By Rev. Jacob Kanake — We have been exploring our call to Christ’s ministry. Specifically, last week we found Jesus went outside Israel’s territory and healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, a Gentile. The exchange between Jesus, the disciples and the woman was perhaps unfair, although she did not stop asking for healing of her daughter.
Let us revisit the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman for a little while. Using modern language, I can say the Canaanite woman was harassed and mocked! Today the woman would have accused Jesus and his disciples for being sexist, racists and intolerable males with the intention of dominating a woman. But, this woman’s patience and her power of persuasion should not be underrated.
The Canaanite woman being called a dog did not irritate or annoy her; if it did, she did not show it. Jesus used the phrase “throw food to the dog”; taken negatively it would mean the Canaanite woman is a person of inferior race, a person of low standing in society, hence unworthy of being helped! The Jews boasted of being the chosen ones and the Canaanites knew themselves as the owners of the land where the Jews lived. Most theologians and myself agree that Jesus used the phrase not to demean the woman, but as a metaphor to explain the priority of his ministry and to teach the disciples of his messiahship. The Greek term Jesus used kunarion means a small dog or a pet dog. Jesus did not use the Greek term kuon used to refer to unspiritual people or to an ‘unclean’ animal. For Jesus, failing to stick with his call to save Israelites first is the same as taking children’s food and giving it to a pet.
The woman understood Jesus’ use of the Greek term—a metaphor because she was a Greek and welcomed the metaphor and entertained the thought of converting to Christianity. She was convinced Jesus was the long-awaited messiah of the Israelites; she affirmed Jesus’ Messiahship, saying, “You are the son of God, the highest.”
Today’s reading in Matthew describes Jesus and his disciples being at a city near where he healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. The Caesarea-Philippi city is 25-30 miles on the northeast of the sea of Galilee. Mount Hermon, where the local tribes worshipped traditional gods, and the babbling brook, the source of the River Jordan, are both in this city. My friend who visited the area in 1997 found the location has been turned into a public park, a “getaway” place for many people today.
Jesus may have chosen to rest in this city because of its location. Being a northern city with most non-Jews, it had would not have many Jews who would be attracted to His presence.
This city was built by Herod the Great in honor of Emperor Caesar and the Roman temple was there for worshipping the emperor. The Greeks had a great temple for the Greek god Pan and many traditional temples were built there. The mixture of religious worshippers in this city would inform the ministry of Jesus.
Therefore, Jesus was exposing his disciples to multi-religious beliefs and a multiethnic city because he wanted them to realize the type of world where they were called to preach; they were called to deal with varied belief systems, cultural practices and mixed political ideologies. The disciples encountered a context like ours. Today we live in a multi-cultural-religious society with many political ideologies. How are we doing our ministry?
To deal with this context disciples must identify themselves and their mission; they must not act or work for Jesus until they have known him and confessed. It was time to learn and to make their inner confession, or they’d get consumed by many gods, mixed tribes and global problems.
While Jesus was waiting for the disciples to account for their faith, he posed a general question: “Who do people say I am?” Let us reflect on this question for a moment: the question is inquiring about public thought about Jesus. He is interested in knowing why the big crowds follow him and what was their reflection of him and his ministry. This public question ought to be asked in every generation.
The disciples were quick to say what they heard from people. They said, “Some say you are a prophet, you are John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or Elijah.” Why did people equate Jesus with John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah or one of the prophets?
For our understanding and clarity let us review Jeremiah: He was a prophet and priest whose ministry lasted for 40 years. Jeremiah’s personal life (character and personality) and prophetic ministry struggles are clearly written in the Bible more than any other prophet. Jeremiah confronted the people (Jews and their leaders) for their apostasy (greed, corruption, pride, jealousy). They nicknamed him “the prophet of doom” and he attracted few friends (Jer. 26:24). Jeremiah was fearless and courageous (Jer. 15:20) and God affirmed his work (Jer. 17:19-20); he kept the Jewish people on their toes. He did not waver in expressing his feelings and the message of God (Jer. 12:1; 1:17) until his death. When the Christian faith is under threat, the book of Jeremiah is a must-read! The faithful Christians and most of the courageous leaders I know read the book of Jeremiah.
