Well, listen to our sweet, loving Jesus being a huge jerk here! This is a weird story and today I propose to you that this story is the only reason we are sitting here today, calling ourselves followers of Jesus. You see, without this obnoxious, yelling, pushy woman, Jesus would have contained his ministry to his people, the Jews. He flat out states that he is not here for the Gentiles, (those dogs) but for the Jews. So, thank you, persistent Canaanite woman, for teaching Jesus to broaden his ministry to include people like us today!
It was fun to research this story because for hundreds of years, people have tied themselves in knots, trying to make Jesus out to be less of a jerk than he seems. They are wrong to do so, I think. Let’s look at the hard reality as presented in this text:
Jesus has just been arguing with religious authorities about cleanliness laws. He leaves to travel to the far northwest border of Israel, to the region of the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile territory, which means that a Jew like Jesus was approaching enemy territory. And out there in the borderland between Jew and Gentile, between friend and enemy, Jesus is suddenly approached by a local woman. We are told that she was a Canaanite, which means she was not just any old Gentile. Canaanites were old and bitter enemies of Israel.
The woman shouts at Jesus, calling him “Lord, Son of David”. She’s making it clear that she knows he is a Jew. Maybe that’s why she’s keeping a safe distance while she tries to shout across the gulf of their differences.
She begs for mercy as her daughter is ill and she is miserable with worry. Does our sweet, loving Jesus embrace her and heal her daughter? NO, he flat out ignores her, he says nothing. We’ve all been met with God’s silence in response to our prayers, but I sure would expect Jesus to act differently when confronted in person by this poor woman.
The Canaanite woman persists. She’s so annoying, the disciples say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us!” She just keeps shouting “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Jesus finally responds and boy, is he cold! He tells her that he’s not here for her, he’s only here for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I bet he tries to shoo her away with his hand!
Despite Jesus shunning her, she persists. This time she comes close and kneels down before him, as if to physically demonstrate that there doesn’t need to be a boundary separating them. If Jesus will not respond to her shouts from afar, she will come close, scandalously close, and kneel down before him and plead once more for her daughter, “Lord help me.”
Amazingly, Jesus is even more dismissive of her when he says; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an ethnic slur for Gentiles. Jews regarded dogs as unclean animals. He’s not calling her a cute little puppy (as some apologists would have it), he’s calling her a dog, maybe a female dog.
Our persistent woman throws it right back at him when she says, “Yes Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” When she says this, something just snaps in Jesus. Everything changes. His sense of identity and mission are transformed at that moment. His world becomes much larger, and he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was made well.
This loud, pushy woman made Jesus see her, really see her, not as a woman or a Gentile, or a stranger. He was suddenly able to see her as a child of God, deserving of God’s mercy.
With this one, strange interaction, Christ’s mission was transformed into a message of hope and salvation for the whole world, not just the Jews. Jesus crossed into a new place when he stopped to listen to this woman who was so different from him. He expanded his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world.
How do we at St. Marks do with venturing outside our boundaries? I think we’re actually pretty good at it. When we first discussed sharing our building with Jay’s church, each and every one of us approved of going in this new direction. I know, with certainty, that 20 years ago, many people in our congregation would have been aghast at the notion of other people worshiping in our building!
When we discussed attending the upcoming Gay Pride event in Aberdeen, every single person at the table wanted to be there, with no hesitation. A bunch of older, middle class, white, straight people, moved eagerly toward inclusion, toward acknowledging these gay folks as God’s children.
I love St. Marks for many reasons, but mostly because it has opened my heart to that most important truth: that we are ALL God’s beloved children, deserving of God’s grace. Jesus learned that lesson today, didn’t he? We should all thank that pushy, persistent, noisy woman for teaching our Lord a thing or two.
Let us pray. God of abundance, we give you thanks for people like the Canaanite woman, for people who rattle us with the truth. Help us to be ever mindful of the voices of others, to those who cry out for mercy. Feed all of us with your grace and bring us to the day when all may gather at your banquet table. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.