Immediately before his remarkable conversation with a Canaanite woman, Jesus has two encounters that stand in marked contrast to that conversation.
The first is a run-in with scribes and Pharisees who come from Jerusalem to challenge him. They accuse him of allowing his disciples to ignore details of the tradition, while he castigates them for allowing their traditional practices to override basic morality.
Later, Jesus struggles with his own disciples, who have trouble comprehending the way he sets aside, or at least diminishes, the food laws at the heart of their ancestral religion. They are not hostile toward their teacher, but still they don’t seem to get it. Frustrated, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you also still not understand?”
Jesus then leaves that place. Maybe he wants some fresh air, a break from the headaches of controversy. He goes off to where there are no scribes and Pharisees to criticize him. Yet where he goes is a strange choice: it’s Gentile territory, outside the boundaries of acceptability, an area filled with people who dwell in spiritual darkness. He enters the district around Tyre and Sidon, two cities on the Mediterranean coast. It is there that he encounters not opposition or misunderstanding, but faith that he finds worthy of praise.
The episode starts in a way that seems less than promising. A woman appears and shouts at him! She is not only a woman, but a Canaanite. She belongs to a people who for long have been enemies of Israel. So, by the customs of the time, these are reasons that she and this rabbi from Galilee should have nothing to do with each other. But she approaches Jesus, shouting, calling attention to herself, demanding mercy.
She calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David,” and asks for mercy for herself. The shrieks from her pagan throat are phrases from the piety of Israel. And what is the reason that she violates convention, crying out from the depths of her soul? A demon is tormenting her daughter. Here we bypass the separation between Canaanite and Israelite. This is a human issue: a child in agony.
In response to her outburst, there is a strange, inexplicable silence. Jesus does nothing, says nothing. In effect, he ignores her. We are told that “he answered her not a word.”
The disciples propose an inhuman solution. “Send her away; for she cries after us.” It’s the same blighted attitude that these disciples demonstrated when thousands were in the wilderness hungry, and all they could propose was “Send them away.” Out of sight, out of mind!
What the disciples say does not surprise us. Throughout the Gospels they are masters at missing the point, even as we are all too often masters at missing the point. What surprises us are the next words from the lips of Jesus. “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel” is how he answers them.
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Jesus speaks, but the woman acts. She draws closer, violates his personal space, as we would say today; kneels on the ground before him, and puts her case with utter simplicity: “Lord, help me.”
Here begins a verbal contest. Jesus answers her request, but disappoints her. “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
She understands what he says:
— The children are the people of Israel.
— The dogs are pagans such as herself. The term used for dogs is not as hostile as it sounds; it refers to pets, house dogs, animals permitted near the family table, but still there is a vast difference between these dogs and children who have places at the table.
— The food is the message of Jesus, everything he says and does.
What we have in the Bible is a text — not a movie. We wish that we could know how the characters look, the expressions on their faces, the tone of their voices. We wish for more clues to Jesus’ meaning when he says, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
I wonder if just possibly Jesus and the Canaanite somehow came to understand each other the moment they met. Such things happen in human relations. So perhaps it was with a smile, and a note of humor in his voice that he says what would otherwise sound offensive: “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Thus he may be kidding with this woman across barriers of gender and ethnicity and power. Such things sometimes happen.
The woman’s response supports this interpretation. She kids him back, she plays along.
“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Her need, her faith, her humility allow her to take this lowly position in order to eat scraps from a sumptuous feast. She’s willing to be a fool for love: love for her daughter in dire straits, love for the God who helps her through this alien teacher.
After hostile scribes and Pharisees and thickheaded, thick-hearted disciples, this Canaanite woman must seem to Jesus like a breath of fresh air. She and he are reading from the same page. There, kneeling before him, she is a fool for love. Later, hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem, he will be the fool for love.
And so Jesus praises the faith of this unorthodox foreign female. He calls her faith great, and on that basis tells her that what she wants will happen. Not much got done with the Pharisees and scribes, or with the uncomprehending disciples; but here Jesus partners with this woman of faith and something happens: the demons disappear, and the daughter is restored to health and wholeness.
Thus the insiders don’t appear in such a great light, whether they are the disciples of Jesus, or his opponents, the scribes and Pharisees. It’s this foreign and unorthodox woman who shines — who gets what Jesus is about. She provokes him into the place that awaits him not simply as the savior of Israel, but as the savior of all the world. The full revelation of Jesus awaits his death and resurrection, but her urgent hunger for mere scraps of salvation puts to shame those of us who enjoy full access to the groaning table.
It’s a wonder that the early Church kept this story and enshrined it in Matthew’s Gospel. Here the ever-steady Jesus appears reaching out for balance, coming to terms with the scandalous breadth of his mission.
Yet the story reminds us how the Church, the earthly body of Jesus, is repeatedly taught, not so much by respectable insiders, but by those on the margins, the people without power and credibility.
These marginal people storm in, insisting that the Church should live up to the pattern offered by its Lord. They rock the boat. Consider these examples.
Advocates of social change look for Christians to follow Jesus down the path of the Beatitudes and offer a costly witness.
Children naturally assume that the Church will speak up for them just as Jesus did when he offered a child as a model of his kingdom.
[Offer these or other examples that challenge your congregation.]
Often these and others like them come to the Church with a commendable faith, even as that Canaanite woman drew near to Jesus. They may come from outside the bounds of power and acceptability, yet they’re eager even for scraps from the table. What they need, what they deserve, is a seat with the rest of us. There is much we can learn from them. Will we acknowledge such people, listen to them, welcome them?
What about when today’s Canaanite woman finds herself, not at the margins of the community, but beyond the boundaries of hope? What about the times when you or I find ourselves in that place? We come to Jesus out of some aching need, desperate, hungry for a crumb, and what we get is silence, and we’re left to wonder about whether we are accepted, and whether God’s concern for us is real.
This is the time to push further, to hang in, to insist, indeed, to violate even the personal space of God with the voice of prayer. It is time to be a fool for love.
When the answer is silence, when the answer sounds like rejection, then know that it is not because God is unwilling to give us the gift, but because God wants our faith to be manifest, for that faith itself is a divine gift.
An ancient Christian writer says as much about today’s Gospel. “It was for this reason,” writes Theodore of Mopsuestia, “that Jesus postponed giving the Canaanite woman a reply: that she might cry aloud with this word.” What word? Her word of love, of humility, of faith. She speaks from what we call the margins, the outer edge, but what God calls the heart of the cosmos.
“Thereby,” says Theodore–by her persistent prayer; her demand for mercy; her word of love, of humility, of faith–thereby Jesus “would show her to be worthy of a thousand crowns.” [Theodore of Mopsuestia, Fragment 83, quoted in Manlio Simonetti, ed., “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ib, Matthew 14-28” (InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 30.]
So when God seems silent in the face of our prayer, it is for this reason: that we too may cry out in faith, from whatever place we find ourselves. Faith such as this shows itself worthy of a thousand crowns, for it exceeds all earthly powers.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
— Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).