She said “Have mercy on me, Lord” and he didn’t answer. She said, “Lord, help me” and he told her why he didn’t have to.
It’s hard to see Jesus this way isn’t it? And it’s SO tempting to soften his words and try to protect our ears and hearts from what he said. Maybe he didn’t really mean it. We wouldn’t call someone begging for help a dog…so how could Jesus? But there is no sign in this text that Jesus is any friendlier to this woman than his words make it sound. Theologian Sharon Ringe says here is, “an incident in Jesus’ life when even he was caught with his compassion down.”[i] Jesus -- caught with his compassion down? That’s hard to think about.
[i] Gench, p. 21.
She was a Canaanite the text tells us…but maybe she wasn’t…if she was there weren’t many of them at this point. The Canaanites were the ones who had the misfortune of living in the Promised Land when God’s people showed up to move in. The book of Joshua is filled with stories about their defeat at the hands of the Israelites. Israel not only called them dogs, they didn’t talk to them, didn’t marry them and didn’t worship with them. They conquered them. These people were wholly other. Jesus was born and raised in a cultural system that didn’t make space for these folks.
Last weekend we took off for a few days in Calgary. I knew I was going to be preaching today so I spent some of the time Eric was driving reading through this story. Feminist theologians LOVE this woman and this passage. It is only one of the few gospel stories where a woman, although nameless, is given a significant voice. And this woman not only engaged Jesus in a conversation but gets him to change his mind and his ministry broadens because of this encounter. This woman basically calls him out and he eventually affirms her as right. So as we coursed through the Canadian Rockies, I was lost in thought about this woman…this desperate mother who took on Jesus.
On our return trip Monday evening, we were sitting in line at the border, preparing to declare the tee shirts and wine bottles we were toting back into the country, I was making a mental note of all we had with us so I could tell the border agent. In front of us were two Sikh men. We watched them pull up, they were made to turn off their car and surrender their keys. For much of their long conversation with the border agent they had hands up and visible. He searched their car, he opened their trunk and, after a while, he finally motioned them through. Then I pulled up, with my car in drive still. We forked over our passports, said we were in Calgary, bought a few things and were on our way home. The car stayed running and in drive with my foot on the break. I was told to drive safe and we were sent on our way but of course, we’re white, and we look safe. When we stopped to switch drivers and I turned my data back on my phone, and that’s when I learned that while I was lost in feminist theology and enjoying a relaxing weekend in Calgary with my son, another mom in Ferguson, Missouri was grieving the loss of her son who was shot and killed last Saturday night and I felt totally numb. Both of our sons are 18 years old. Her son Michael was scheduled to start college tomorrow. My son still gets to go.
It’s hard to see our nation acting this way…STILL. It’s hard to see a system that preferences my skin and my religion and my social location when I didn’t do anything to earn it other than to be born.
The story of Jesus’ and the Canaanite is multivalent. A cultural gap existed between these people. Jesus had been taught and knew his identity culturally and she knew hers and the text indicates that he didn’t yet understand his ministry to include her people. Her wisdom was in ignoring the cultural gap and asserting their connectedness. She was persistent. And this outsider uses the confessional and theological language of an insider. This woman understands Jesus better than many of those he had been with. She cries out her own psalm of lament, “Have mercy on me” and then she calls him “Lord” and “Son of David.” She acknowledges his authority and speaks to him using the language of Jewish prayer.
This woman knows something about Jesus…that he has the authority to heal and she kneels before him and calls him Lord. This outsider kneels before Jesus and proclaims truth…even the crumbs are enough for her she says, and she trusts and believes in that. She’s only asking for the crumbs, for the leftovers. And he hears her, he really hears her but he hears more than just her calling out for help…her words and actions challenge his cultural understanding and his world gets bigger and more inclusive.
I remember when I realized I was white…I knew I was white but it was when I realized the absolute and unfair privilege that being white gave me. I realized that things I assume are just “normal” are not normal and true for everyone. I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed and sick. And it was very hard to realize that my cultural lens as a white American had made me blind to a system of both overt and subtle racism. I wonder how Jesus felt when this non-Jewish woman, marginalized and outcast busted through HIS cultural lens. She was the least likely person to give Jesus a huge piece of his puzzle...providing a clarity and deep understanding he just hadn’t seen yet. It appears he was profoundly moved by this experience. Matthew’s gospel takes him straight from this scene down to the sea where multitudes of people came to be healed and he fed them all with a lot leftover, not just crumbs.
Did the fact that Jesus had not yet identified with the woman constitute a limit to his obligations to her? Does God’s kingdom HAVE boundaries? These are questions that exist in our world today. Stories like the one of the Canaanite woman aren’t confined to scripture…they happen all around us. The difference playing out in our world today is that, unlike Jesus, we don’t always let them change us and widen the circle of our love and protection. Collectively, my ethic race just hasn’t done enough to effect systemic change. I can and need to say this because I’m white. I can and need to say this because I have the privilege of falling asleep on the couch waiting on nights when my 18 year old son is out of the house…I don’t live in fear of him being shot or unfairly arrested. He doesn’t just walk out of our home with my love and prayers but with a skin pigmentation that protects him and unfairly advantages him over his African American friends. It’s an unearned privilege that he has…and it’s part of why he is sitting here this morning and not lying in a morgue.
She didn’t care who she was, she was a mom and her child was sick and her child needed help and her child needed an advocate and she called out loudly and persistently to get that help. She ignored the gap between her and Jesus, the gap between Jews and Gentile and focused on their connectedness, that even if it’s only the crumbs, it is shared food for shared hunger. It is the very essence of being a human being. She knew and found words in his sacred texts, she trusted in his healing touch and she knelt before him.
This woman’s willingness to keep asking, her faith that even crumbs would be enough change Jesus. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “He is no longer a Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel, but God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, beginning with this Canaanite woman.”[i]
God calls us to follow Jesus, to push past boundaries. As followers of Jesus, the Canaanite woman stands just outside of where we perceive to be our obligations, challenging us to stretch past the familiar and the comfortable. She is the homeless man on the street corner, she’s the illegal immigrant struggling with English and trying to keep her children in school, she’s the sick and lonely folks that fill our nursing homes with no companionship and she is Michael Brown’s mother, and Trayvon Martin’s mother and every other mother like them. She is every African American young man and woman in this country unfairly profiled and incarcerated. She was the victim of systemic injustice and cultural indoctrination in Jesus’ world and these others are victims in ours and they all need mercy.
God calls us to step out of comfort, to push past normal and safe and to stand up for the sacred worth of all people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, all human beings. God calls us to challenge what we think we have learned culturally and to really listen when others speak their truth and God calls us to admit when we are wrong and move forward into a better way.
I don’t personally know Michael Brown’s mother. She lives in Missouri, I live in Washington. She and I have never met. But we have some important things in common…in 1996 we both gave birth to sons and from what I have read and seen, it’s clear we both love our sons.
Following Jesus isn’t easy. It requires pushing past all that separates us from our brothers and sisters and remembering what connects us. It requires us to look at what we think is normal and what we think we know and be willing to admit when we’re wrong. And it calls us to have mercy for others who are the victims of systems that privilege us…economically, racially, socially, in every way.
He couldn’t un-know what she taught him that day...he couldn’t not see it anymore and he lost a lot of friends along the way and he died for it. That’s Jesus…that’s the one we’re called to follow, the one who loves everyone…and is showing us how to do the same.
[i] Taylor, 65.
Gench, Frances Taylor. Back to the Well. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Seeds of Heaven. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.