God Loves Each and Every Stranger and We Are Commanded to Too*

A sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 17, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A new customer went to a travel agent about booking a trip to upstate New York. “By Buffalo?” the agent asked? “I guess that is okay,” the customer replied. “If the saddle is comfortable.” 1

There are a lot of traveling people in the Bible. Adam and Eve traveled out of the Garden of Eden. There is a joke that the Adam and Eve story has the first mention of an automobile, since they were driven from the garden in a FURY. . .  During the flood Noah and his family had to travel, and they too begin life anew in a new place . . . And after that voyage I doubt Noah wanted anything to do with eating pairs . . . Abraham and Sarah left their home too, and as far as we know, did not travel by buffalo. (That’s it for puns today….I think) . . .
The point I am trying to make is that there is a traveling stranger in a strange land theme that plays out over and over in the Bible.
We can think of the Bible as comprised of stories woven like threads to form a tapestry of sacred words. Like any good tapestry some of the threads are repeated so that patterns develop. These patterns are themes that are repeated again and again, they evidence theological points that Biblical authors and their communities considered important enough to highlight by repeating. They are over arching themes in the Bible.

One repeated theme is that God saves people from oppression and delivers them.  The Exodus story is one of the best known of this theme, but we can hear that pattern again and again in other Bible stories.  God saves by liberating the oppressed from exile and bondage when they are captured and enslaved by Babylon.  God sends Jesus to save the oppressed and let them go free.
As a part of this God-Saves-and-Delivers-the-Oppressed theme we learn over and over again that God’s love is steadfast and never ending.  God IS experienced as acting with Steadfast Love in opposition to oppression.  People reading or watching or listening to the American news media might get the impression that major Bible themes are the opposite of that.

You’d think from the messages promoted by many prominent Christian leaders in the mainstream media that “real Christians” are called by the Bible to oppress and oppose all non-Fundamentalist religious views, especially those relating to other faiths, human sexuality, childbearing choices, AND strangers.  People get the impression these are Bible themes because there’s a lot of preaching and Bible thumping about them, but, ironically not one of these is a theme in the Bible. There isn’t even a theme of Christian Fundamentalism in the Bible. It’s a religious point of view created by a few men only a hundred years or so ago.  In case you are wondering there are also no Bible verses which specifically oppose abortion; nor is there a theme opposing marriages that are not between one man and one woman. (Just read about Solomon’s numerous wives).
In short, despite what we might hear, the Bible is not even close to an air tight source for oppressing or opposing non-Fundamentalist religious views, let alone those that relate to modern child bearing choices and marriage rights for lawful couples in America.

All this modern day religious thundering about rather hurtful non-Biblical themes, not only causes people to avoid Christianity, but it also causes important ACTUAL major Bible themes to get short shrift in the media, in our churches and in our day-to-day living.
We may not hear it in the secular news, but we ARE called by God and Jesus in the Bible to side with the oppressed to help them in their Exoduses and Exiles; to do what we can to deliver people from oppression, as we desire their well being, provide necessities, and otherwise steadfastly love them like God does.

Christian leaders need to talk a whole lot more about things like feeding and clothing the poor and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. We’d do a lot better toward achieving heaven on earth if we focused on these type of things– which is why they are such prominent themes in the Bible.
Which brings me back to the huge theme in the Bible about strangers in strange lands that I eluded to a moment ago. It’s one that we rarely ever hear about in America. It’s all over the Bible, yet not discussed much at all. It’s the theme of treating aliens and strangers, well.  There are at least three dozen warnings in the Bible– threads that form a pattern– that God’s people have moral obligations to justly treat aliens and those they consider strangers.  Jesus’ teaching “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” nicely sums up why.” Even better is His command to love your neighbor as yourself. Then there is, of course, his specific assertion in Matthew 25 that we are to welcome the stranger.

