Sunday, August 17, 2014

bowing to a buddhist monk: a meditation on the Syro-phonecian woman

Here is the sermon I preached this morning at Blackwood Churches of Christ. The lectionary text was Matthew 15:22-28, the story of Jesus encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. The reading helped me explore a set of circumstances a few weeks ago, in which I found myself bowing to a Buddhist monk. In other words, how do we encounter people of different beliefs and opinions?


A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to a group of ministers at a week long conference on mission in Sydney. Together we talked about mission. We engaged Scripture. We worshipped. We built community together.

As part of the conference, we were expected to engage the local community around us. Sydney is multi-cultural and so to engage local community in Sydney is to engage diverse cultures.

One way to engage another culture is food. So as part of the conference we ate – a Tongan feast in the suburb of Auburn. Followed by Vietnamese rolls in a café in Cabramatta.

Another way to engage a culture is through religion. And so as part of the conference we visited religious buildings. A mosque on the Tuesday, a Hindu temple on the Wednesday, a Buddhist temple on Thursday.

At each religious building, we gave a gift. This gift included some information about ourselves. We were ministers. We were from the Uniting Church. We were concerned about a world in which religions are so often linked with violence. And so we wanted to visit to learn and to build relationships. As a leader of the group, it was my task on the Thursday to present the gift.

I offered it to our guide. But there was a rapid exchange in language between the guide and a nearby monk.

I was then told by the guide that I should present this gift to the resident monk, who was moving across to kneel at the front of the temple.

Feeling a bit unsure of what exactly to do, I stepped toward the monk. But he told me not to walk. Instead, I needed to kneel to present the gift.

Feeling even more uncomfortable, I knelt and shuffled on my kneeds and offered the gift. I was about to offer a speech – about being from the Uniting Church and wanting to build connections – when he stopped me.

And said first he must bless me. So that I could get merit for giving my gift. And he closed his eyes, and folded in hands. And began to pray for me. What should I do at that moment?

Within the space of 30 seconds, I’ve suddenly and unexpectedly, found myself kneeling before a Buddhist monk who is praying for me.

What questions, what concerns, what anxieties, thoughts would you have, if it was you, who suddenly found yourself kneeling in front of a Buddhist monk being prayed for?

Ask the person beside you …. (space for interaction and then feedback)

Our Bible reading – Matthew 15:10-28 – actually offers us some wisdom.

First, I’m safe. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. (verse 11). So I won’t be defiled, by another’s temple, by another’s expectation that I kneel, by another’s prayers, by another’s beliefs.

Jesus stresses internal intention, my faith, my compassion, my openness to God.

So that’s the first bit of wisdom. That I won’t be harmed by what comes to me from another – in this case the prayers of another – because it’s what inside me that God values.

Jesus moves from teaching about being safe to the district of Tyre and Sidon (v. 21). Which leads to a second piece of wisdom, is that I should be open to surprise.

Tyre and Sidon are port cities on the Mediterranean. In case you’re not up with your first century geography, we have the next verse, (v. 22).

A Canaanite woman from that region. This is only mention of the word “Canaanite” in the entire New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel had history, lots of history with the Canaanites, with the people from the region of Tyre and Sidon.

There’s Jezebel. She came from Sidon. She married a King Of Israel. She introduced him and all of Israel, to her gods. She had the prophets of God killed in 1 Kings 18:4. So Canaanites are the people we fear, people we distrust, the people who in our history have actually killed us

So Jesus meets a woman from a culture that your ancestors grew to fear, from a people who have done violence to your people.

And she asks for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” (v. 22)

Jesus responds.

With silence.

But she’s not finished. “Lord, help me.” (v. 25)

Which finally draws some words from Jesus. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it the dogs.” (27)

One of the problems we have at these words from Jesus is that there’s only written. There’s no tone.

It’s like email or a text. You just have words. There’s not even any emoticons, no smiley faces – that give you a clue.

Is Jesus saying this with a wink? That’s one interpretation. That here we see a human Jesus, who’s about to be faced with his prejudice, who’s about to have his mind changed. Is this with a wink?

Or is Jesus saying this with an angry face? That’s another interpretation. Because at this time Tyre and Sidon were wealthy. Because they had money they would buy the best of food from rural farms in Galilee.

This woman belongs to this wealthy class. We know that because she talks about table, when most of the homes in Galillee have no furniture. To quote one commentary, Jesus reply “reflects anger of the rural Jewish poor”. He’s reminding her that she’s got enough food to feed her dogs, while he knows of Jewish children don’t even get the crumbs. Is Jesus saying this angry at economic exploitation that’s starving Jewish children?

