READING: Matthew 15:21-28
SERMON : "Overcoming Barriers"
Rev. Richard J. Fairchild
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous letter from
Birmingham Jail responded to criticisms of the local clergy who charged
that he was an outside agitator who was stirring up trouble away from his
home town. He wrote
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and
states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned
about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat
to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network
of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever
affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The gospel story today features a woman - a Canaanite woman - who persists
in asking Jesus for a healing for her daughter.
According to the thought at the time - this woman was beyond the pale.
She was a foreigner
One who did not belong.
The woman from Canaan is the first non-Jewish woman that Jesus deals with
in the gospels and - as the story seems to show - there seems to be some
reluctance on his part to do so.
Some say that at the moment the woman confronted Jesus he extended his
divine mission, for the very first time, to those outside of Israel. That,
after some thought - hence the time of silence that is recorded in the
passage, Jesus decided to be the Messiah to the Gentiles as well as to the
I personally think that this is nonsense - the scriptures are full of
passages saying how salvation will proceed from the Jews to the Gentiles -
and Jesus was well aware of them.
Further, Jesus has already performed a miraculous healing for a Gentile,
the Centurion in charge at Capernaum, telling his disciples as he did so
"I say to you many will come from the east and the west, and will
take their places at the feat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in
the kingdom of heaven..." (Matthew 8:11)
Yes, we see Jesus start his work with the chosen people, his own people,
sending his disciples out to perform miracles and proclaim the nearness of
the Kingdom of Heaven - and that is at it should be - but it is clear from
the beginning that Jesus had no intention of confining the good news to the
Children of Israel.
I think that Jesus was testing the disciples
the disciples who were so eager to send the Canaanite woman away from
Jesus and who in fact begged Jesus to send her away
- and yes - I think that perhaps Jesus was testing the woman herself
I believe that Jesus was trying to make a point about faith - and about the
barriers that people place in the way of salvation - barriers of race,
barriers of culture, barriers of sex, barriers of wealth, even barriers of
morality and religion.
Is not - as it says in Isaiah, the prophet that Jesus quotes the most - Is
not the House of the Lord of Israel, the House of God, to be called a House
of Prayer for All Nations?
That is the way it supposed to be. But how often is it that way?
Whatever we think about the silence of Jesus when he is confronted by the
woman from Canaan,
- Whatever we think about the comment he made to the disciples about
the lost sheep of Israel,
- And whatever we make of his comment to the woman about how it is not
fair to throw the bread of the children to the dogs -
today's passage does show us that the barriers exist between people,
and that those barriers can be overcome.
I want to look at the story from this vantage point and speak to you about
the faith that overcomes barriers.
There are many kinds of barriers that seek to keep the woman from Jesus and
the salvation that she seeks.
The most obvious barrier is that fact of her nationality.
She is not a Jew. She has no business turning to a Jewish religious leader
for help. She does not worship the Jewish God or follow the Jewish
religious customs and laws. She, as I said earlier, does not belong.
The second barrier is her sex.
She is a woman - and despite the record of how many woman came to Jesus for
help, woman really no business approaching a male religious leader
These barriers are bad enough - but others are revealed in the story that
are equally devastating.
After the woman decides to approach Jesus, after she sees him and calls
upon him to heal her daughter, she must deal with his silence. She must
overcome the natural reaction that surely welled up within her to simply
give up and go away. The master is not responding to her.
Then - on top of this - when she persists in crying out she must deal with
those closest to Jesus - with the disciples, who try to drive her away
and who even go so far as to ask Jesus to send her away.
She must overcome the scorn, the frustration, and the repugnance of those
around her - those who seem to have been told by the master that he has no
responsibility towards outsiders like her.
And then, at last, when she does get close to the master -
when she falls on her knees before him to ask for his help,
she must deal with what seems to be an insult -
she must swallow whatever pride she may have left and allow herself to
be compared to a dog.
Think of it - think of having a real need in your life, and believing that
there is someone who can help you with that need,
but that person is totally unrelated to you by blood, culture,
religion, or race - and in fact comes from a bloodline, culture,
religion and race that is opposed to your own.
Think of having not only to face this kind of barrier, but also having to
face a group of people who are telling you to get lost, and at the same
time having to deal with apparent apathy, indeed even what at first blush
seems like hostility from the person whom you are seeking help from,
-- and all because of who you are and where you have come from.
