This Canaanite woman shows us the power of persistent faith in God’s abundant mercy that is for all people. Despite Jesus’ reaction to her, she courageously trusts that he shows the face of that divine compassion.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20 A
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Beloved friends in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes when we read stories in the Bible, we wonder: Did it really happen like that? Did Jesus really say those exact words? When we hear this story from Matthew, about Jesus dismissing a woman begging for his help, comparing her to a dog, we might be tempted to say, “No way. Someone misheard him or wrote it down wrong. Jesus certainly didn’t say that.”
Interestingly, some Bible scholars think that unflattering stories about Jesus are actually more likely to be historically accurate. Why would Jesus’ own followers invent stories that make him look bad? And, let’s be honest: this story makes Jesus look bad. It makes him look indifferent at best, and downright cruel at worst.
But Matthew isn’t the only Gospel writer who tells this story; Mark does, too. Jesus did and said a lot of things during his thirty-some years on earth that didn’t get written down, didn’t get passed down to us in scripture. But this did. So we are invited to ask: what do we learn about God through this passage? If Jesus shows us the face of God, what face do we see here?
For one thing, we learn that Jesus was human. In this story, as in others throughout the Gospel, we see some of the emotional experience of Jesus, who was a real person. A person who got tired, angry, sad. A person who ate, wept, bled. It can be easy to forget that. In light of the “fully divine,” it can be easy to forget the “fully human”
In the context of this story, Jesus is worn down. He’s been clashing with authorities, and recently, his relative John the Baptist was publicly executed. Jesus has been trying to get some time away to process his grief, but he’s in high demand, so he’s been caring for people constantly, healing and feeding and teaching. Maybe he’s just tapped out, and he doesn’t feel he has the capacity to help this woman.
This woman who is also a very real person. That can be easy to forget, too. We learn so little about her; we don’t even get her name. We learn only where she’s from and that she’s a mother to a daughter, who is also real, and is suffering acutely.
If you’ve seen the news this past week, you’ve seen faces that look just like the face of this nameless woman. In the text she’s called a ‘Canaanite,’ or a ‘Syro-Phonecian,’ names of ancient empires that sound foreign and far away. But the region where she lives, near the cities of Tyre and Sidon, is about 40 miles south of Beirut, in present-day Lebanon.
This week, as Lebanese faces have flashed across my screen – faces in shock from a massive explosion that should have been prevented, faces enraged by the corruption and neglect of their government, faces desperate for help as they navigate an economic collapse, faces covered by masks in an attempt to survive a global pandemic – as I’ve seen these faces, I’ve wondered: Are any of these very real people the descendants of that woman who knelt before Jesus, descendants of her daughter who survived thanks to her tenacious faith?
Because, you know, in some ways, it is as easy to forget the realness of those people as it is to forget the realness of this nameless woman who lived 2000 years ago. It is easy to turn off the news, to turn away from those Lebanese faces, to think to myself, “We have plenty of our own problems here, plenty of our own shock, and rage, and need. We have our own economic collapse and rampant pandemic to deal with. I do not enough compassion or charity left to offer to those foreign faces, when I am already struggling to meet the need in my own neighborhood.”
And then I know something of how Jesus might have felt when he said, “It isn’t fair to give to the Gentiles what belongs to the Israelites.” Except he didn’t say it quite so diplomatically.
He’s been clear that his mission is to the Israelites. When he sent out his disciples as missionaries, he told them: “Don’t even bother to go to Gentile cities; we’re focused on the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” And they repeat that now. This woman is not a sheep of Israel. She’s a Gentile. It’s as though Jesus and his disciples tell her: “It’s not that we don’t care, but there isn’t enough to go around. We have our own problems, and you’re not our people.”
In some ways, it isn’t Jesus’ statement that’s shocking. Jesus might have expected ‘Canaanites’ like this woman to think just as dismissively of him, a Jew. The antagonism and suspicion between these groups was mutual and longstanding.
And don’t we know what that’s like. 2000 years and a world away isn’t enough to make the reality of prejudice seem surprising. Don’t we know how cultural, racial, geographic, economic, political barriers can seem obvious and intractable. Don’t we know how easy it is to treat someone who looks different than us, who speaks a different language, who practices a different religion, to treat them like they are not our people so they are not our problem. Or, even worse, to treat them like “dogs,” not just with our name calling, but with our actions. In many ways, Jesus’ statement to this woman is not the surprising part of the story. That’s the part we already know, in our own context, our own lives.
The surprising part of this story is her. This woman, who knows when shout and when to kneel. This woman, who knows that, despite her social status, she matters. Her daughter matters. Their lives matter. This woman, who knows that the pull she feels in her heart, to go toward Jesus, to reach for him, is good and right and true. She knows a savior when she sees him. And even when he ignores her, denies her, derides her, this woman knows that God’s mercy is abundant. When Jesus says, “There’s not enough for you,” she says, “Oh yes there is! There is always enough.”
She may not have heard Jesus tell the parable about how the kingdom of God is like yeast that catalyzes rising dough. She may not have seen Jesus’ feed thousands with only a few loaves of bread. But still she knows that even crumbs at God’s table are more than enough. The bread of life does not run out.
That is the shocking part of this story, and boy is it good news. Despite all the challenges of this passage – the questions it raises, the discomfort it causes – the good news sings out anyway, in the voice of an nameless woman: God’s abundant grace is for everyone, and there is always enough to go around!
As soon as he hears it, Jesus knows she’s right. Of course, of course he has healing for her daughter. He says her faith is “great,” and it is great: admirable, heroic, steadfast, resolute. One might even say dogged. Her dogged faith, her persistence before Jesus, tears down any barrier that might have stood between him and her. There is no ‘his people’ and ‘her people,’ Just people, real people. Like the faces we see in need in our own neighborhood, like the faces we see in need across the world.
May we, too, have faith dogged enough to tear barriers between people. That doesn’t mean that we have to respond to every disaster you see on the news. Even when we’re not navigating a pandemic, compassion fatigue is real, and right now, everything feels exhausting. That also doesn’t mean that we have to love this story about Jesus. You can always keep wrestling with scripture. God is big enough for all your questions.
What it does mean to have dogged faith is that you never give up on living as though God’s grace is abundant for every single person, because it is. When you hear the message that “There’s not enough to go around. There’s not enough h for her, or for her, or for her” you say, “Oh yes there is! Through God there is.”
Jesus leaves this conversation with the woman revived and recommitted. He immediately heals and feeds so many people that there are mass conversions. The woman’s great faith was well-placed after all. Jesus was who she thought he was: the savior of the world, the bread of life that never runs out, the incarnate one who shows us the face of God. And God is not prejudice or rejecting. God’s mercy abounds and overflows into the whole world. God loves the whole creation, no exceptions.
This nameless woman knew that truth. She saw that love shining in the face of Jesus, and, despite the pain in her life, despite the reality of her circumstances, and she trusted that love. We can trust that love, too.