Dear Ms. Canaanite Woman:
We regret to inform you that the claim you have sought for coverage of your daughter’s illness has been denied.
First of all, she and you have a pre-existing condition. It is called “Canaanism”. You are not one of us. You are not from here. We have enough trouble providing coverage and assistance to those who belong.
Second of all, we have come to realize that you have worshipped wrongly. Perhaps if your parents had been better raised… but I digress.
Third, your people have historically been at odds with our people. Your people are dirty. They are outside of God’s attention. In short, your people do not matter.
We suggest you seek coverage through a more appropriate insurer to your condition.
Sincerely, John P. Smith, Agent, Holy Land Insurance
She was warned: “Don’t come near the Messiah with your dirty Canaanite body.”
She was given an explanation: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she persisted.
This should not be surprising to us in the least. How far would a mother go for the health and life of her child? She will stop at nothing. She will go to the ends of the earth and beyond if there is even the faintest possibility of finding healing for her daughter. Her great faith leads her on.
Faith is one of those ‘churchy’ words that gets thrown around quite a bit, and I sometimes wonder if we really understand it. At the end of the story, Jesus tells her that her faith is “great.” But what does that mean? Does she just have an enormous amount of it? Perhaps hers is simply the determined faith of a mother in distress? This gets even more complicated when we look back through Matthew’s narrative. In the previous chapter, Jesus chastises Peter for having “little faith.”
Understanding, or even explaining “faith” can be pretty confusing. We hear lots of different adages thrown around in church: just persist in your faith! Just have faith! If you have the right faith status, you’ll be fine! Keep the faith!
We are going to come back to this in a minute, but for now, let’s just set this confusion to the side, because first, there are some other questions we need to unpack. Let’s face it, this is a troubling text when we get right down to it.
Any time I read this story, the question that jumps immediately to my mind is, what is Jesus thinking??? This isn’t the Jesus of the Beatitudes; not the mild-mannered Jesus knocking softly on the door; not even the Jesus who calmed the storms and quieted the seas. This Jesus seems to be something else. Perhaps he is simply in a bad mood? After all, in the text directly before this, he’s just had another run-in with the Pharisees, who took offense at what he said… again. Perhaps he is short-sighted, limiting his mission to first take care of the house of Israel. Of course, there is an even more unsettling possibility: perhaps Jesus is giving in to prejudice and racism. He basically refers to this woman as a dog, a racial slur used against her people to denote their different skin color, ethnicity, and culture. In other words, the wrongness of her “otherness.” The modern day equivalent would be the use of the n-word against African-Americans. It was that biting and offensive.
Now I am sure that we are all beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable right now. We should be. But we have to be willing to ask these kinds of deep, probing questions about the Jesus of this scripture in order to come through to a deeper, fuller understanding. So, even in our discomfort, I ask that you bear with me.
At best, Jesus is simply uninterested in helping this woman. At worst, Jesus is submitting to social conventions of division and discord. In fact, Jesus seems to be modeling what he just said a few verses earlier: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”
Most times this text is read, we try to whitewash it by saying, Jesus was merely testing her- or the disciples- to see how they would react. Now this is possible, of course. But when we do this, we miss an opportunity to witness a remarkable encounter that has the power to change all of the players.
James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, sets the scene for us:
“So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene,” he writes. “Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel, now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as if they were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff. On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. ‘Lord, have mercy,’ the dog’s solo bleating cry. ‘Get rid of her,’ the ‘lost-sheep chorus’ barks back in reply.”
And Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He denies her. The Jesus we celebrate as the champion of the poor and destitute, this time sides with the majority. And we, who thought we knew the gospels so well, are left shaken and troubled.
At its base, this is a story of reversals and contrasts. The disciples and the rest of the majority are contrasted against this lone woman, this outsider who has quite daringly entered the lion’s den. Her “great faith” is contrasted with the “little faith” of the disciples. And here, at the emotional center of the story, we get an astounding reversal. She will not back down. She is a mother fighting for the health, the literal life of her daughter. She stands her ground. She does not waver. She takes Jesus’ words referring to her as a dog and turns them on him. She reminds him that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table, and crumbs are all she is looking for.
One of the first questions we are confronted with in this story is a difficult one: can Jesus learn or change his mind? Well, sure. He’s Jesus. He’s capable of anything! But if we say yes… that challenges our identifying Jesus as perfect, complete, and sinless… and we are immediately thrown into a theological controversy. If we read this story traditionally, and Jesus is simply testing her, then he does not change, and knew the answer all along. But quite frankly, that is boring, and simply does not challenge us where we need to be challenged.
“The other possibility… is that Jesus’ own sense of God’s kingdom is challenged, stretched, and enhanced by his encounter with this fierce and faithful woman. Maybe Jesus… [really does believe] he was sent only to the Israelites,” and when this woman shows up she “persuades him that something much larger is at stake.” She won’t let him off that easy; she demands something; anything, even crumbs! “Mothers of sick kids are like that- they won’t let anything get in the way of their taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors of health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a slightly narrow-minded messiah-type” (Lose).
