Tag Archives: Oswald Bayer

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”[1]

Caitlin Trussell on August 17, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

 

Matthew 15:21-28  Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

 

 

Each of us grew up somewhere.  Some of us grew up on farms in the Midwest, others in cities, some in the South, a few of us in other countries.  Myself, I grew up on the East and West coasts – I like to say I’m bicoastal.  My husband grew up in a mid-sized Nebraskan town.  My kids are growing up as Colorado natives.  Some of you are likely 3rd, 4th, or 5th, generation Coloradans.

The point is, we all grew up somewhere.  This means our childhoods have a somewhere, a location, a place.  Chances are good that our place also has people.  Whether these people were good to us or not, our childhood places have people.   These people birthed us, taught us, fed us…formed us.  You get the idea.  As children, we grow up in the places of our people.  They become our people the minute we’re born into them.

Flipping it around, the minute someone is born they are born into us.  We become their people.  This happens at a lot of different levels all at once.  The child is born into a family, into a neighborhood, into a region.  On any given day, you might hear me say something like, “My people are heading over to a swim meet;” or “My people are going to lay low this weekend.”   However we acknowledge it, however much we like or dislike our people. Our people are there – intentionally and unintentionally forming us and us forming them.

In the previous stories to ours today, Jesus is moving between deserted places with the people he was born into, in his country of birth.  In the story today, Jesus is in a new place, the district of Tyre and Sidon, with a new people, the Canaanites.  And, oh, this Canaanite woman.  She wastes no time in getting Jesus’ attention.  The exchange that follows is shocking.  Did Jesus just call her a “dog?”  Biblical scholars wrangle with this text early and often.

In our wrangling with this text, we can see that the disciples want no part of this woman as they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  Jesus doesn’t send her away but tells her that he is, “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  His place, his people.  Did he say this to voice what everyone else was thinking?  Might that also be why he made that “dog” comment?  After all, the Canaanite people are the people of mixed marriages and conflated religious practices.  They are not to be trusted nor visited.  They are unclean, impure.  Pick a nasty label and insert it here.  There is bad blood between Jesus’ people and the Canaanite people.

The Canaanite woman knows all these things – bad blood included.  And still, this mother shouts after Jesus and the disciples.  She demands their attention.  Not on her own behalf but on behalf of her child.  She and her child do not live in a vacuum – meaning they do not live only as two people disconnected from other people.  Oh no, this woman’s shouting has bigger implications for the whole people.

On a small scale, and maybe with less shouting, this congregation similarly brings children the necessary care they need.  Through the baptismal font, children are baptized in what can easily be interpreted or dismissed as a sentimental moment.  But it is oh so much bigger than that.  Through the waters of baptism is a demand that God keep God’s promises to this child.  Through worship, children are in the mix with their sounds, voices, and bodies included right along with the whole people of God here.   Through the Children & Family Ministry, children have Sunday School, Squiggle Time, Youth Groups and more to meet them where they are developmentally so that they may find words for their faith.   Through the Music Ministry, children sing and make music all the while connecting with God, each other, and tradition.  Through the Augustana Early Learning Center, children receive care and instruction Monday through Friday – some on full scholarship, some on subsidized tuition.  Through Augustana Arts’ City Strings program, neighborhood children receive violin and music instruction regardless of inability to pay.

As a congregation, we are similar to the Canaanite woman.  There are children in our care and we make every effort to do right by them which sometimes means doing the hard thing not the easy thing.  But what else might the story of her faith hold for us?  We do violence to this woman’s story if we simply rip her from the page and guilt everyone into advocacy.  Advocacy being the act of lending your voice to those who cannot advocate for themselves.  I think if we have any chance of seeing our story in her story we need to take a detour.

