Two Sides to Every Story
First United Presbyterian Church
“Two Sides to Every Story”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 20, 2017
Listen to sermon audio
Listen to sermon audio
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
Intro: In last week’s episode from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus and his disciples crossed over the sea of Galilee to the town of Gennesaret. This week, they take a strange side trip to the northwest, to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, out of Judean territory and into the Province of Syria. No real explanation is given for this random bit of travel. They don’t need to pass through this region to reach another destination. In fact, afterward, they seem to turn around and head back in the direction from which they came. It’s a strange and challenging text in all sorts of ways. So I invite you to listen with your whole heart and soul and mind.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
There are two sides to every story.
On the surface of the story we just heard, Jesus – the all-loving, all-forgiving, ever-gracious one – is rude, discriminatory, and downright mean.
Plenty of preachers and commentators have attempted to explain Jesus’ side of the story. Sure, he was divine, but he was also human. He was subject to the limitations of human flesh.
So maybe he was a little tired and irritable. He’d been rejected in his hometown. His cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed. He’d been mobbed by crowds seeking his healing and teaching. What he really needed now was a good, long rest, not more people pestering him for miracles.
But I don’t buy this story. First of all: yes – Jesus is fully human. But he’s also fully DIVINE. He needs to sleep and eat, and he feels physical and even emotional pain. But he’s still God. The human nature doesn’t take over the divine nature and force Jesus to ignore people and call them mean names when they come asking for help. Calling someone a female dog in ancient Aramaic is not any nicer than it sounds in 21st century English.
So I don’t buy the story that Jesus’ behavior excusable because he’s only human after all.
But there is another side to this story.
Jesus and his disciples have just entered the district of Tyre and Sidon. Now, these names don’t mean much to us today, though they are still port cities in Lebanon. In the first century, they were major trade cities on the Mediterranean Sea, a channel for goods travelling inland from Macedonia and Egypt. But for Jesus and his disciples, this would have been like coming into Aspen or Beaver Creek. These were regions of wealth and privilege.
And just as Jesus and his crew turn off 1-70 toward the resorts, this woman comes along, raising a ruckus about wanting a favor from Jesus.
Now, this woman is not Jewish. The gospel of Mark calls her Syrophoenician, a description from the first-century landscape. But Matthew labels her a Canaanite, tying her to the people-group driven out of the Holy Land when the people of Israel arrived. Throughout the centuries, the Canaanites kept getting the Israelites in trouble by tempting them away from their God. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the now-termed Syrophoenicians are wealthy and culturally advanced. They’re responsible for that Phoenician alphabet upon which so many languages are based. When Rome takes over the region, the Syrophoenicians adapt almost immediately, using these new channels for trade to their advantage. In short, for the earliest readers of this gospel, Syrophoenician meant someone of high class and privilege. They were well-to-do, perhaps a little snobbish, and they weren’t very nice or helpful to their Jewish neighbors.
The woman probably looks like a Syrian. She might be the ancestor of Muslims. Maybe she worships the Canaanite gods Baal, Ashera, or Melkart. Or perhaps under the influence of the surrounding cultures she worships the Roman emperor, or the Greek pantheon.
This is all to say, there could not have been more dividing lines between this woman and Jesus. There is historic enmity between their clans. They are from different socio-economic strata. There are cultural and religious divisions.
So maybe that should explain Jesus’ behavior. Maybe the story is that Jesus had every right to ignore and insult this woman because of their differences, and because they were ancient enemies.
But I don’t buy that story, either. The Apostle Paul tells us that in Christ there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Jesus taught people to “love their enemies” and told parables that blurred the lines of social and economic divisions.
There are two sides to every story. Yes. That was how some responded to the violence in Charlottesville last weekend. Two sides to blame for the death of a young woman. Two sides to blame for injuries and mayhem. Two perspectives to hear and understand, to rationalize and explain.
But the problem with claiming two sides to every story is that there’s no truth in it. There’s no conviction. There’s no freedom. In blaming both sides, you excuse them both as well. It’s no one’s fault entirely. No one is completely wrong or totally right. It leaves a hazy moral void that can be filled with self-righteousness, judgement, and perpetual enmity.
