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Trinity Church in the City of Boston
The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
August 20, 2023
XII Pentecost (Proper 15), Matthew 15:21-2 8
In you, O Lord, have we taken refuge; for the sake of your name, lead us and guide us. [i] Amen.
The self-importance of films bloated with B+/A- celebrities usually aims those Hollywood projects for the USA Network, rather than Cannes. For its part, 2011’s The Company Men [ii] does nothing to alter that expected trajectory. Even so, its Greater Boston setting and forced accents caught me in a weak moment of vacation haze. The movie opens with a montage of evening news clips concerning the 2008 bank failures and financial crisis, intercut with short narrative sequences of three, well-dressed men preparing for their respective workdays at the same Fortune 500 company.
After Peter Jennings announces the United States economy is on the brink of collapse, we watch thirty-seven-year-old sales manager Bobby Walker pull his crisp, dry-cleaned shirt out of his walk-in closet; clip into place his gold cufflinks; thumb the paper while his kitchen espresso machine steams his milk; and, finally, climb into his Porsche and pull out of his very fine, New England home.
Brett Baier shakes his head at the tumbling Dow Jones before grizzled, sixty-year-old department head Phil Woodward drags a comb through his slick, salt-and-pepper hair; checks his Rolex for the time (it’s 8:15); and receives the morning paper from his gardener.
Finally, Chris Matthews speculates on the federal government’s plan to prop up the banking system when Gene McClary, seventy-year-old founding partner at the firm, drives his Maserati down what first appears to be a neat road until, when the camera expands wide enough, we realize it’s the driveway of his bayside estate.
Very much a world away, today we find Jesus in the district of “Tyre and Sidon,”[iii] a Gentile region along the coast. While on the island of Tyre, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus. She cries to him with the customary beggar’s plea – “Have mercy on me, Lord!” – and she asks Jesus to help her demon-tormented daughter.[iv] In response to her petition, Jesus ignores her. The text reports matter-of-factly, “He did not answer her at all.”[v]
Like children who observe a parent’s bad behavior, the disciples receive Jesus’ shunning of the woman as their permission to do the same, and they urge Jesus further: “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”[vi] She’s bothering us, Lord! Tell her to leave so we can move on with our lives and your important mission. Hearing their case, Jesus answers to no one in particular, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”[vii] – an eyebrow-raising declaration given his disdain and their entitlement.
This mother, however, persists; she trusts Jesus’ power, perhaps before he fully appreciates it in himself. She kneels before him, pleading further, “Lord, help me.”[viii] While Jesus’ words and actions distance him from the Canaanite mother, she moves their exchange toward intimacy: moving physically closer to Jesus, she invites him to see her, to see her as some one, not as the “Gentile” or “Canaanite” generalities with which the story begins, but as the mother of a child who is ill, a person with a life and a history, hopes and worries, that she offers to God. Yet, even with this vulnerability shared, Jesus remains uncharacteristically harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[ix]
Back in Boston, Bobby Walker strides into his office and announces he shot a 42 on the front nine at the club. As he asks for his messages, his assistant abruptly redirects him to an unannounced meeting with a consultant hired to direct the company’s downsizing. Upon his arrival, she curtly explains: “Your twelve years of work here entitle you to three month’s severance. You have until the end of the day to turn in your security badge and to remove your personal effects from your office.”
Eventually, the consultant will fire all three of the protagonists to whom we have been introduced, and, depending upon their positions and tenures, each faces challenges ranging from meeting overextended credit card obligations to an early retirement’s ennui. Appearances, however, remain important to all of them: while their mortgage goes unpaid, Phil’s wife requires him to stay away from home during the day so their nosy neighbors will not know he has lost his job; Bobby continues to golf at the club and speak blithely about the Patriots; Gene pursues an extra-marital affair.
As Bobby’s familiar life unravels around him, his wife serves as their household’s voice of reason and source of strength. She returns to work as a nurse, and she holds the line when Bobby’s habits – including having that Porsche detailed – prove difficult to break. Not until their family loses their luxuries, their cars, and, eventually, their house, does Bobby agree to move back in with his parents and take the only work he can find: hanging drywall for his brother-in-law.