For this brief detour, I invite Oswald Bayer into our conversation.  Bayer is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany as well as an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg.[2]  Stated very simply, Bayer’s argument for a Christian ethic goes something that goes like this:[3]

Everything we have is gift – from the basics of food and water to help in times of sickness and imprisonment.   The quintessential act of our dependence is over a meal; a meal of fellowship “where separation, isolations, and loneliness are overcome.”  We are truly dependent creatures – dependent on God and each other for everything.  In this dependence, we are able to see our “own fellow human beings simply as those who find themselves in the same situation.”  I especially like how Pastor Bayer puts this next part, “Thus the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt. 25.40) will not just be the others, strangers, with whom we are called to show solidarity…Rather, from the very outset we are those people…We are the same as them, for we too are in fundamental need.”[4]  In other words, those people are our people!

Jesus sits across the table from the woman who demands a place at it for herself and her child.  In Bayer’s words, this is a meal of fellowship that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  By extension, Jesus sits us at a table that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  And we are given a voice at this meal on behalf of our children.

Make no mistake, prioritizing children is not sentimental, nor is it easy.  This means that when our plans and systems fail children, we are free to launch into those conversations to help those children.  These conversations might happen in our neighborhoods, in our congregation, in our country.  These conversations are real, right now, as we talk congregationally about improving security in the Early Learning Center or group dynamics in Confirmation.  These conversations are real as we talk nationally and globally about children at the border, children in Ferguson (Missouri), children in Palestine, children in Liberia.

Some of us may believe that helpful action should happen locally and some may believe that it makes sense to focus helpful action globally.  However, local and global concerns are not mutually exclusive but part of the whole.  So simply pick a place to start and start helping.  We can so quickly fall silent when the children who need help begin to number in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands.  Along with falling silent, it’s a quick slip into inaction.

Dr. Keith Payne studies the collapse of compassion in the face of fear.[5]  In his work, he is triggered by similar comments from both Stalin and Mother Teresa.  Stalin reputedly said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic; and Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” In Dr. Payne’s words, “When Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on a point, I sit up and pay attention.”[6]  The point is that in the face of great numbers of people suffering we end up doing nothing because of our own fear. We fear that we can’t possibly help them all so we end up helping none.  We fear that taking on so much pain crumbles our shaky hold on our own emotions so we shut them down and focus someplace else.  Stalin counted on it.  Mother Teresa acted in spite of it.  Most of us are neither Stalin nor Mother Teresa.  Regardless, pick a place to start helping children and go for it.

The Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus across cultural boundaries on behalf of her child.  In part, these are real boundaries of culture and race that take care and respect to navigate successfully across our differences.  But in total, these boundaries collapse under the weight of the cross.  What Jesus Christ does for you, Jesus Christ does for all.  The people you think of as your people who come from your places is an artificial category of location.

Christ’s death on the cross makes all people your people.

Because Jesus died on a cross for all people, including you.

 

 

Responding to the sermon, the congregation sings this Hymn of the Day:

Lord Jesus You Shall Be My Song As I Journey[7]

Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey
I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go
You alone are our life and our peace and our love
Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey

Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey
May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you
May the earth and the sea and the sky join my song
Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey

As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant
To carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears
For you saved me by giving your body and blood
As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey
But courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side
And with all of the family you saved by your love
We’ll sing to the dawn at the end of our journey

Les Petites Souers de Jésus and L’Arche community, 1961; Translation by Stephen Somerville, 1970



[1] Read about Mother Teresa at http://www.motherteresa.org/.

Read about Joseph Stalin at http://www.biography.com/people/joseph-stalin-9491723.

[2] Oswald Bayer. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_Bayer

[3] Oswald Bayer.  Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies (Oxford: University Press, 2007), 19-20.  In these two pages, Dr. Bayer offers a succinct argument for categorical gift over and above Kant’s categorical imperative. I recommend them to you if you, like me, are into that sort of mind candy.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keith Payne. “Why is the Death of One Million a Statistic?” Psychology Today blog: Life on Autopilot on March 14, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Evangelical Book of Worship, Hymn 808.  (lyrics reprinted under OneLicense.net A-705796.)