So? Do you have your eclipse glasses? I hope so, because if you don’t have them by now I don’t think you’re getting them. The sign down the road at the Plaza-Midwood Library has said they’ve not had any for weeks now.
If you’ve your eclipse research you know that we’re supposed to get about 98% of a total eclipse, meaning the moon will cover about 98% of the sun tomorrow afternoon at about 2:40 PM. If 98%’s not good enough for you, you’ll have to drive about an hour south on 77 for totality.
I confess didn’t realize what a big deal it was until I started exploring NASA’s eclipse website. My dear mother, who is here today, casually reminded me last week that I “had not been reading up on it,” so I started reading and she so kindly brought me a pair of eclipse glasses today. Though human beings have been paying attention to eclipses for something like 5000 years, total solar eclipses are not that common. The last total solar eclipse visible from the US occurred in 1974; the next one will occur in 2024.
There are other eclipses, however, that occur more frequently and I’m not talking astronomy here. I’m talking about another definition of eclipse which means to “deprive someone of significance, power, or prominence.” A person gets eclipsed when he or she is ignored or covered up and it happens in today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, who comes begging him to hear her daughter.
The first thing you need to know about this passage is what it means to be Canaanite. Stick with me for a minute while I give you a brief history lesson. The Biblical history of the land of Canaan goes all the way back to Abraham in Genesis, when God promised that the whole land of Canaan would belong to his descendants. And then remember? Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. Moses led them out of Egypt against Pharaoh’s will. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before making their way back to the Promised Land–that is, Canaan.
The problem with this was that there were already people living there–the Canaanites, who were not Jewish. And as we know from our history in this country, when you try to take over land that where people already live, things get…hmmm….complicated, to say the least. Joshua, who led the Israelites across the Jordan, was instructed to obliterate anyone in his way, including the Canaanites. That ancient promise established some tension that survived until Jesus’ time–and, let’s face, today. So we have this complicated interaction between a Canaanite woman who begs Jesus for mercy to heal her daughter, the disciples who seem annoyed by her and encourage Jesus to send her away, and Jesus, who ignores her at first and then claims that his mercy is only for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (that is–not her). It is an interaction built upon the ancient promise to Abraham that the land was “theirs.”
I’m not only one for whom the story is problematic. First, it’s so out-of-character for Jesus. What about, for example, all the other times Jesus heal people? Up until this moment in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has healed a leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and a paralytic, among others. Everywhere else, he seems more-than-eager to heal.
Second, what about those 5000 people he just fed on the lakeshore where he dispersed mercy so freely and indiscriminately? When the disciples wanted to send them away and Jesus said, “no, you give them something to eat.” What if the Canaanite woman had been among those thousands? Surely, she ate and was filled along with the rest. Maybe she really was there and maybe that’s why, despite her ethnicity, she already appears to be a disciple, calling Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David.” His behavior simply doesn’t compute. Like the moon shadowing the sun, the Canaanite woman is totally eclipsed. She is not seen or heard. She is ignored because of her ethnicity. The disciples instruct Jesus to send her away, as if her needs do not matter; as if she has no worth. In fact, Jesus even refers to her in the derogatory term “dog,” and says he can’t take the “children’s food” and “throw it to the dogs.” This is a sad and potentially dangerous story–if we’re not careful–for anyone who is “different” or anyone who has friends, family, or loved ones who are “different.” No one wants to be eclipsed.
If I were making a movie out of this scene, the moment between when the woman begs for mercy and when Jesus grants it to her is where I would cut to slow motion. Super slow motion. It’s where I would depict Jesus’ head opening and his thoughts swirling about, so we could see exactly what he was thinking.
First, I imagine that he would remember that promise to Abraham, and I’m sure Moses’ struggle in the wilderness. He would remember the suffering of God’s people. Then maybe he would see himself as a new Moses, leading his people out of the slavery of sin.
But Jesus knew his scripture. He was a good student. In Luke’s Gospel he stood up in the synagogue and began to quote from the prophet Isaiah. So then, in this expanded moment, maybe he would recall another passage from Isaiah–the same one that Alyssa just read. It’s the voice of the Lord, encouraging the people to maintain justice and do was is right. It’s God talking about making God’s house a house of prayer for all people, including foreigners? This must a critical turning point for Jesus because by the end of Matthew’s story, he sends his disciples out with instructions to make disciples of “all nations”–all ethni is the Greek word, as in ethnicities, as in also those who are not Jewish, as in everyone. The thread of mercy throughout the Bible is just as strong–no, stronger–than the thread of privilege based on who is considered the “chosen’ people or race.
Paul says so himself in the passage Alyssa read from Romans.
He’s in the middle of this discussion of whether salvation–we’ll call it mercy here–belongs to the Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike. In this case, certainly it belongs to the Gentiles–they’ve been grafted on to the promise to Abraham as a shoot is grafted onto an olive tree, he says. In a strange turn of events, it’s actually the the Jewish people who are a bit eclipsed here, and find themselves in need of mercy. “Has God rejected his people?” he asks? They may be the promised people, but, boy did they mess up time and time again. All of us, he says, need mercy–Gentiles and Jewish people alike–because we are all imprisoned in disobedience. In that sense, we are no better than them. They are no better than us. It doesn’t matter who they and them or we and us are. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul says, which, in God’s eyes, places all of us on one equal plane and in need of mercy.
The Canaanite woman begs for mercy, the very definition of which implies compassion for those who could be treated harshly, which is all of us. Mercy is for those who least expect it, but who need it the most. And it is never up to us to withhold that mercy and always up to us to dispense of it. That is the Jesus way.
We hear enough on the news, especially recently, to know that tensions are high in this country right now, particularly racially and politically. It’s both sad and scary. What Jesus shows us in this expanded slow motion moment is that mercy is way more abundant than we could think possible. The last thing this world needs right now is more discrimination, more isolation, more judgmentalism, more hate. Jesus shows us another way. Acting with justice, loving tenderly, and serving one another are the only ways God will change hearts and bring about healing. May God strengthen us on our journey as we struggle to do so. Amen.