If we go with this, then yes, Jesus can learn. And he begins to see that God’s kingdom and his own mission are much bigger than he initially imagined. Does this mean he is not perfect or sinless?
I would respond to this question in three ways. First of all, this is not the first time God has changed God’s mind. Throughout the Old Testament, God repents- literally turns around. For example, in 2 Samuel 24, God sends a pestilence on Israel which kills seventy thousand people, but when the angel is about to set on Jerusalem to destroy it, God “relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, ‘It is enough; now stay your hand’” (24:16). Or when Moses convinces God not to destroy the Israelites in the wilderness when they turn to idolatry (Exodus 32:12). And sometimes God’s mind is changed in spite of what had been promised, as happens when God decides to spare the great city of Ninevah, much to the prophet Jonah’s annoyance (Jonah 4:2).
Second, we must remember that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, and as humans, we are imperfect. Jesus can have human flaws without compromising the perfect divinity in him. Finally, this passage really isn’t very interested in questions like those. Instead, we are invited in this passage to imagine that God’s purpose unfolded throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and continues to do so in our own lives and experiences.
Which leads us to a second question we are confronted with: can we learn? It is no secret that mainline denominations such as ours are getting smaller and growing older. Many of us wonder, what went wrong, and how we might entice young families and young adults to start coming to church. One pastor I came across while looking at this passage notes that he always answers this conversation with a question: have you asked any of the people you wish would come to church why they don’t? Or, why do people go to other churches? Quite simply, what are we hearing in our communities? Or rather, are we listening to our communities?
See, in this occurrence, Jesus meets, dismisses, and then learns from a person. She isn’t an inspired idea come out of the clouds; she isn’t an idea he comes across reading the newspaper; she isn’t a group of people; she is an individual- a flesh and blood woman seeking, faithfully, for hope, and, more importantly, a place at the table.
There are a plethora of reasons why people don’t come to church. At the heart, most people don’t go because they don’t feel, or are afraid they will not feel, welcome. Perhaps they’ve been judged in the past or made to feel like one of the dogs of religion. Perhaps they’ve heard something they simply cannot comprehend or agree with, and have not felt able to seek conversations that help them to understanding. Whatever it is, we don’t know until we ask; we don’t know until we look at others as people.
Because, let’s be completely honest, the big “C” Church in America, has been pretty comfortable with its place in the culture of the last two hundred plus years. And that comfort has led us in the Church (again, big “C”), to support things that are really antithetical to the gospel. Like an “immigration policy [that] remains about maintaining the racial hygiene of this nation” (Sharif). Or the way we as a nation have treated black, brown, and yellow bodies, signaling through our silences that it is okay to continue the legacy of violence against them. Our response, when it has not been utter silence, has been to call them dogs, or worse, that they do not have a place here. That “this” is ours, not theirs.
What is the miracle in this gospel lesson? Is it the healing of the daughter? A greater miracle than this happened that day. It was a miracle of grace. It was a miracle that the woman overcame Jesus’ reluctance. The great gulf between Jew and gentile was closed. The barriers of race and religion, like the Berlin wall, were torn down, that all would have room to sit at this table.
It was also a miracle of faith. The focus is not upon the sick daughter who was healed, but upon the mother and her persistent faith in Jesus. She was a lady who would not take “no” for an answer. Her insistence was based on her faith in Jesus and her love for her daughter.
This is a miracle we are in desperate need of in our world today. We need look no further than our own American backyard to see how racism is quite literally tearing our world apart. We need a messiah who is willing to grow and expand the scope of his mission. We need more women like this, who are strong and persistent in their faith that God will listen, and that healing can take place, that the table of Christ can grow to accommodate all of God’s children.
Which brings us back to that big ball of confusing faith we set aside a little bit ago. This morning, we are invited to think about our faith- where we are, here and now. We are not asked to judge or measure our faith: that’s pointless. Faith is fluid, waxing and waning as the moon. The Canaanite woman’s story is not about what faith is, but what faith looks like in action. Her “great faith” is simply her holding on tightly to what she believes in the face of great adversity (Lose).
How will we face this challenge? Will we be timid in the face of it? Or will we put our money where our mouth is? Will we act in the way we dare to believe, putting our faith into action every day. Our faith is a deeply personal thing, and these are deeply personal questions. Yet when we live out of our hearts, joined at the table, the community can flourish. Amen.
Lose, David. “What the Canaanite Woman Teaches.” In the Meantime… N.p., 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.
Sharif, Solmaz. “Poetry & Migration: Featuring Solmaz Sharif.” Message to Poets.org. 23 Mar. 2017. E-mail.
To read Sharif’s excellent poem, “Deception Story,” go here!