Would you put up with it? Would you even bother trying in the first place?
And having tried and being rebuffed - would you not be tempted to give up
and to allow the barriers between you and your goal to stand?
How easy it is for us when we meet barriers between ourselves and what we
want to walk away in sadness and in disgust, in anger, or in despair,
and to tell everyone around you:
"those beep beep people - they are no good at all, they will
not help; they are just as everyone else says they are."
But the woman from Canaan does not do this. She persists despite the
barriers between her and Jesus; she continues on despite the obstacles
between her and what she believes is will be the source of her daughter's
healing - the one whom she calls "Lord" and "The Son of David" - the one
she believes is the Messiah of the Jews.
She wails and cries out for help,
but she does not get uptight
she does not get angry
and she does not give up.
She believes that Jesus can help her
and she is persistent and she is humble in her belief
she is clever and she is hopeful in her faith,
and in the end she achieves the goal she battled all the barriers to
obtain, she receives the life of her daughter - a life free of the demons
who were torturing her.
And that is what the story is really all about
- it is about finding life - a good life -
it is about overcoming the barriers that prevent others, and ourselves,
from being made whole.
Every person of good sense knows that wholeness comes from God
and can only come from God - and from God's special servants.
Certainly the woman from Canaan knew this
and, because of the stories that she had heard,
and perhaps because of what she herself had seen somewhere,
she had the faith that Jesus could bestow God's wholeness on the most
important person in her life - her daughter.
While this woman from Canaan did not know God in the way that those in
Israel knew him, she believed that Jesus was special,
and though she was an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, she calls him
Lord in recognition of this specialness that she sees in him.
She believes in him.
And she takes action on the basis of that belief .
She holds onto her faith in the face of obstinacy,
- she holds onto her faith even though she does not hear an answer
from the Lord right away,
- she holds onto her faith despite the barriers raised by others,,
- she holds onto her faith even in the face of apparent insult and
rejection from the one she believes in,
And in the end she receives the reward of faith - salvation comes into her
What I want to say at this point is that there it is very important to
distinguish faith from other kinds of things.
When Jesus says to her at the end of the story
- "Woman, great is your faith"
What he means is not - great is your persistence
- nor great is your pushiness
- nor even - great is your need
No, what he means is great is the reason you have for being here when your
daughter is sick - great is the hope you have in coming to me - great is
the trust that led you here and caused you to be persistent, clever, and
even a bit pushy.
You see we often confuse faith - the faith that overcomes barriers - with
action. And while faith most surely does lead to action, faith itself must
be in the forefront to make those actions happen.
The woman from Canaan believed in Jesus, she had faith in him,
- she believed he could heal,
- she believed that he was her hope and he alone,
and it was this belief, this faith, that overrode all other concerns
it alone gave her the energy to persist in the face of opposition,
it alone supplied her with the courage and the audacity that she needed.
* No one will persist who does not believe that it is worth while.
* No one will face insult or injury who does not trust they are on the
* No one will succeed who does have the faith that their goal can be
We need to remember our faith if we are to overcome barriers and receive
We need to really believe the word written in THIS BOOK,
and the word that is written on our hearts -
that word that says God is not just the God of Israel,
- and God is not just limited to making some people feel good about
themselves on a Sabbath evening or a Sunday morning
We need to believe that God cares even when it seems God doesn't care.
We need to believe that God is life, and love and goodness
And that life is stronger than the mightiest enemy - stronger than death,
And that love is greater than the highest wall of prejudice or the most
solid barrier of ignorance.
And that goodness is meant for all.
We need to believe that God is the source of all healing
and that he is the fount all of grace
that he gives to those in need
and listens to those who humble themselves before him and believe in him
My friends - no human barrier can stand before God
Nor before those who call on his name in faith.
When we have faith - when we turn to God as our hope and our life
that which we seek we will find.
The answer we seek may not come instantly.
And the forces of human prejudice and ignorance may try to drive us away.
We may even think at times that we hear God telling us we are outsiders
- though we would be hearing wrong -
But if we hold onto our faith,
if we persist in it
God will help us.
This is the message of the story of the Canaanite woman.
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord,
all praise and glory be unto his name. Amen
copyright - Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2002 - 2005
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.