Our story for Sunday wasn’t exactly an easy one. There’s a desperate mother, a daughter with a demon, and Jesus going through some growing pains.
As part of our service we talked about a friend of mine who was in the habit of naming the unnamed characters in the Bible. She and her children would give a name to any character without a name. That new name became that character’s name in perpetuity. As a result, their Bible reading became populated with Brians and Brendas and all sorts of other folks. They found that the practice helped bring the stories to life, and made them stick in their minds in a new way.
One of our youth named the Canaanite woman from our story. For our community she is now aptly named Faith. I hope you are as moved by the story of Faith’s persistence and wisdom as I was in my week of study and prayer last week.
Let’s set the stage. Just before this, Jesus has had a conversation with some of the religious authorities. They’ve been debating the intricacies of who’s in and who’s out, what makes a person holy or pure. And Jesus, in standard form, has been doing away with religious conventions right and left. He takes a whole heap of rules and says, if you think these are the most important thing, you’re missing the point. What matters is what you say to others, how you treat your neighbor. What matters is your compassion, the measure of your mercy.
That’s what’s preceded this story. I wonder if Jesus left that last conversation shaking his head at how uptight those serious folks were being, how narrow minded and unmerciful. Is it too irreverent to wonder if he had a private moment of savoring his victory? Thinking to himself, man, I really showed them how wrong they are. I’m good!
Regardless of what he was thinking, he comes out of this conversation where he’s been advocating wider mercy and mission and is immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman. We’re going to call her Faith.
The Canaanites were most definitely the Other with a capital O. They worshipped different gods, probably in this time paid homage to the emperor and the empire’s gods. They ate all the wrong foods and didn’t wash their hands appropriately. They looked different, dressed different, acted different. They were most definitely not kosher.
Jesus running into her makes me think of what it’s like when someone who doesn’t look like me, talk like me, dress like me stops me and asks for money, or food. Suddenly I’m on guard. Or, it’s like when you’re driving through a new city and get off the freeway in an unexpected neighborhood. Folks out on the street don’t look like you or dress like you, and maybe you lock the car doors at the first stop light. We don’t much like to talk about these kinds of things. Our actions in those situations don’t reflect who we ultimately want to be. The truth is people who are different put us on edge. Our defenses go up.
Jesus apparently struggled with this too. In this story he comes face to face with someone who was most definitely different. It was one thing to argue with and minister to the serious religious folk. They’re his people, the ones God sent him to. This woman, though, she’s not one of the flock. She’s an outsider.
She, however, is too desperate to care about his discomfort or the niceties of the situation. She starts shouting, begging for him to heal her daughter. She is not behaving. She is not respectful. We might be tempted to tell her to be quiet, maybe in not particularly nice words.
Jesus, however, has just lectured a whole heap of people about how it’s the words that come out of our mouths that make us unholy, and maybe it’s with that in mind that he keeps his mouth shut. Perhaps his mother taught him if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
The disciples, though, say what we’re all thinking. Send her away. Ugh. She’s so loud and rude. Make her go away.
And so now Jesus has two competing claims. The disciples speaking with the voice of propriety and common sense have urged him to send her away. And Faith is still keening in front of him, begging for his mercy, pleading with him on behalf of her daughter.
The story says he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Each New Testament writer tells the story of Jesus’ mission a little differently, but they’re all fairly clear on one thing. Initially it seemed that Jesus came just for his people, for the Jews. The way the author of Matthew tells the story, that’s not just what his followers thought, it’s also what Jesus thought.
He spent time in prayer and discernment, listening to God in the desert and up on the mountaintop. And he understood that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of his ancestors and his people had sent him to those people. The promise of the prophets that God intended to reconcile all of the people in the world was certainly true, but it seemed to the prophets and apparently to Jesus that God was going to do that through the people of Israel. Jesus was to minister to his people so that they could be a light for the whole world. That was how it was supposed to work.
And Faith was not one of his people. So when he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, it’s almost as if he’s thinking out loud. This woman is in desperate need and begging for his mercy, but his mission isn’t to her, is it? She’s not one of the lost sheep of his flock. She’s beyond the bounds of his call. She’s an interruption and a distraction. He doesn’t tell her no outright, but he seems to be leaning in that direction.
She, however, in the tradition of desperate people everywhere, when given an inch takes a yard. I wonder if she saw some conflict in his face as he tried to figure out what to do. She comes and kneels right at his feet. Lord, help me, she begs.
And then Jesus answers her directly. He tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I love Jesus, but this is not really his finest moment. There’s no exegetical trick we can do to take the edge off of what he said. It’s as harsh as it sounds. He’s looked at this woman begging for his mercy and has called her a dog. The insult cuts through the centuries.