Why did Jesus pose both the general and individual questions?
I think Jesus knew his death was less than a year away and he wanted to prepare his disciples for the work ahead after his death. Also, Jesus wanted the Jewish people to know that he was the Messiah they waited for, although he was a different kind of a Messiah—a spiritual yet indirectly political messiah.
After the disciples answered the general question, Jesus looked at them directly and posed the second question that was demanding yet reassuring, blunt yet warm; in a confrontational yet inviting tone He asked, “Who do you say I am?” The question is “Not who do you think I am” or “Who am I?” The question is: “Whom do you say I am?” The question needs to be explained, “If you say I am [x] then explain why I am [x].” A question like this is difficult and hard to answer quickly. However, Peter did not miss a breath, saying, “You are the son of God.” The answer Peter gave appears to be the second answer given to describe Jesus’ identity. The first revelation came from the Canaanite woman, a non-Jew who confessed Jesus is messiah!
Why was this question so hard to answer?
In my humble opinion, there was no one else capable of answering this question than his disciples! The disciples were with Jesus from the time he called them. They left their professions and followed him to be “fishers of men [humanity].” The disciples heard him laying down the scheme for his ministry using the proverbs, doing miracles and healing diseases. They saw him feeding the crowd, walking on the water and calming the waves; they were with him when he rebuked the Pharisees (traditional Jews), and when Jesus healed the daughter of a Gentile. I mean, they heard him teach and were shocked, doing miracles and they were thrilled, and healing the sick they were amazed with awe and wonder; they were the reputable witnesses of Jesus’ work up to this point! Why can’t they answer the question?
Because it was their time to express their opinion, their time to fish or cut bait; a time to mend or tear, really the time for them to take a stand.
Let us leave the mental wondering on the historical context and the fear and the confusion of the disciples about this question. Let us return to today at Falcon Heights Church situated in Falcon Heights, MN 55113. Let us consider that Christ is visiting with each of us at the Gathering Room to my left side over a cup of coffee and he asks you this question: Whom do you say I am?
If we had time we would like to hear from each of us what answer we would give to Christ. I hope each of us would answer quickly like St. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
If Christ went further to engage us about the debates taking place around the nation and ask us, “What are you saying in my name” about the hatred, the face of racism rearing its ugly head, the unending call to forever condemn the minority, the unemployed, the disabled, and the old people from having proper health coverage? What if Jesus can ask further questions, “What are you saying in my name” during this divisive environment of “them vs us” and “the haves and have-nots” and the “They must go back to where they came from” narrative!
I would expect us to answer genuinely that our faith does not allow us to discriminate, hate, and define others because of their place of origin, color, political, economic, sexual orientation, or appearance. Our faith in Christ provides us with courage and fearless spirit to confess Christ and to stand for Christ as we learned since we began to believe.
To transform our faith into action we need to be a voice against injustice from within or without, attend local meetings organized to fight injustice. We support our conference and United Church of Christ justice ministries and say no to anyone holding us back from practicing our faith in genuine ways. For instance, when praying, I ask what God wants me to do to show love to others and what action of love I can take to make my prayers practical. I donate (do small actions of love) according to my financial ability and give my energy toward causes that promote justice.
From the foregoing, I learned Christ does not care about public opinion as much as “my opinion” of who I say He is in my life and what I SAY he does.
In 1 Peter 3:15, believers are reminded to be prepared always to give an account of their faith in Christ. Being in the constant presence of the Lord makes faith mature and strong, and makes one a new creature and offers one courage to stand against all evil thoughts and actions from within or without—external forces.
St Paul in his Epistle in the Romans, reading from this morning, asks for Christians without strong faith to rethink their faith; to ask Christ to reenergize and renew their faith/strength to overcome evils within their context. Let us be reminded that St. Peter’s open confession was acknowledged and Christ insists that individuals confess. The individual’s answer to the question Christ asks today will determine the individual’s relationship with God, conduct, character and ability to truly love and to experience peace in time of adversity.