Ars Praedicandi: 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

According to researchers,
everybody is off their game from time to time,
whether athlete or an accountant
a teacher or a preacher.

Symptoms are common:
zoning out during important meetings,
finding yourself in a batting slump,
experiencing the job as boring,
and having the coach daily pointing out fresh errors.

Being off your game is so common.
A recent survey indicated that US workers admit
having an average of 60 bad days a year.
Who knows how often preachers are off their game.

There are 4 major reasons why people are off their game:

  • boredom,
  • overwork,
  • negativity,
  • and personal issues.

Jesus is virtually never portrayed as being off his game.
When quizzed by Pharisees about matters of law,
he flips a coin of Caesar’s in their face.
When the newlyweds run out of refreshments,
he transforms the water into wine

Even in the presence of civic or religious authorities,
with his own life on the line,
he kept his cool and unflinchingly spoke truth to power.

Jesus was always on his game,
except maybe when it comes to Canaanite women.

The symptoms of the Son of God off his game
may be a little different than the rest of us.
He didn’t zone out during important meetings with the apostles,
or find himself in a parable slump,
or appeared bored when healing lepers.

No, the primary symptom of Jesus being off his game,
at least in this gospel,
is that he seems short tempered, even mean:
not a side of Jesus we ever see.

Scholars have tried to clean up this story
suggesting that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith,
and when she passed the test,
Jesus commends her faith and heals the daughter.

Ironically, the woman makes no confession of faith.
She recognizes Jesus as a healer
but shows no belief that he was God’s son.

Others have tried to whitewash the most insulting passage
when he calls the woman and daughter a dog
by suggesting that the word for dogs (kunarios)
actually means puppies,
but does that really help?

So if his meanness or even arrogance
is the primary symptom of Jesus off his game,
it’s fair to ask “why?”

While it is true that Jesus was overworked,
often surrounded by serious negativity,
and was maybe even sleep deprived,
the gospels suggest a different reason
why Jesus seems off kilter today:
He is out of his element geographically, culturally and personally.

Key here is the throwaway line from the gospel opening:
“Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus’s home territory was Galilee.
While not his birthplace,
his family moved there after their escape to Egypt,
and he not only lived most of his life there
but also exercised most of his public ministry there.

Galilee was Jesus’ stomping grounds,
the closest thing to Jesus’ hood …
but lately it had become more unwelcoming.

A few chapters back he experienced new rejection there,
then cousin John the Baptist lost his head,
and the final straw might have been the recent encounter
with Pharisees and teachers of the law
who confronted Jesus about breaking the commandments.

In sum, his welcome was running thin,
his security was threatened,
and his fed-up-ness with religious types reached capacity.

So Jesus did what a lot of people do
when the home environment is exhausting:
he took a road trip
out of the familiar into the unfamiliar
with or without passport across the border
into Gentile land.

We don’t know how much he stood out,
whether his wardrobe was out of place,
his Galilean accent gave him away,
or whether it was simply that he was not accustomed
to encountering Alpha Canaanite mothers
hunting down cures for their daughters.
Both geographically and ministerially,
Jesus was in new territory.

Recently I’ve been reading about a paradoxical design strategy
called “chaos engineering.”
It is a common news item
that some multinational business or government office
has been hacked or had their website crash.
Not only were 10s of thousands of Taylor Swift fans
disappointed when tickets went on sale
for her first concert tour in 5 years
some waiting 8 hours in on-line queues,
but the disaster was so tumultuous
that the Department of Justice
opened an investigation into Ticketmaster.
Network problems are costly in many ways.

Chaos engineering is a strategy to keep networks humming
and as a side benefit: the government off your back.

The technique here is a bit like so-called “friendly fire”:
instead of some intruder or unforeseen bug
taking down your system,
you become your best enemy
by introducing errors into your own system
and learning what actually destabilizes it,
so that it doesn’t happen again.

Some have called this an “antifragility” technique
Designed to make systems more resilient and robust.

I was thinking about chaos engineering juxtaposed to this gospel
and began to wonder if strangers
were part of God’s chaos engineering …
divine friendly fire
to throw us off our game.

It certainly appears that way with the human side of Jesus
unprepared for the maternal onslaught of a desperate
Canaanite woman on a crusade to have her child healed.

Probably more than any other text in the gospels,
this close encounter of the unexpected kind, between
Jew and Gentile,
Galilean and Canaanite,
male and female,
Son of God and daughter of the earth,
triggered a 180 degree turn in the Nazarene
who went from insult to praise
in a gospel blink of the eye.

And who benefited from this biblical showdown?
Certainly the family of the Canaanite woman
whose daughter was returned to health.
But in my imagination I have to believe
that Jesus learned something too
as he was reminded again about the importance of family
the need to advocate for the sick and marginalized,
and the power of hope.

There also seems to be some evidence of this relearning,
for immediately after this Canaanite confab,
Jesus moves into high compassion mode,
healing the sick in large numbers,
and then throwing an al fresco picnic for 4,000,
probably including a large number of Gentiles.
Ah the enduring gift of the stranger.

 From the world of the ancients comes the story of a wealthy old man who had three children. The man’s wealth was camels of which he had seventeen – more than anybody else in the region. When the old man died, his great friend revealed the father’s last will and testament to the children.  Half the wealth to the eldest son; a third of the wealth to the middle child; and a 9th of the wealth to the youngest.

But the old friend said that half of 7 camels is 8 1/2 camels, and one third of 17 is 5 2/3rds camels, and one 9th is about one leg short of 2 camels.  No matter how they calculated it, no one could figure it out because they needed to respect the father’s wishes, and the children wanted their rightful inheritance.  Yet no one wanted to cut up a camel, which would have sacrificed some of their father’s hard earned wealth. 

At that moment a stranger stepped forward and offered to help.  When they asked how, he offered his own camel as part of the inheritance.  That made 18, and half of 18 is 9 whole camels – slightly more than the eldest child was due, and that made him happy; the middle child was asked what a third of 18 was and he received 6 whole camels, again slightly more than he was due, but that made him happy; and a 9th of 18 was 2 whole camels, so the youngest got more than he had hoped for … again happy all the way around.  But 9 and 6 and 2 only left 17 camels, and there was one left over.  What should we do with that, the children asked,

 “Ah that will be mine,” said the wise stranger as he left the village with his camel in tow.

 Our calculus is not God’s calculus.
Like Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus,
or a Canaanite woman in a distant land –
the stranger is an essential part of God’s calculus
for keeping us off kilter
and allowing the Holy Spirit
to maneuver around our formidable defenses
so that divisions can be healed
hope can be nourished
children can be lifted up.

And in this gospel reversal
the crumb becomes a banquet,
the enemy a beloved,
the woman a prophet,
and the child a messiah.

So in the spirit of the unflinching Christ
confronted by the impertinent stranger,
with the poet[1] we pray

Attack, when the sun has turned the lake to flame
and the waves are music on the beach.
Ambush me in the quiet beyond [the] words
I have with this [Canaanite mother].
Spring at me
From the running boy.
Vanquish me
In the courage of the weak.
Take me by surprise
In the wrinkled smile
Of the [stranger] with the floppy hat.
But be warned.
I will be on my guard.
Welcoming defeat
[as did your son
in a distant land
and hard fought healing].

Through Christ our Lord.

[1] John Shea, “A prayer to the God of Surprises,” The Hour of the Unexpected (Niles: Argus Communications, 1977), 94, with modifications.