Bobby’s hands blistered, and his body exhausted from this new job, he weeps in his wife’s arms. He apologizes to her and declares himself a failure – still blind to the root of his offense. Holding his head to her chest she says softly (and far more patiently than he deserves): “It’s not so bad. You’re here now, and you were never here before.”
Returning to Tyre, I imagine the Canaanite mother taking two fingers and lifting Jesus’ chin so that his eyes meet hers, the same way she might demand her child’s attention. Redirecting Jesus’ dismissal, she shines a light on his identity as the Son of God and Savior of all – all, including her: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”[x] And Jesus – finally! – sees her … and perhaps recognizes himself. He answers, “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish … And her daughter was healed.”[xi]
This Gospel scene follows a predictable, healing-narrative template. In a typical story of this form, it is Jesus who says something (usually something generous) to draw the ire of the crowds. Witnessing their frustration, an onlooker from the crowd, often a Pharisee, will ask an angry question with the intention of exposing Jesus to the gathering. Jesus, ever clever on his feet, will typically take that mean-spirited question, refashion it, and instead expose the Pharisee, thereby offering instruction to the observing crowd about his Kingdom Way. The leper or beggar involved in the original exchange then changes his or her heart and becomes a follower, too, with the Evangelist offering a summation statement in the order of, “And the man who had been healed went on from that place, declaring the Good News of God’s Kingdom.”
We know these stories, and they make sense to us.
In the story of the Canaanite woman, the template and the available players all remain consistent with the form, but the action dramatically recasts the roles. At Tyre, the pleading mother – not Jesus – invites generosity, and she initiates the miracle. The observers of the exchange are not the ornery Jerusalem crowds we expect, but the disciples we admire, and they urge Jesus to act in their interests, not those of this lowly foreigner. And, most troubling, Jesus’ amplifies their patriarchy and xenophobia in his own voice. As the story continues, the Canaanite mother redirects Jesus’ words to expose Jesus, and “the King of kings and Lord of lords” experiences the change of heart, prompting his exclamation about the woman’s faith and the “instant” healing of her daughter.
So, we who have been raised on the finished-product, finely polished Savior must reconcile Jesus’ behavior, asking: was Jesus perfect or was Jesus perfected?
Perhaps if we inherited more tales of Jesus’ young-adult years, then this story might not read so difficultly. I suspect it was probably good thinking on the part of the Evangelists to stay silent about those days, but if we regularly read about how Jesus would cut out of his old man’s shop to drag race chariots down in the valley, maybe then we could more easily see past the glare of his later luster and appreciate the deep fidelity his Kingdom work required. After all, every day was not Easter morning for the carpenter’s son; as it remains for us, faithfulness required Jesus to choose – demanded he elect fidelity before selfishness and the status quo, over and over and over again. And, as that constancy is for us, so it was for Jesus: hard.
The Company Men’s abrupt loss of employment exposed the incremental choices that had carried them far from the grace and generosity God hopes for the faithful, and their experience asks healthy questions of us: what if tomorrow we were “downsized;” our school shuttered; our business closed. What if life swept away our job titles and our pressing appointments, our diplomas and our leather seats, everything we have worked so hard to attain: with what would we be left? The clutter cleared, could we take pride in our priorities, or would we suffer for wasted time and money, energy and attention?
Thanks be to God, the Jesus in today’s Gospel offers us more than only judgement; this Jesus offers us understanding: this Jesus appreciates our lives’ struggles for he has struggled; this Jesus understands our mistakes because he has made his own; indeed, this Jesus’ humanity – before even his divinity – invites us to choose faithfulness day by day, moment by moment. And with these reassurances, we in the Body of Christ need not waste effort on mere appearances no deeper than a shiny car’s wax. Instead, we can begin with who and where we are today – here, where “we were not before” – offering our whole lives to the One who not only offers Grace, but who knows its transforming power.
In gladness and singleness of heart,
[i] From Psalm 31.
[ii] The Company Men. Directed by John Wells, performances by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones, Spring Creek Productions, 2011.
[iii] Matthew 15:21.
[iv] Matthew 15:22.
[v] Matthew 15:23a.
[vi] Matthew 15:23b.
[vii] Matthew 15:24.
[viii] Matthew 15:25.
[ix] Matthew 15:26.
[x] Matthew 15:27.
[xi] Mathew 15:28.