August 17, 2014
In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “choseness.” Does God have favorites? Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people? If God is the Creator of us all, how can this be? Not easy questions to confront or to answer. Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians and non-Christians.
In the extraordinary New Testament story we read this morning, we encounter a side of Jesus that affronts our modern sensibilities and certainly our political correctness. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. What is going on here?
Let’s look at the story and its setting as Matthew describes it. Jesus has been teaching and walking across the country followed by large crowds. He heals the sick, forgives sins and challenges the established thinking on God. To everyone who thinks that God is satisfied with external piety he brings the enormous challenge of his spirit and his personal knowledge: God looks into the heart. God is not pleased with mere observances; God requires a new way of thinking, of praying, of being. And now tired and needing to escape the crowds, Jesus moves north out of Israel into what we know as Lebanon, the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.
Mark tells us that Jesus entered a home, probably belonging to friends, and asked them to keep his visit secret. In Matthew we see him entering the region, probably followed only by his disciples, and immediately a woman accosts him, not with a polite request, but with shouting.
There are many characteristics of this woman that fill us with admiration: She must have heard about him even before he entered her city because she is ready. What she heard about him, she believed. She is not a Jew, yet she is using language that is familiar only to Jews of the time. She calls him “Son of David.” She is absolutely certain that Jesus is who he says he is. Unlike his own people, who doubt him and try to trip him at every conversation, she takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter. And because she loves her daughter she will beg, ask and shout until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.
In her pleading, her shouting, she asks first for mercy and then for healing. Apparently Jesus keeps on walking, but she follows. She doesn’t give up. Jesus, however, is silent. Even his disciples, embarrassed at her shouts, ask him to respond, to send her away. They, too, are certain that because she is not a Jew she doesn’t have the right to ask him for anything.
Now Jesus says something not to her or to them: It’s obvious that he is examining a question in his own mind: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission as he has known it up to this moment. And he has worked at it every moment of his days – to bring his people back to God.
The woman hears his words, but she is the kind who is not deterred by national and religious differences. She will not let them keep her from seeking help. Now Jesus uses language that separates those who think they are God’s chosen from those whom they consider outside God’s grace. The Israelites are the children, and the outsiders are the dogs. In our age and our culture this is heavy language. We don’t exactly know what it meant at that time and in that context, but we know it was not complimentary. The bread is the essence of life. It must be given to the children.
The mother, however, does not budge. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good.
This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined.
And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.”
Thus it is that we all benefit from that woman’s faith. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. The encounter does not happen within the land of the chosen but outside it, in the pagan realm of Tyre and Sidon. Once again, God brings good out of what has seemed evil. The dogs enter the same realm as the children. They now eat from the table and not just of the crumbs that fall from it. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.
The Incarnation is vivid in this story, as is the theology of kenosis – the ‘self-emptying’ of our will to become receptive to God’s will. Jesus learns something from a humble woman and from a mother’s love. This is a story to be honored, to be proclaimed and to fill us with gratitude. “Lord have mercy on me,” she cries. And the Lord shows mercy to one considered an outcast.
God’s mercy covers all of us.
— Katerina Whitley, a retreat leader, is the author of “Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women” (Morehouse, 1998) and “Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus” (Morehouse, 2002). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.