Trinity 8 and Baptism
A woman comes to Jesus in the story we’ve just heard, a desperate woman, a mother whose child is ill. What do we expect? We expect that Jesus will be full of sympathy and love, that he’ll leap into action, healing the child with no further ado. But what actually happened was very different, and very puzzling. Far from helping her, at first Jesus tries to send her away, just as the disciples have done. Her concerns have nothing to do with him, he says, it would be like throwing the children’s food to the dogs. Ouch! That’s not the Jesus we expect to encounter in the Bible.
In the end he does heal the child, and affirms this woman’s faith in no uncertain terms, but only because she has refused to take no for an answer. She teaches him far more than he teaches her, and that is something that we may find hard to deal with, especially if we think of Jesus as fundamentally different from us, always in control, always in the know, always getting it right, rather than a fully human person like us.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it is in the Bible at all. The most natural thing in the world would have been for those who wrote the Gospels to have quietly edited it out. It doesn’t show Jesus in a good light. But no, both Matthew and Mark put it in, loud and clear, without apology, and that tells us that they think there is a message here which is so important that we just mustn’t miss it.
That message is that Jesus learns and changes through his encounter with others. Being human, really properly, fully human, means that we don’t always have perfect knowledge. We don’t always react in the right way first time off. That’s as true for Jesus as it is for us. We are shaped by the world we live in. We are shaped for ill by it, taking on prejudices without even knowing it. But we can also be shaped for good by it too, if we are prepared to listen and to learn as we go along. Jesus is just as embedded in his own context and time as we are, but he has the courage to consider that he might be wrong. He is prepared to open his ears, and his mind, to the voices of others, even if it is sometimes a struggle.
In this case it is the voice of a distressed mother which he learns to hear anew. He is in the district of Tyre and Sidon, we are told. That’s a very significant detail, because it tells us that Jesus is not on his own home ground. Tyre and Sidon are coastal towns over the border from Israel in Syria. Frankly it is a very peculiar place for Jesus to go. Tyre and Sidon are the home of Israel’s ancient enemies, the Canaanites, sometimes called the Philistines in the Bible. Goliath was a Philistine and so was Jezebel. Even if we don’t recall much of the stories, their names probably still carry overtones for us of brutality and wickedness.
Tyre and Sidon were seaports, and like sea ports the world over, known for being rackety, dissolute places, full of sailors on shore-leave spending their wages on wine, women and song. There were people from every race and nation here too, practicing every religion under the sun in every way you can imagine, and some you probably can’t.
There were a lot of reasons why a good, observant Jew would have felt very uncomfortable in this place. Jesus has certainly not gone here for a quiet break by the seaside. So what is he doing here? The only really plausible answer is that he has realised that he needs to take himself beyond his comfort zone, so to speak, just as he takes himself out into the wilderness before his ministry begins. This is another sort of wilderness for him, a place where he knows he will be challenged, even if he doesn’t quite know how much.
And sure enough, he finds himself catapulted into a situation which profoundly challenges him.
The woman who comes to him presents him with a perfect storm of disturbing factors. She is a Canaanite, which is no surprise since he is in Canaan. But she is also a woman, and in Jesus’ culture women weren’t expected to go out and about meeting unrelated men like this. Respectable women were always under the protection of men. Where is the man who should be looking after this woman? Even if she is a widow, it would have been expected that she would have a man to speak for her – a father, brother or uncle. She seems to be having to fight her own battle here, though, and whatever the reason, that would have looked very suspicious to a respectable Jew. Perhaps the father of her child was one of the sailors with a girl in every port, long gone on the tide now from Tyre and Sidon, leaving her to fend for herself and her daughter. She’s not quiet and respectful either. She is loud, persistent, embarrassing. The disciples are fed up with her trailing after them, and Jesus doesn’t at first seem to be able to summon any more patience and compassion than they do. But at least he gives her a hearing, has the conversation they have been avoiding, and it changes his mind completely. By the end he isn’t just giving her what she wants – the healing of her daughter – but praising her faith too. God really is at work beyond the pale, outside the comfortable confines of the respectable Jewish faith he has grown up with. This woman is just as much his child as Jesus’ own people are. God really can dwell wherever he wants to.
Jesus seems to have started out thinking that this woman’s concerns really aren’t his business. They are nothing to do with him. But now he sees that he is connected in love and compassion to a far wider community than he had first thought. He has preached about a God whose love is broad and limitless; now he learns what that really means in practice, and sees how much of a struggle it can be to live out that message of limitless love. There was no way he could learn this lesson except through this painful and disturbing encounter. He had to get it wrong in order to get it right.
There’s a poem by the Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai. It’s called The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
“Doubts and loves dig up the world.” That’s what’s happened to Jesus. His world has been dug up by this strange, foreign woman, with her insistent demands. He has to think again about himself, his mission and his God as he learns to see her as his sister, someone who connected to him, whose concerns are his concerns too. And in doing so he begins to form a new sort of community which crosses lines of nationality, culture and gender.
If ever there was a week when we needed reminding about the importance of community it is surely this one. There are no doubt many factors which led to the riots we have seen this week, but one of the things they have revealed is how little some people seem to feel connected to their own neighbours and neighbourhoods. The rioters terrorised people, burned and looted, as if the communities in which they themselves live have nothing to do with them, as if it just doesn’t matter if the shops in their High Streets have to close, or families like their own find themselves homeless.
We’ve also seen, of course, the way in which these events have woken up the good that is often hidden in our communities, as people came out to join in the clear up. Armies of broom-wielding people swept the streets clean as soon as they were allowed back into them, declaring by doing so that these were their streets and they cared about them. People realised how important it was to see those around them not as strangers but people to whom they have a responsibility, to whom they are connected, however different from them they might seem to be. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Today we are baptising Isabella as a member of our community in this place and a member of the world wide community of the church. In this baptism, as in every baptism, we get a chance to declare our support for her and for her parents, to affirm that she, like every child, is part of God’s family, and therefore part of our family too. She’s not just a number, a free-floating individual in a sea of other free-floating individuals, she belongs to us all, and we belong to her.
It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, and in baptism we try to provide at least a bit of that village for Isabella, a group of people who care about her, and who want her to grow up knowing she has a secure place in the world as well as in her own family. We have resources to share with her, stories of faith and long experience of trying (successfully or not) to live alongside one another in love. We can offer her, as she grows, opportunities to serve others too, to find ways of giving back to the community. And we hope that through these things she will know that she matters to us, and come to feel that we matter to her as well, so that she learns that all people are her brothers and sisters.
In the face of all that disconnects and divides people - greed, selfishness, fear, envy – baptism is a declaration of hope for the future, a recognition that each one of us is indispensible to the whole, each one of us makes a difference to the world.