Long before Jesus– a Jewish Rabbi– issued those commands, Torah the law Jesus would have studied covered the topic in no uncertain terms at Leviticus 19(33-34):

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Those are pretty powerful words from the Bible all of which sure seem literal in their meaning. And they are words we do not hear in the media or from the lips of most of the prominent church leaders sounding off on other Bible texts.
And it is not like the issue of treatment of aliens and strangers is not in the forefront of the news giving Christian leaders a chance to show their knowledge of how the Bible instructs us to act justly toward those we consider “others.”

Such commandments may not be what some of the public wants to hear. It may not be what some church leaders want to hear. It may not be what some of us want to hear. But there it is big as life in Leviticus 19– the text I just read.
And it is not just Leviticus 19. Here is just a quick sampling of a few of the other commandments about aliens and strangers in the Bible :

Exodus 22(:21) You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 23(:22) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien. . .

Numbers 15(:15-16) As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the LORD. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.

Deuteronomy 24(:17) You shall not deprive a resident alien . . . of justice.
Jeremiah 22(:3) Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness . . . do no wrong or violence to the alien . . .

With all the controversies at our boarders and all the misconduct towards aliens, I know of no Bible thumping religious leader in the media spotlight that has made a ruckus that we must follow God’s commandments to treat the alien well and equal and like a citizen.

We can disagree all we like about what should be done in the secular reality, but we cannot fairly claim there are not Biblical edicts requiring un-oppressive and equal treatment of aliens and strangers. We simple can’t.  Nor can we ignore that while many claim we are a Christian nation we blatantly ignore those commandments, even while the vast majority of us have not so distant ancestors who arrived here as strangers in THIS strange land.
Just as there are battles today about treating non-Americans and even minority “strangers” in the culture as equal, there were battles in first century Palestine about treating non-Jews as equal.  The Jesus Movement at the time that Matthew was written was still a sect of Judaism and there was battle within the Movement about whether non-Jews could join, whether Gentiles within and without the Promised land were entitled to the blessings that Jesus provided Christians.  Could they experience His healing presence without converting to Judaism? Was the church, the early Jesus Movement open to non-Jews, to those strangers considered racially different people, to those Gentiles?
Today’s Lectionary story can be heard to answer that question.
It has Jesus traveling to the further most portion of the Promised Land to towns on its boarder called Tyre and Sidon. 2  It’s there at that boarder that Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman, a non-Israelite, a racially different “other” –and his initial reaction to her cries for help startles us.   Like the American protesters on our southern boarder, like present day racists in Missouri and America, it seems unimaginable that a person could be that callus and dismissive toward a worried mom or any child.  But we are told, Jesus at first ignores, and then he is hostile to this stranger and her child. Referring to the people of Israel as children Jesus tells her that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Sounds a lot like the ugly protests against the children in need coming over our boarders, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind the racial tension in the news all week long with another unarmed black teen killed and the hostility toward those that a sad number of people want to see and treat as different . . . as strangers even within the borders of this Promised Land that we share.

Jesus’ initial words in the story today certainly don’t match up with Jesus’ commands to love neighbors, to do to others as we want done to us, or to welcome strangers.
Today’s text doesn’t seem to comport with other Gospel stories where Jesus treats culturally “others” as equals and with compassion, care, kindness and love. Like when he helps the Samaritan woman at the well, or when he heals a Roman Officer’s child or when he holds up a Samaritan as a good neighbor tending to a stranger in The Good Samaritan.

The Canaanite woman was considered a being of another lesser race, nationality and ethnicity. She is an alien. She is a stranger. She is considered different. She is an other in Jesus’ culture. Her child is in dire need and she comes to Jesus and asks for help and he refuses and insults her to boot.  But the insult does not phase this unnamed heroic mother. She is desperate to help her child, so she pleads further: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This plea works. Jesus exclaims “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.” And we are told then that “her daughter was healed instantly.”

This little story can be used to argue all kinds of theological points. The right
of women to teach and lead in the church. The acceptance of other faiths. The humanness of Jesus. The ability of humans to have an affect on God incarnate, Christ in the world.