So here’s a different story for you:
There was a woman, let’s call her Sally, since scripture seems to have trouble remembering women’s names. Sally is someone who has it all – wealth, privilege, status, children. She’s the elite. She holds the status quo.
But Sally has a child possessed by a demon, a child with special needs, a child who doesn’t behave, a child who says bad words, a child who is addicted to drugs, who abuses alcohol, who is mentally ill, who is a bully, who is gay, who is transgender. Sally has spent her life concealing her daughter’s condition, apologizing for it, spending vast sums of money on phony physicians and experimental remedies. She’s learned to be her daughter’s advocate and defender, even as this has caused her to lose friends and become alienated by her family.
And she hears about a Jew, one of those poor, self-righteous, trouble-making Hebrews. But she’s heard he can perform miracles. He can heal anyone of any aliment. And he’s coming through town today. She’s desperate. Desperate enough, even, to seek help from a Jew.
When he and his band of Jewish tag-alongs come into town, Sally confronts them. “You! You there! Jewish guy!” They keep walking. “Hey!” she shouts, “I’m talking to you!” No response. In frustration and desperation, she swallows her pride. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Still, they walk on. But she doesn’t give up. She keeps up her racket, refusing to let them be.
Meanwhile, Jesus and his disciples have been trying to keep a low profile as they passed through this territory. They didn’t expect to meet any friendly faces, and they are hoping to pass through, back into Jewish territory, without running into any trouble.
Finally, the disciples urge Jesus to get rid of this woman before she starts to attract attention.
Jesus stops and looks at her. Her designer clothes, her expensive make-up, her perfect skin and hair. He sees her desperation, but also her disdain. He sees the centuries of division between their people. He wants to do more than heal her daughter. He wants to heal their people. As long as she feels superior to another person, she cannot truly experience this healing.
And so he says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Sally looks shocked for a moment, expecting that the Jew would do her bidding without hesitation, as most people did. But again, she is desperate, and she swallows her pride. She looks around, hoping no one will notice what she’s doing, and kneels at his feet, saying quietly through gritted teeth, “Lord, help me.”
Echoing the many insults he’s heard from her people, insults of parentage and ancestry, about dogs and pigs and other unclean animals, Jesus says to the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Sally looks as though she’s been slapped across the face. No one has ever said something like this to her before. She’s insulted, furious, ready to get up off the ground, storm off and round up an angry mob to drive these filthy Jews out of town.
And then she remembers that this man is her only hope. She looks at the dust on the ground beneath her. She thinks of her daughter. In the days when she was well. Laughing. Playing with other children. Enjoying a meal together with the family. Sharing her scraps with a wandering dog.
Sally looks up at Jesus. She knows he can heal her daughter. And she knows what she must say. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus looks at this woman, who had always had a prime seat at the table, and saw her demanding what was right and just. Crumbs. Just enough. Not the most, not the best. Just crumbs. From the table of a Jew.
And he said to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
The truth of this story is that justice and healing involves more than getting our facts straight, hearing all sides of the story, and deciding who deserves what. That kind of story belongs to the courtrooms and the media outlets.
The story of God’s kingdom coming to earth, the story only we, as the church, can tell, is the story of justice and healing that comes from confronting our own assumptions and prejudices, our own sinfulness and pride. Only then, and with that kind of true humility, can we stand up against injustice and ask for what is right. Only then can we experience grace and healing, wholeness and unity. When we take our place under the table. When we demand only scraps.
This is not easy to do, friends. Pride and self-righteousness will fight us tooth and nail. But it is the way of God’s kingdom. It is the way to love our enemies, to break down dividing walls. It is the way to cross boundaries and build up the body of Christ. It is the way to stop shifting blame and spouting rhetoric and start working on solutions to heal our broken society.
I hope that this is the story we tell. Whether we are talking about what’s going on with North Korea, or in Charlottesville, or in Loveland, I hope we are not telling one side of a two-sided story. I hope we are telling the true story of justice and healing through humility and faith. The story that leads us to demand just enough, just crumbs. We won’t win a war and we won’t get our names in the paper. But we might just get what we need most. Reconciliation. Healing. And peace. May it be so, O God. Amen.