It gives us an indication of how mightily he’s struggling to sort out his mission. I think he really believes this is God’s will, that he reach out to the children of Israel, heal them, set them free to love, for the good of the world. It’s not that this woman isn’t genuinely in need, or deserving of care. It’s just that, well, he has limited time and resources. Good stewardship demands that he attend to those to whom God has called him. You have to have priorities and leave some things undone, right?
Who among us cannot relate to this moment? We finally feel like we have some clarity about what the next step is, or what our goals are–in life, in work, in church, even just for the day ahead. And then there’s an interruption, an inconvenience. It’s most humbling when this happens while you’re in the middle of some official good work–when you’re in the middle of prayer or reading your Bible, or fixing a casserole for a friend in need, doing some good deed. And then someone interrupts, maybe your spouse, or a friend, or someone approaches you asking for a few dollars to help with food, or just asking for you to listen for a few minutes. And if you’re anything like me you snap at them. I don’t have time to help you! Can’t you see? I’m busy being a good Christian!
Faith, though, is too desperate to give up. She joins the mighty ranks of Abraham, and Jacob, and Rachel, and Moses, and she haggles with the Lord. She negotiates with Jesus, just like she’s buying a used car from a shady salesman. She traps him in his own words. Luther called her next statement a masterpiece of rhetoric. It is.
“Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs get the crumbs.”
Is it the shock of hearing his insult on her lips? Is it her persistence? Her refusal to give up? Something finally connects, and it’s as if Jesus snaps out his confusion. He suddenly sees her.
No longer is she the Other. No longer is she an uppity Canaanite. No longer is she someone outside of his circle of compassion.
She is a desperate mother, pleading for his help. And more than that, she is a woman of amazing faith. Even when mercy seemed uncertain, seemed as if it might not extend to her, she trusted that it did and staked her life on that trust. What else is faith if not staking our lives on the promise of mercy?
As the gospel of Matthew tells the story, Jesus was changed by this encounter. His mind was changed in the moment. And even more, his understanding of God’s will grew. No longer does he see his flock as strictly his fellow children of Israel. By the end of the gospel he will be sending his disciples to baptize all nations, Jew and Greek, clean and unclean–because of her.
It’s kind of a jarring notion, isn’t it? That this woman, by her pleading and persistence changed Christ’s mind, that her interruption, her refusal to take no for an answer led to deeper compassion on Christ’s part, but there it is, right there in the story.
And thank goodness it is.
Thank goodness for us, who are heirs to the breadth of mercy won by this woman. Most of us are not children of the flock of Israel either, and yet, like Faith, we do not hesitate to claim God’s mercy for ourselves.
Thank goodness too, that we have this portrait of Jesus. Because it’s a challenge to us, to take a second look at those things we think are just interruptions, just distractions, and those people we think are outside of the circle of folks we’re supposed to be concerned with.
When we find ourselves thinking, we don’t have time. You have to have priorities. And some people, well, some people are just too different. You can’t yield to every interruption; you can’t help everyone. I need to get on with my work.
When we find ourselves face to face with people who are different and with life interrupting, this woman reminds us to thank God for those people, and those interruptions. Because the truth is, interruptions and outsiders have the ability to expand the measure of our mercy.
This is what lives at the core of non-violent protest. When blacks marched and boycotted and sat-in all across the south, it was with the hope that life would be different for them and their children because of an interruption, a disruption that would expand the measure of mercy of white folk across the land. And the truth is, it did.
Coming out of the closet can be a similarly disruptive act, interrupting life as it’s always been. And, at the same time, it presents an opportunity for friends and family to change, to grow, to find the measure of their mercy expanded.
When our lives are interrupted, inconvenienced–whether in these big, political ways, or in the smaller personal dramas of everyday life, it can be an invitation into fuller life. When those who seem too different, too strange ask for our attention, our time, our help, it’s worth a second look. It may be this Canaanite woman standing there. When our best laid plans go astray and the day is full of interruptions, it may be worth setting our expectations of how God will work aside. It may be this Canaanite woman interrupting us.
When the neighbor who’s just a little weird comes over to chat, or the person down the street who always seems so lonely lingers as they walk by, when children demand our attention, or a friend we haven’t talk to in ages, when someone who couldn’t be more different makes a claim on our compassion, or pleads for mercy, in all these times and countless more, may we have the courage to stop and to look.
And if our hearts are hard at first, may they soften. If our minds are made up, may they be unmade, at least for a few moments. If we’re certain that we know the will of God, may we take a breath and entertain the possibility that God’s love is wider and deeper and broader and mightier than anything we can ever, ever imagine. Maybe, just maybe, wide enough to include the interruption standing in our way. May we, like Jesus, have the courage and the compassion to change. May we find that the measure of our mercy is magnified. May it so be.by Sarah W. Wiles August 14, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA