August 16, 2020
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Psalm 67; Matthew 15:21-28
The best scene (in my humble opinion) in my favorite TV show of all time, The West Wing, comes in the final episode of season two. Those of you who are superfans like me will probably remember this scene well. Throughout season two, President Bartlett’s administration has been beleaguered by a number of different challenges that seem to be piling up and putting the president under an enormous amount of pressure. He has recently survived an assassination attempt, but one of his top advisors took a bullet and remains hospitalized in critical condition. And in a crisis of his own making, it has just been discovered that the president has been concealing his MS diagnosis from the American people, and now he is under fire, just at the time when he needs to decide whether he plans to run for reelection. That question of whether he will run again creates the tension the drives the plot through this entire episode.
And now the president has just experienced an especially hard blow. His personal secretary, Mrs. Landingham, has expertly kept the trains running on time in an office where that is an almost impossible task, but most importantly, she has become the heart and soul of the West Wing, beloved by everyone. For weeks she has been talking with anyone who would listen about her plans to buy a new car—her first new car purchase ever—and she has been receiving everyone’s advice about what features to look for and how not to get taken advantage of by car salesman who might see her as an easy target. Finally, she goes to buy the car, and on the way home from the dealership, she is hit and killed by a drunk driver.
This favorite scene of mine takes place just after Mrs. Landingham’s funeral in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. After the service, after everyone has left, the president’s chief of staff tells him, “We’ve got to go back to the office now, sir. We’ve got some decisions to make.” But the president asks for some time alone in the cathedral and he orders everyone to leave the building. Then the president unleashes his fury on God.
“She bought her first new car,” he says, “and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, is that supposed to be funny?” Then he quotes the novelist Graham Greene, who wrote, “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” The president scoffs. I don’t know who he was trying to impress, he says, because “I think you’re just vindictive.”
In the show, President Bartlett is a devout Catholic whose faith has informed every major decision he’s ever made. He has studied Catholic social teaching and faith-rooted social justice principles are deep in his bones. In another episode he invites a priest into the Oval Office to hear his confession as he agonizes over the death penalty. He is a man of deep faith, and here he is in the National Cathedral, railing against God. “Yes, I lied,” he says. “It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins.” Then looking up to the cross at the front of the church, the president asks, “Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” He calls God a “feckless thug.” The scene ends with the president approaching the altar, and now he’s shouting. But the screenwriters rendered the final words of the president’s speech in Latin—the ancient language of the Catholic Church—because that part of the speech was so vulgar and offensive that they were afraid it would be censored on broadcast television.
I love this scene because it portrays someone who sees the injustice of the world and the pain and suffering all around them, and who responds by showing up in God’s house and demanding a hearing, insisting that this isn’t right, that the world deserves better. This scene portrays someone who refuses to let God off the hook, who believes that God has the power to bring healing to the world, and who shows up to shame God into action.
This scene came to mind this week because I think something like this is happening in today’s Gospel lesson. In that reading from Matthew, a Gentile woman with a daughter who is ill insists on getting a hearing with Jesus. She won’t take “no” for an answer, and at the end of the story, that is what Jesus calls faith.
A Canaanite woman comes shouting at Jesus. Let’s just pause right there for a second. In a rabidly patriarchal culture where a woman was expected to keep silent in the presence of a man who wasn’t her husband—and even then wasn’t supposed to make her voice heard—this woman shows up shouting at Jesus. Even worse, she is a Canaanite woman. You probably remember that, centuries earlier, when Moses led the Israelites into the promised land, that was the land of Canaan; Canaanites were the original inhabitants of the Israelites’ homeland. The book of Joshua tells the gruesome story of how the Israelites obliterated the Canaanites and occupied their land. So there were generations’ worth of bad blood between Canaanites and Jews, and now here’s a Canaanite woman shouting at Jesus. On top of that, the woman’s daughter is possessed by a demon, which puts her even further out on the margins. This woman has no business shouting her demands at Jesus.
And Jesus knows it. He responds the way any self-respecting Jewish man in his day would have responded: He ignores her. His disciples tell him to send her away, muttering about how she’s a nasty woman. Jesus tells her that he came to help the lost sheep of Israel, not outsiders like her. Nevertheless, she persists, now pleading with Jesus, “Lord, help me.” This is when Jesus replies with words that seem almost unforgiveable: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus calls this woman a dog. Let that sink in for a bit. But somehow, despite everything, this woman still believes Jesus can help her, and she insists she is worthy of God’s mercy. She replies to Jesus’ insult with a retort of her own. She says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” At this point, Jesus has a change of heart. Jesus says she is a woman of great faith, and he relents. The daughter is healed.
This, I think, is the point of the story: It’s when this woman who, by all accounts, should be rejected and scorned argues her case before Jesus, insists she is worthy, and demands that he help her—that is when healing comes for the woman’s daughter.
So often when we find ourselves in situations of hardship or despair, we resort to pious clichés. We tell ourselves that “everything happens for a reason,” and that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Some of us want desperately to believe that Kelly Clarkson is right: “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.” We say these kinds of things, I think, because we want to make sense of things that seem senseless. And we can’t imagine that God might be ignoring our pleas for help or intentionally choosing to cast us aside. It makes us feel better to think maybe God has a plan that we simply don’t understand or can’t comprehend. The thing is, I’m not sure these kinds of responses ever bring us much in the way of healing. If anything, “God never gives us more than we can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason” only let God off the hook. What if the most pious response is to shout our frustration up to a God who seems to us to be cruel and unconcerned? What if healing really comes, like it does for the Canaanite woman, when we find the words to lodge our complaints before God and to demand healing, to insist that we are worthy of God’s mercy and love?
Today as we come before God asking for healing for ourselves, our loved ones, our nation, and our entire world, show up like the Canaanite woman, confident that the promises of God apply to you, too—yes, even you. Bring everything you are feeling to God—your lament, your frustration, your exhaustion, your doubts, your fears, even your anger. I promise you God can take it. God won’t reward you for holding back. So today, let us insist together that we are worthy of mercy, that we deserve healing, that we won’t relent until our cries have been heard. That, after all, is what Jesus calls faith.
“Two Cathedrals Rant with Translation” on YouTube, accessed August 12, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYcMk3AJKLk.
Jae Won Lee, “Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).