Proper 15, year A
August 14, 2011
Imagine you are a parent, a mother whose daughter is ill. You’ve been to all the doctors, they haven’t given you a certain diagnosis, and they haven’t been able to treat her. All they can say is that she’s possessed by a demon. You’re at your wits’ end. You’ve even tried the quacks, the self-styled miracle workers and faith healers. But nothing has worked. Now you hear about this guy who’s coming through town; he’s not from around here, he’s Jewish, and back where he’s from, he’s done some amazing things. So you figure, let’s go check him out.
You see him walking down the road with his entourage, there are lots of people around him, and surrounding him are a bunch of guys who look like his security detail, his handlers. You have no chance to get close to him, so you cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” You’re making quite a ruckus by now, so the security guys, ok, let’s call them disciples, tell Jesus, “send her away.”
This is your last chance to help your daughter and you hope your shouted plea will bring a response, but the guy, Jesus, just keeps walking as if he didn’t hear you. So you keep trying. What do you have to lose? Somehow, you are able to elbow your way through the crowd, get past his handlers. Now, you kneel in front of him and ask again, “Lord, have mercy.”
Now you’re making a scene in front of him, blocking his way, so finally, Jesus has to respond. But does he turn to you in compassion and ask you what’s wrong? No. He tells you that your problems are no business of his. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I am here to help Jews, not Gentiles, like you.
In fact, the gospel has made that point even more clearly in its description of the woman as a Canaanite. To call her a Canaanite is bizarre. The Canaanites of course were Israel’s old enemies 800 years before. They had worshipped Baal and his female consort Asherah, and the Old Testament is full of stories of conflicts between Yahweh, Israel’s God, and Baal. So Matthew is trying to make the point that this woman is completely outside of God’s care, she’s not just any old gentile—she’s belongs to the most worthless, most hated group of all.
So Jesus tells you, “look I’ve got nothing to do with you.” But like any loving parent, you won’t take no for an answer. “Lord, help me,” you plead.
Now Jesus responds to you directly, but what he says is hardly reassuring. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” You’re not sure you believe your ears. Indeed, we hearing these words 2000 years later, aren’t sure we get what Jesus means.
But what the meaning quickly becomes clear. You do get it and reply, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.”
Let’s stop right here. Did you get it this time around? Jesus has basically called her (and those of her community) dogs. She doesn’t deny it, she doesn’t bristle at the put down. Instead, she turns it back on him. “We may be dogs, Jesus, but remember, loving masters give their dogs table scraps to eat.”
Now, you’ve finally convinced him. Jesus praises your faith, and your daughter is healed instantly. Not a very pretty story is it? Jesus isn’t behaving like he’s supposed to behave, and the woman isn’t exactly a model of proper decorum, either.
This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.
This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.
One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.
The story addresses one of the central problems in early Christianity—the relationship of gentiles to the God of the Jews. Now, it’s not a big deal for us, since we are, I presume the vast majority of us, Gentile Christians, we weren’t Jews. But it was a big deal for the first Christians. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus ministers to Gentiles only three times and this is the first occasion in his public ministry that he encounters a Gentile. It is clear that his mission is to Jews. After his resurrection, of course, he commissions the disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” But at this point, Jesus’ ministry is to the Jewish community and it may be, that until this encounter with the Canaanite woman, he had no notion that he might also minister outside that community, to Gentiles. Certainly, Matthew places this story here, to use it as a turning point in the gospel.
Just as the Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, this story challenges us. We claim to be followers of Jesus, but this remarkable tale confronts us with two very different models of following him. On the one hand, there are the disciples who are acting here as security guards to prevent unwanted people from gaining access to Jesus. They protect the traditional standards and boundaries of the faith. Moreover, they have not exactly been examples of faith. Jesus tells them more than once, “Oh, you of little faith.”
On the other hand, there is the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus on her knees, addresses him as Son of David, and says, as we say in the liturgy, “Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy.” In the end, Jesus says to her, “Great is her faith.” It is she that exhibits faith, she who understands who Jesus is, she who is the true follower, disciple, of Jesus.
But her faith is not the docile, simple faith that is so often extolled in works of piety or devotion. Hers is a questioning, challenging faith, a cheeky faith—demanding answers and responses not only from those around her, but also from the very God in whom she believes, the Jesus, before whom she kneels and begs, “Kyrie, Eleison, Lord have mercy.”
The Canaanite woman speaks for all of us when she demands that Jesus help her, because in Matthew’s gospel, it is in part through her demand that the mission of Jesus was extended to us. But she also challenges us all. She demands of us to admit where we stand, with the disciples who maintain the boundaries of comfort and convention, or with a God who is constantly breaking down the barriers that divide human beings from one another, who constantly challenges us to imagine a God whose grace and mercy extends not only to ourselves and those like us, but to all those whom we hate, revile, ignore, and dismiss.