There is a rule of thumb for figuring that out
who the main character in a novel is.
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.
King Lear is called “King Lear” because the old king
eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress – and is therefore interesting.
So, who is Matthew’s book primarily about?
If it’s about Jesus, then instead of taking everything he
ever said as the final word for all time,
we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.
His first teaching was the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
“Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus thinks the Pharisees are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Even doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right. You have to mean it.
Now fast forward to today’s lesson.
The disciples have just violated a law about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.
But now Jesus says, “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.
He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not legal technicalities.
Jesus began to wonder what some of the law
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
so long of course as you were Jewish
and kept the law pretty well.
That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
Jesus, being a bright guy, knew when it was time
to get out of Dodge, so he took a little vacation
in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.
He had strictly ordered his disciples
not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong customs, “not our sort dear.”
He was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.
But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored her. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
Send her away.”
So, Jesus told her he served Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”
That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
It was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
He had just recently said to his own disciples
-- right race, right gender, right religion –
“O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreign pagan
-- wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion --
“Woman, great is your faith.//
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Jesus is stumbling toward a new kind of religion
This nameless woman had converted him.
And we had better be glad she did,
because without her there would have been no gentile mission
and we would still be sacrificing goats to Jupiter.
Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
Eventually, it ends like this:
Jesus says to his disciples,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ..”
“Nations” means the non-Jews.
When Jesus first sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
he said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles
and enter no town of Samaria,
but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”
This is for Jews only.
But after meeting this gentile woman,
he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.
So, what might we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.
But he wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
Jesus changed. So how about us?
It’s good to check our faith from time to time
to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
with a new prayer practice, a new book,
a retreat or some act of mercy.
Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.
The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
the distinctive thing about Jesus
was his gospel of inclusion.
Right from the beginning,
he sat at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first, he was calling them into an even smaller circle
of stricter rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle to include
good hearted Jews who were a bit lax on the law.
Then he took in lawless gentiles if they had great faith.
Finally, he sent his disciples out to gentiles
who didn’t even have faith yet.
It is an expanding circle of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.
We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
If we keep an eye out for the people we usually avoid,
they may show us the growing edge of our faith.
Not all change is good. But some change is.
And the good change is as uncomfortable as the bad.
When our Church changes, it unsettles us.
But I’ll let you in on something: That’s on purpose.
It’s because we need a little unsettling now and then.
We all deserve to be the main character in our own life.
But we will be that main character only if we are open to change.