From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly.” But he didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” But Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs, …is it?” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.
I would like to begin today, as we consider the persistence of the Canaanite woman, by sharing a devotion I read this week by Cameron Trimble. She writes, “Some years ago I had the chance to visit Israel. We toured the entire country, studying archeology, learning about the history and seeing first-hand the strain of so many years of conflict and violence. We met many people whose stories of loss, pain, hope and faith will stay with me for a lifetime.
One woman I met changed my view of life. She was an old woman when I met her in the old city of Jerusalem. She made stoles for a living. As I was browsing through her store, I asked her how she started making them, supposing that she was some poor woman who spotted a niche in selling stoles to American pastors who are always looking for some good “bling” for their robes.
Instead, she told me about her life. Many years before, her three children had been with her in the market one day and had the bad luck of being too close to a suicide bomber. She was off buying some vegetables for their dinner that evening when she heard someone scream. She looked back just in time to watch her children – her life – as they were blown from the face of the earth. Can you imagine the horror of this? Can you imagine the sheer unspeaking, crushing pain of this?
She spent the next year of her life in a numb fog, trying to understand how and why this could happen. Until finally, she stopped. She awoke one morning realizing that there are no good answers to these questions. What would answers bring her anyway? What she had to do was to decide how to live.
Her way of living in the midst of her woundedness was to start making these stoles. To her, they became signs of peace and symbols of God’s unfailing love. She has a vision of clergy all across the world wearing them as they stand in pulpits, march in protests, and sit with the sick. In her brokenness, she turned to love, gifting us all with her testimony, her handmade art, and her unfailing grace.
When I found the stole I wanted to buy, she placed it over my shoulders. Looking me in the eyes, she said “This is a symbol of peace that I give to you this day. May every day of your life bring peace to our earth and love to all people.” It was the most powerful commissioning I have ever known.
Were I to suffer such terrible loss in my life, I pray that I would have the faith and strength that she has. She could have become deeply bitter. She could have sought revenge. She could have lived with biting anger. But instead, she decided to live believing that God is love and grace is true.”[i]
Now, turning back to our gospel passage for today, the Canaanite woman also persisted, in spite of her grief, she also chose to believe that God is love and that grace it true. How do we know this? Well, she, a woman, a gentile, someone from outside the religion, came before Jesus and begged for justice, she pleaded for her daughter to be restored to wholeness. Remember now, in that time and culture, she had no right to even speak to Jesus, let alone ask him for anything.
And perhaps it was these cultural considerations that lead Jesus, first, to ignore her, and then he seemed to give in to the pressure of his disciples who were urging him to send her away. And when she refused, when she continued to overstep the culture norms and plead for her daughter’s mental health, Jesus called her a dog.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Does this passage make anyone else uncomfortable? I mean, doesn’t feel at all like the welcoming, inclusive Jesus we’ve come to expect, right?[ii] It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve been taught to emulate. As a matter of fact, I read a reflection from a scholar this week, who out it this way: He said, “…Jesus was caught with his compassion down.”[iii]
Maybe that was the case. But there are also other theories about why Jesus disrespected this woman. One popular one, in trying to make Jesus look “less bad”, suggest that Jesus really wasn’t being mean, but that he was simply testing the woman. Others suggest that he didn’t really mean that she was less than human, it was all a misunderstanding, or even that there was more to this story that didn’t make it into the Gospels. [iv] And while these are all plausible ways of approaching this text, my theory is a little different. I contend that Jesus changed his mind. And I think he changed his mind because of her persistence. I believe that this passage was included in the gospel text to help us to understand that change and growth beyond the limited view of what our society has taught us is acceptable. It here to show us that a foreign, non-Jewish, woman actually affected the way Jesus viewed the world. She helped him to become more inclusive in his life and teachings.
You know, I shared this contention a number of years ago in a message on this very text to the congregation I was serving at the time. And all was well, at least on Sunday. But Monday rolled around and a got an unexpected visit from a church member who was livid about my message. And by livid, I mean he came unglued! Now, mind you, he wasn’t in church the previous day, but his wife had told him that I said, “Jesus was wrong.” I explained to him that I didn’t say he was wrong, but instead that I had said, “Jesus changed his mind.” But, unfortunately, that didn’t matter to him and he proceeded to air every grievance he had with me and the church and especially our movement toward becoming more inclusive.
Now, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that encounter and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First, I concluded that for some people change is frightening. You see, his anger, I believe, was fueled by his fear of change. Not only that we were attempting to welcome people who didn’t look like him, or share his political views, or necessarily share his traditional understanding of morality, but that we were poking at the very fabric of what he had always been taught about the nature of God; that God is unchanging. Immutability is the 4 dollar theological word for this understanding of God.
And I know, I understand …there are many people, like me, who have been taught that God is unchanging. Immutable. It’s one of the core tenets of our faith. And since we hold that Jesus is God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, or at the very least, that Jesus had a unique and unparalleled connection with the divine, it makes sense that Jesus would be unchangeable, just like God.
But here’s the thing. I’m not going to argue the finer points, the pros and cons if you will, of immutability. I’m not going to argue because whether or not God changes is beyond our purview, it’s above our pay-grade so to speak. But what we can know, I believe, is that the human perspective of God, our concept of the divine, does change. Morality, ethics, what constitutes right and wrong, for better or for worse, these things have changed over time and continue to change as humanity evolves and progresses as a species.
So, I think, it’s perfectly natural to conceive of a human Jesus who can grow, and learn, and even can change his mind. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t diminish his divinity, it enhances it! The ability to adapt to the situation, to replace old ideas with a new and more inclusive perspective, that makes Jesus closer to the nature of God in my book.
And it’s this understanding that our perception of God can change that leads us to my second conclusion from that Monday morning encounter, and it’s a conclusion that ties directly back into our text for today. It seems to me that we all persist in some ways. It seems to me that we all, like the woman who made stoles, and like the Canaanite woman from our gospel narrative, we all seek the scraps of justice that fall from the table of life. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s been my experience, that no one is beyond grief. No one can escape at least some suffering during their lifetime. We all, my friends, especially in this time of pandemic, have to deal with the temptation to simply give up. We all, in the face of the racial injustice we’re beginning to face as a nation, are sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the change that’s necessary to being about equality. It only human to feel this way. And this is where our faith enters the picture.
Our faith tells us to persist, even when it seems like a long-shot. Our faith asks us to hang-in-there, if not for ourselves, for the sake of others. And our faith, my friends, invites us to be and to continue to become a better version of ourselves, both individually and as a people, by changing our minds about the things that hold us back. Even those things we once held dear. Our faith challenges us in these ways because in the end, this time of change will lead us to become, to an even greater degree, a reflection of the true, inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental, nature of God.
May it be so for you and for me.
[ii] David Lose, The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson, Dear Partner in Preaching, August 20, 2017.
[iii] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009