Crossing the boundaries we create, by Michael Mills
I’d like to share one of my finer moments with you. When I was in first grade, I played tee-ball. I was on the tigers and our colors were as bright yellow as you can imagine. I have a few really vivid memories from my time playing tee-ball and what I remember most clearly was how terrible I was.
Because in tee-ball, you can judge a player's skill level by how close to home plate they play. It’s rare for anybody to hit the ball out of the infield so the closer to home plate you played, the better player you are. Accordingly, I spent most of my time waaaay out in left field. Nobody ever hit the ball out there and so that was where coach put me.
Before my coach had truly discovered how terrible I was and moved me to left field, he had me playing at second base, which he quickly learned was a mistake because second base actually does see some action.
Well, while playing second base, I became pretty bored with the actual game going on so I decided to make up my own game. My game was the game of lava. You remember the game of lava, when you imagine that certain places on the floor are lava and you can’t touch them?
Well, I decided that I would draw a big circle in the dirt, all the way around my second base. So I drug my foot along the dirt and I made a boundary all the way around second base. I was safe inside my circle and atop second base but on the other side of that boundary was the dreaded lava.
So, I would stand on top of second base and survey all the lava around me. I would get kind of daring and I would hop off of my base and walk around the boundary, sometimes holding a foot over it but never putting my foot down. I would flirt with the lava but, because I was so good at my own game, I never touched the lava. I was winning my game. And there I was, having just a good ol’ time…when I hear the crack of the bat.
Now, something you need to know about competitive tee-ball of this level.
More than any other play in the game, there is only one way to make it into the proverbial tee-ball hall of fame: Catching a fly ball. To catch a fly ball in tee-ball is so rare that if you actually do it, you become an instant legend. I think in the season I played, there was only one kid that caught a fly ball all season and we were in awe of that kid. She would walk around and everybody would whisper, “Oh, that’s the kid that caught the fly ball…Oooooo….”
To catch a fly ball was so rare because first, very few kiddos could hit the ball hard enough and high enough that it could be caught. More often than not, the ball would just kind of dribble off the tee and that was considered success. And then second, almost no kid had the hand-eye coordination to be where they needed to be, to get their glove in the right place, and then to actually catch something falling out of the sky.
So, for these reasons, catching a fly ball instantly put you into the tee-ball hall of fame.
Well, I’m playing my game of lava, standing on top of second base, winning and having a good ol’ time…and I hear the crack of the bat. That’s a sound that you almost never hear so it instantly gets the attention of everybody on the field, my preoccupied self included.
I look to home plate and I see that the batter hit a fly ball. It’s going up, up, up…and I think, “Somebody is going to have a chance to catch that.”
And as the ball passes its highest point, it begins to come down and I realized, it’s coming toward second base. And I think, “Oh, it’s me! This is it. This is my chance!”
Instantly, my mind is filled with images of being lifted on my team’s shoulders, chants of “He caught the ball. He caught the ball,” and of course, being inducted into the tee-ball hall of fame.
So, I’m watching the ball come down, I stick my glove out, and I’m ready. But I realize that it’s falling a little short of second base, where I’m standing. So I step off of the base, with my glove still out.
And I realize that it’s still falling short of where I am, so I take a step forward, and then another step, and then another step. And I look down to see this line that I’ve drawn in the sand, this boundary…and I think, “Uh oh.”
Because, we all know what’s on the other side of that boundary…lava. And I can’t go there. So I shuffle my feet just as close to that boundary as I can. I stick out my glove and I reach just as far as I can.
And the ball falls just beyond the tip of my glove and drops to the ground. And just like that, my dreams of the tee-ball hall of fame were dashed.
It was the next inning that I found myself playing in left field.
Matt. 15.21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Matt. 15.23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
Matt. 15.24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Matt. 15.25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
Matt. 15.26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Matt. 15.27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Matt. 15.28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
This is one of my favorite Gospel passages because I don’t know what to do with this depiction of Jesus. He doesn’t fit my categories or expectations of how Jesus acted or what my Messiah looked like.
They say that the best reading is often the plain reading. Well, based on the plain reading of this text, Jesus is kind of a jerk, right? He’s seemingly rude, somewhat abrasive, and definitely not the kind and sweet Jesus that we imagine gathering children into his lap.
So, what do we do with the jerk Jesus? How do we make sense of what Matthew is telling us here?
I think we have a few options. Is Jesus having a bad day? Is he exhausted, emotionally drained, having nothing left to offer? Are his natural human biases showing? Is this a moment where we see Jesus in the fullness of his humanity?
Or maybe Jesus is being intentional in this interaction. Is he behaving in this manner to hold up a mirror to his disciples’ attitudes? Is he showing them how absurd it is to treat someone in this manner? Or maybe he’s simply testing the faith of this woman, to see how far her faith will really take her.
Whatever the case, however it is that we make sense of this depiction of Jesus, the important thing is this: Where Jesus begins this interaction is not where he ends it. Jesus moves. He adapts. He grows.
Here, Jesus exchanges the role of teacher for the role of student and he allows this woman to affect him. He learns from her that his ministry, “to the lost sheep of Israel,” as he says, needs to be broadened. It needs to be shared. Jesus needs to extend his ministry of hospitality to those outside the house of Israel.
And now, about this woman that Matthew calls a Canaanite. To go back in time to the first reading of Matthew’s Gospel, upon hearing of Matthew’s description of this woman, his listeners would have immediately picked up on what he was trying to communicate. First of all, she is a woman. That’s an immediate strike against her because in that day and age, women were viewed as less than men.
Secondly, Matthew calls her a Canaanite. At that point in time, the land of Canaan was no more and specifically, the Canaanite people were no more. So, why would Matthew call her a Canaanite?
Now, Mark’s Gospel, which is considered the first of the four gospels written, is the only other gospel to depict this story. Mark calls this woman a Syro-Phoenician, which is actually a more accurate identifier for her, because that’s actually where she is from. Yet Matthew, who used Mark’s gospel as a source, calls her something else. A Canaanite. So, we see great intentionality here in Matthew.
Matthew’s listeners, which would be a Jewish audience, would understand what he’s getting at because when they would hear the word Canaanite, they would immediately think of their ancient enemy, one of their earliest rivals. These were the people that the Israelites would have defined themselves against. The Canaanites were, “not us.” They were the other.
And so Matthew goes to intentional lengths to paint this woman in a very particular light by calling her a Canaanite and that’s strike two.
Not only that, but her daughter’s demon possession would have marginalized her even further. That’s strike three. By every measure, she is outside the bounds, off limits, untouchable, not worthy.
And in Jesus’s initial interaction with her, I think we see that. He ignores her. His disciples bad mouth her. He calls her a dog and says that she is not worthy of his time. Up to this point, this interaction does not seem to be going well for her but, honestly, based on the social and cultural norms of that time, it is going as one would expect.
But in the name of mercy, she persists. And in the end, it is this woman’s faith that Jesus recognizes and celebrates.
This woman was willing to confront a boundary, many boundaries in fact, set up on the grounds of her ethnicity, her heritage, her religion, her gender, the societal norms, and then throw in the demon possession, and we see that what she is confronting, what she is standing up against, is extremely significant. She confronts this boundary and she boldly steps across it, hoping in the saving power of God’s love.
And as she stepped across this boundary, there was a moment where her foot hung in the air, hovering unsteadily, in search of some solid ground to land upon. Jesus allows for that moment, that space. Jesus allows her foot to hang. That feeling, that tension, the instability, the risk, the vulnerability, the uncertainty…that’s what faith looks like and she has it.
And just as her foot is about to hit the ground in all the places her foot is not meant to be, Jesus moves. He moves toward her, the outsider. Jesus meets her. Jesus catches her. Jesus legitimizes her. Jesus values her. Jesus validates her. And Jesus shares with her.
That’s what I really love about this text. Jesus moves. Jesus moves toward the other, toward the one that is outside the bounds.
During my tee-ball game, I was winning the game I was playing. But because I wasn’t willing to step across the boundary that I created, I missed an opportunity to do something great.
But here’s the most tragic part of it. When that ball dropped just beyond the tip of my glove, I missed my opportunity. But…it was still a live ball. So, there I was, standing on the edge of my boundary, looking at the ball on the ground, two feet in front of me, and there was nothing I could do because, obviously, lava.
My teammates are yelling at me, my coach is yelling at me, the fans are yelling at me, “Get the ball!” And I just have to point to my line in the dirt and say, “I can’t. That’s lava.”
On the other side of the boundary that I created, there was a whole other game going on. A bigger game that involved a lot of other people, a game in which my team was depending on me. But I missed it. I missed it because I wasn’t willing to step across the boundary that I created.
This is what I love about Fellowship Southwest. As a young and growing movement, we have the opportunity to be creative and innovative, bold and courageous.
May we have a keen awareness of the boundaries that exist today and may we, in the name of love and the power of God’s Spirit, take bold steps toward those on the outside, the discounted and the overlooked, toward those that are near God’s heart.