Or is Jesus saying this with a smiley face? Is he being a bit playful? This is another interpretation. That “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it the dogs” is actually a parable

Jesus has always had this gift in taking the everyday – taking yeeast and pearls, Talents and tenants – and using them playfully, as parables, to get people to think. So is Jesus saying this with a smile, taking something from the world around him (children’s food) and inviting this Canaanite woman to think?

One clue is to play spot the dog. You see Jews didn’t keep dogs. Dogs are despised in the New Testament, in Luke 16:21; in 2 Peter 2:22; in Rev 22.15. Dogs are considered unclean. There are no dogs under a Jewish table.

But in Canaanite culture, dogs are pets. This is the most common dog in the first century (show picture of Melitaean Minature).

This is a vase showing a child playing with a Melitaean Minature (Chous, Child with a Melitan, Greece, ca. ca 450 – 400 BC). And another (Chous, made in Puglia, Italy, ca. 360BC-350BC).

And the philosopher Plutarch talks about “little Melitan dog cuddled in the lap of a widow. (Plutarch, De Tranquillitate Animi, 472c.)

And just to really make the point, there’s a tomb to an unknown dog (Grave Stele for a Melitan dog, Italy (Rome), marble, ca. 150 – 200 AD)

For any one really interested in this, I have a 3 page list of the most common dog names in the Roman world.

So if we play spot the dog, this provides a way to understand what Jesus is saying. Jews might not like dogs, but Canaanites do. They regularly feed them scraps when they’re under their table, shortly before they jump into their laps.

Which seems to be how the Canaanite woman responds to Jesus. She seems to be responding to the smiley-face Jesus, hearing him from within her Canaanite culture, agrees with Jesus that indeed, her daughter is a cute little dog – a Melitan puppy – that needs to enjoy the richness of God’s blessing, curled on the lap of the Son of David.

So we don’t have Jesus tone or any emoticons. But we do have the response of the woman. Who doesn’t seem to hear a question. Nor does she seem to hear anger.

Rather she seems to respond to a smiley face, playfully.

In doing so, she shows remarkable insight into Jesus identity and mission. You’re a person of mercy. You’re royalty (Son of David). You’re a healer (of my daughter). You’re radical enough to step across boundaries from your culture to my culture. You’re generous enough to move beyond the pain of your past. And so this outsider, this wealthy Canaanite woman, gives us a remarkable verbal insight into Jesus.

I began with a story. Of finding myself in Sydney, kneeling before a Buddhist monk who begin’s to pray for me. And I wondered what we might learn from the lectionary reading, from today’s Bible text about how to encounter people of different beliefs and opinions?

Which is a question for all of us, not just me in Sydney.

In our everyday workplaces, where we might face behaviours that are different from our beliefs, say a culture of gossip or a practice of lying.

Or every time we walk through a mall and we get the message that what you buy is what you’re worth. That we should value ourselves and others because of what we look like, what we dress like, what we shop like.

How do encounter people and cultures and groups and shopping malls with different beliefs?

First, we enjoy being safe. It’s what’s inside us that counts, not what comes out of another.

Second, be open to surprise. Because here in Matthew 15, God is bigger the geographic borders of Israel. God is also bigger than the disciples national identity. God is bigger than Israel’s past. So be open to surprise from a God who is always bigger than anything you can dream or imagine.

Third, outsiders to our community can actually be fantastic models of faith. Compare the disciples in Matthew 15 with this Canaanite woman. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting” as against “Great is your faith” v. 28. The disciples are cold and heartless; the Canaanite is caring and persistent, creative and courageous.

Only two people in Matthew are affirmed for their “great faith”. Both are Gentiles. One here, the Canaanite woman. The other, the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:10. Expect outsiders to be models of faith.

Fourth, note how Jesus affirms behaviors over beliefs. Jesus says she has great faith not because she knows her Bible or has grown up in the synagogue or does my Jesus Christ lectures at Uniting College. She has great faith because of how she behaves – caring, persistent, creative and courageous.

I don’t share the beliefs of my monk who blessed me in Sydney.

But I do admire his behaviours, his willingness to devote his life to faith. And to pray for me, because after all, I’m a Canaanite to him.

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM


  1. Thank you Steve for this reflection. Well said and said well.
    Regards, John.

    Comment by John Littleton — August 18, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

  2. Thanks Steve. I used this passage for my Vietnam Veterans service on Sunday & afterwards we had a discussion about ‘how’ Jesus might have said these words. Thanks for the insights about dogs in the ancient world

    Comment by Sue Ellis — August 18, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

  3. what a wonderfully fresh perspective on the story. thank you.

    Comment by sarah — August 20, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

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