I love this story, so much I have to admit that for fun in seminary when folks pontificated on something I thought was a bit off I’d take the Canaanite woman out and put her on the table just to see what would happen:

“We can see that the plan from day one was for Jesus to save Gentiles.” “Interesting. Why does he tell the Canaanite woman he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?”

“The Christian faith is the One way!” Really? Why is it that Jesus glorifies the Canaanite woman’s faith when she was neither Christian nor Jewish?”

“Jesus in the Bible was perfect and unchanging from the start.” “Really? Why is it that he called the Canaanite woman a dog, refused to help her, and then changed his mind?”

This little story, you see, befuddles people. It puts down self-righteousness and speaks to many other subjects. It knocks down barriers like those we see in the border clashes and injustices that have led to riots that have filled the news this summer.
This story is packed full of wisdom and meaning.

Although I sometimes had fun with the Canaanite Woman I take her story very seriously. That amazing strong and courageous mom is the only person in the Bible who teaches Jesus something and changes his mind.  She was a member of a race considered subordinate to Him and was of a gender considered subordinate to men, yet that lowly Canaanite woman packs more power than even Jesus himself in this story. And she does it non-violently, metaphorically she is like Martin Luther King, she is like Gandhi, she is like the Christ we love and experience.  Pretty cool stuff, even if unsettling.

For those of us who want an easy out for this story we can take a sigh of relief as the Jesus Scholars deemed the words placed in Jesus’ mouth in this story as too unreliable to trace back to the historic Jesus. 3.  While it may have some echos of the truth of Jesus aiding Gentiles, it is not likely an accurate account of history.   In other words, reputable scholars don’t believe that Jesus actually mistreated a Canaanite woman and her child.
I find it interesting, though, that about twenty percent of the Jesus Scholars “took the view that the story was a Christian invention to justify the church’s mission to the Gentiles.”4.
In fact I understood a seminary professor to indicate that he thought that Jesus in this story was meant to symbolize the Church and it’s move from being the Body of Christ that ministered only in Israel to being the Body of Christ that ministered to the ends of the earth – to Gentiles and Jews. 5.  Like last week’s story with a boat symbolizing the Church, this week we can hear it is Christ in the story who symbolizes the Church.  That would explain the story’s existence in the Gospels. We can hear it as a summary of that historic battle. Some of the leaders of the early Church, the Body of Christ, at one time did not want to waste resources on the Gentiles, but rather focus on the lost sheep of Israel, not on the dogs of other races.  Seen this way our discomfort is shifted to the exclusionary ways of the culture being wrestled with by the Church, not the historic Jesus.

But there is also good news about the Church in the story, it gets its act together, it ends up offering its blessings to strangers, to alien parents and children and those considered of another race.   The Church, the Body of Christ, in the story symbolically can be heard choose to do the right thing, to help the Canaanite woman and her child. This means that early on the Church made the mistake of excluding folks on the basis of race, but, when the error was pointed out the Church fixed it.  The Body of Christ, the Church, when all is said and done, relatively quickly, willingly, and lovingly answers the call to help strangers, those considered of another race.  That’s not disturbing. That’s a lesson in Love.
That’s a lesson in how Church ought to act when it makes mistakes, when it has excluded others from Jesus’ open-to-all community and table, when it has withheld loving acts from “others” in the world.

This way of hearing the text pulls the story into line with a main theme in the Bible of God incarnate being experienced as acting in with Steadfast Love in opposition to oppression.
Helping those in need and stand against oppression is a primary theme woven into our Bible tapestry. That’s good news!  And we, like Jesus, and the early Church, need to make sure we apply it to aliens and strangers, to immigrant children at our boarders, and to all races within them.
God’s love has NO strings attached . . . and neither should our love!

* Based in part on two previous sermons of mine, one written in 2008 the other in 2009.
1. Hodgin, Michael, 1001 Humorous Illustrations For Public Speaking p. 351
2. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/26/the-biblical-cities-of-tyre-and-sidon.aspx
3. The Acts of Jesus, p. 96-97
4. Ibid.
5. This is at least how I interpreted Dr. John Rigg’s musings one day in a course on Baptism and Communion.