back to the Senate, they immediately started to plan for the building of a clinic for these ethnic folks.

So, Hebron USA helped their Mexican partners to build that clinic.

The Manos de Cristo (Hands of Christ) Clinic was finished in 2012 in the town of Ocosingo.

The clinic is now open all year in an effort to provide care for the Tzeltal community, along with other ethnic minorities. 

Why do I tell you this story?

First, to recruit for future Chiapas trips.

Second, because I hope it troubles you that a particular group of people are so looked down on that they receive poor medical care, if they get any at all.

And lastly, I thought of the Tzeltal people when I read this week’s scripture passage.

It’s a passage about someone seeking medical help and being refused because of who she was by someone who should surprise you.

Here it is.

Matthew 15: 21-28

21 Jesus 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.

The most important reason we are all here is because we love Jesus.

We worship Jesus.

Because of who he is.

And because of what he does.

The preaching.

The healings.

The feedings.

The standing up to authority.

The announcing of the coming Kingdom of God.

That’s our Jesus!

That’s why we love and worship him.

But then there is today’s text.

Jesus has just fed 5,000 folks with a couple loaves and fish.

He has calmed a storm and walked on water.

He has just told off the Pharisees and scribes for holding tradition above mercy.

Jesus has moved on into the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Gentile territory.

So, Jesus’ audience includes gentiles.

As Jesus walks along, a Canaanite woman started shouting at him.

Think about that for a moment.

A woman!

Shouting!

At a man!

That’s bad enough in those days.

But she is also of the wrong race.

A Canaanite!

Ancient enemy of Israel and pagan to boot.

Shouting at this Jewish Rabbi.

Shameful!

Unthinkable!

Infuriating!

She is, in the eyes of the Jews, a non-person.

She is nothing.

Yet she cries out to Jesus.

She has a daughter who is possessed.

Certainly a medical emergency.

She has heard great things about Jesus.

She calls him Lord.

Son of David.

That is what his followers call him, so she does, too.

She believes he can help.

In fact, she believes that Jesus is her only hope.

She screams for his help.

‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’

But what happens?

She is treated like a Tzeltal in a Spanish hospital.

Jesus ignores her.

But she keeps shouting.

This goes on long enough that the disciples seem to ask Jesus to just do what she asks so she will just go away.

Jesus turns to the disciples and says he has only come for the lost sheep of Israel … still ignoring the woman.

Finally, she throws herself at his feet and cries out, “Lord, help me!”

And then Jesus says something so un-Jesus-like it makes us cringe.

‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Everyone knows that the children are the Jews and the dogs are … well … everyone like her.

The food she wants, and what Jesus refuses her, is his ability to heal her daughter.

Jesus seems not to care.

This is both insult and injury.

Preachers hate this passage.

Every time I read it; I cringe.

Did you?

I mean Jesus is supposed to love everyone, care for everyone, be compassionate to everyone, and invite everyone into the Kingdom, right?

But here, Jesus is uncaring, dismissive and, dare I say, racist?

If this offends you … good.

It should.

It is offensive.

Just like the medical care, or lack of it, for the Tzeltal people in Chiapas.

So, what is going on here?

Why would Jesus say such a thing?

Many try to put different spins on this text to explain it.

Some have said that Jesus is being sarcastic.

His tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

“Just kidding!”

Others say that Jesus is just being his human self.

He snaps at this woman for her unwomanly behavior.

Some say this is a kind of test of the woman’s faith.

Does she have faith despite her foreignness?

“What makes you think I will do something for someone like you?”

The difficulty here is that Matthew does not say what is going on here.

But then the woman takes Jesus to task.

She uses Jesus words to argue that she should get help anyway.

‘OK, you say I am a dog”, she shouts.

“That might be so, but I have heard that you folks give your leftovers to the dogs.”

“That is all I want.”

“I’m not asking for much.”

“A bit of compassion.”

“A bit of hope.”

“A little bit of healing for my daughter.”

“I have heard that can do that.”

“And I believe it.”

“Or did I hear wrong?”

“Maybe you are unwilling?”

“But I believe you can help me.”

Jesus is impressed with the argument.

This changes everything.

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

And her daughter was healed at that moment.

This is quite a turnaround.

Which brings us to another possibility of what happened here.

Did Jesus change his mind?

Did that moment change the course of Jesus’ task?

Not only does he come for the Jews, but also the gentile dogs?

The thought that Jesus could change his mind is a bit unnerving; perhaps troubling; maybe frightening.

So, what is going on here?

Sarcasm?

Human irritability?

A test of faith?

A change of mind?

I think none of these things.

Maybe Jesus was using this woman as a teaching opportunity.

I think Jesus saw this marginalized woman as an opportunity to make an important point.

Jesus might be holding up a mirror in front of all those who heard his remark and basically said, “This is what you sound like!”

Ostracizing this Canaanite, pagan, single mom with a sick kid.

She is Tzeltal in a Spanish world.

“This is the way you treat her.”

“You classify her and her daughter as sub-human.”

“Unworthy of help.”

“Unworthy of hope.”

“And if it offends you … good!”

“It is offensive.”

“How would you like it if I treated everyone this way?”

“How would you like it if God treated you this way?”

“How far from the Kingdom of God such are!”

“This woman – a Canaanite – recognizes the Kingdom.”

“I am right here in front of her.”

“She is on her knees because she knows – knows – I can help.”

“Not her, but her daughter.”

“And I choose to do so.”

Not because of who she is, but because of who I am.

Which brings us to a second possible lesson.

Jesus only heals someone who believes he can.

It is the faith that heals.

Jesus understands this woman’s response to his surly comment as faith that Jesus will be … well … Jesus-like.

Like the Jesus she heard about.

Like the Jesus who has demonstrated enough mercy to heal her daughter.

Jesus responds.

“What you asked for has happened.”

The girl is healed.

So, the lesson does end well.

Why do I think this was a lesson to those who would not have helped her?

Because this is not the first time Jesus has healed someone at the request of a gentile.

He has healed the Centurion’s servant because the Centurion believes he can.

So, this was not a moment where Jesus changed his mind.

This was a moment when Jesus changed the minds of his followers.

And whose mind was changed?

The disciples.

Ours?

The lesson?

The Kingdom is for all of us.

Even Canaanites.

Even the Tzeltal.

There is enough mercy for everyone in the Kingdom of God.

That is good news indeed.

So, what does that mean for us in 2020?

Who are the folks we think of as non-persons these days?

Who are the dogs?

Who are our Tzeltal people?

Who are the people we reject?

Who are the people we ignore?

Who are the people we look down on?

Who are the people who don’t look like us, sound like us, believe what we believe, or come from another community?

Sometimes we need to change our minds.

Maybe do a 180.

And that is what Jesus teaches us today.

Today, with the help of this Canaanite woman, Jesus tells us that we need to change our ways.

If we are to be disciples of Jesus, we need to act like Jesus.

We need to open our hearts and minds to the people who cry out to us for help.

And when we do help, in whatever ways we can, they are blessed by what we do – and so are we.

Our change of mind can change everything.

Not because of who we, or they, are, but because of who Jesus is.

If we are his disciples we need d to act like it.

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