By The Rev. David Sellery
This is one of those rich gospels that can take us productively in so many different directions. There is the courage of the Canaanite woman in the face of institutional prejudice. There is Jesus signalling the opening of God’s kingdom to all people. But before we turn to these great issues, let’s take a closer look at a lesson that has more immediate impact on our lives… the power of prayer.
“God bothering” is a sarcastic description of prayer that worked its way into the English language in the 19th Century. While it was coined as a nasty putdown, it seems particularly appropriate when applied to this colloquy between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In her persistent appeals to Jesus, she is literally “God bothering.” As they say in Yiddish, she’s a “nudjh”… a mega-pest, a super-nagger. But she’s more than that. She’s on a mission to save her daughter. And she won’t be brushed off by the disciples or overawed by Jesus. She believes only Jesus can save her daughter and she won’t stop petitioning him, bothering him until he does.
How like our own personal prayer lives. We live in nodding acquaintance with God, until there’s a crisis. Then all of a sudden we start praying up a storm. Petitions pour forth. In our desperation we promise God all sorts of things. Solve that problem and I’ll do this. Cure this illness and I’ll never do that. The crisis will pass or it won’t. The promises will be kept or they won’t. Whatever the outcome, our prayer, our intimate conversation with God, contains an answer in itself. It acknowledges our total dependence on our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Beyond the immediate crisis, living in the reality of our dependence on God, actively seeking his will, begins to put the problems of our lives into a more manageable perspective.
But the Canaanite woman isn’t looking for perspective. She wants action and she wants it now. In response, Jesus draws her into dialogue. He is not the Johnny Appleseed of miracles, strewing them randomly everywhere he goes. His time is short. His mission is massive. His every public moment is a teachable moment. And he uses this moment to teach the disciples that God rewards faith wherever it is found. His every miracle is a deliberate life-lesson… always proving his divinity, always demonstrating his compassion. But sometimes, as on this occasion, they also give us insight into the new covenant.
Jesus is the embodiment of the new covenant, preaching to the faithful of the old covenant. Their image of God too often is tribal and vengeful. Their relationship with God is shaped by strict adherence to regulations governing virtually every aspect of life. Among those rules is a prohibition against speaking with an unrelated woman and a codified contempt for gentiles. Jesus breaches both rules by engaging the Canaanite woman. And here is a point long contested by theologians. Was Christ’s initial rejection of the woman, a manifestation of his human nature, formed over years within the strictures of his people? Or was it Christ’s divine nature, knowing where this encounter is headed, wanting to dramatize the coming of the new covenant? Or perhaps it’s a hybrid… first rejecting, then embracing… reflecting the dual nature of Jesus?
Whatever the interpretation, the results are the same. Christ hears and answers her prayer. Her faith and courage are rewarded. And more significantly, Jesus opens the door to salvation a little wider, welcoming more and different people than ever envisioned by Abraham, Isaac and Moses. The faith of the Canaanite woman is part of a continuum of converted outsiders and outcasts along with the Roman centurion, the Samaritan, the woman taken in adultery, the lepers… appropriately, all documented by Matthew… the despised collector of taxes.
Obviously this is a gospel about the power of prayer and the worth and rights of women. But beyond that, it is a gospel of God’s love available for the asking to every one of his children… every tribe, every race, every hue, every sex, every sexual orientation, the young, the old, the saints and the sinners, the exalted and the lowly.
The Canaanite woman cried out: Lord, help me. That says it all, both to God and to ourselves. It proclaims the divinity of Jesus. It voices our total dependence on God. In petition, in contrition, in thanksgiving, in adoration, in joy and in sorrow… our loving God invites you and me and all his children to call on him… to “bother” him anytime, anywhere, anyhow. He always listens. He always answers.
Copyright 2014 David Sellery. Used by permission.