My heart is full of joy and excitement as I begin serving in this new ministry, and my wife Felida and I are especially grateful to continue being a part of the South District.  We are honored to walk with you and serve alongside you.

I thought about sharing a favorite scripture passage in my first newsletter article, but instead I feel led to share one of my least favorite scripture passages.  It’s found in Matthew 15:21-28.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

I don’t like this story much because it messes with my image of Jesus.  He’s supposed to be a warm and cuddly messiah, loving everybody, open to all – but in this story he ignores this woman, his disciples want to send her away, and he refuses to help her because she is a Gentile, a Canaanite (Mark’s version calls her Syrophoenician).  When she persists and he finally speaks to her, he rather abruptly dismisses her as a dog (a Gentile) who doesn’t deserve the children’s (the Israelites’) food (blessings).

I gotta say, for someone who’s big on loving your neighbor, Jesus doesn’t seem to be setting a shining example here.  She is culturally a double Other – a woman, a Gentile – and a typically righteous Hebrew man 2000 years ago wouldn’t speak a word to her, but Jesus is supposed to be better than a typically righteous Hebrew man.

Maybe Jesus is just hyper-focused on his mission to Israel; after all, in Matthew 10:5-6 he specifically tells his disciples not to spread the Good News to the Gentiles but to focus on the Israelites.  I guess he’s at least being consistent.  And many have tried to soften the blow of his seeming rudeness by making v. 6 a more affectionate saying; it’s true that the Greek word for ‘dogs’ used here refers to pets, to housedogs, rather than to the stray wild dogs that roamed that part of the world.  But does any of that really help?  I’m not buying it.

But the woman herself redeems the story for me.  Jesus turns her away, but she insists on having a redemptive conversation.  Her faith is evident in her address to Jesus as the Lord, the Son of David – typical in Matthew’s telling of healing stories.  Her faith is evident in her request that Jesus heal her daughter.  Her faith is evident in her persistence.  (Sometimes we just need to keep praying, ‘Lord, help me,’ until the Lord helps us.)  Her faith is evident in her creative and witty response to Jesus’ dismissal: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

She is the hero of the story, and the image of God is evident in her.  It takes a while, but Jesus finally listens, and in her words and in his listening, blessing emerges.  ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

I have a lot to learn about being a district superintendent, but one thing I’m sure of is that it starts with listening.  I want to listen to you, to hear your stories, to hear your joys, to hear your struggles, to hear your ideas, to hear your passion for ministry.

Listening is essential for all of us at such a time as this in the world and in the Church when there is so much fracture and division and finger pointing, when we tend to be better at shouting at each other than hearing one another.  And it’s important for us to listen especially closely to those who are often devalued or sent away.  On that day when the Church finally honors the image of God in every person, we will be richly blessed.

If you have been made to feel like an Other in the world or in the Church because you are a person of color, or LGBTQIA, or an immigrant, or young, or female, or something else, I am committed to listening to you.  I know that in listening to you I will learn from you, and God’s blessing will emerge.

Thanks for listening –

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Author: Matt Ashley

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