Today’s reading from Matthew is unsettling to say the least. And a bit chaotic… We begin in the region of Galilee and we’re heading for the region of Tyre and Sidon – a coastal region north of Israel. It would have been a multi-day journey from Galilee – perhaps about as far as from here to Sommerset West. But remember, they were travelling on foot…
We join the story sort of in the middle of things. Jesus and the disciples have been confronted by a team of Pharisees who are troubled by the lack of adherence to the holiness code by Jesus and the disciples. In particular, they don’t wash their hands before they eat – which puts me in mind of many Primary School lectures…
In Mark’s Gospel, this story is the end of the Kosher law – all foods are pronounced clean. Mathew is less explicit – but we still get to eat bacon. Thank Goodness!
It is what comes out of our mouths rather than what goes in that matters. What we say and do is more important than what we eat and how we eat it. It is nice to be off the hook for the holiness code, but Jesus has created a bigger rather than a smaller hook – we have greater responsibility – a responsibility that never ends…
And then, with no particular explanation as to why, we’re off to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This means we’re in an area that is Gentile, not Jewish. The Canaanites were once part of the same clan as Israel. Now they are estranged and hate each other in a way that only relatives can.
On the road we meet this Canaanite Woman. She certainly doesn’t seem to make a good first impression. She is a pest… obnoxious, loud… demanding. In her defense, she has a sick daughter, and she will do anything to help her child.
But how about those disciples… They don’t see a desperate mother… They just see an annoyance. In their defense, they can’t really deal with her – there were customs about Canaanites and Jews not mixing and customs about men and single women not mixing. Though perhaps they might remember that Jesus just told them, back in Galilee, that it is what comes out of their mouths that matters…
The disciples want Jesus to handle the problem by making her go away. She is an annoyance, not a person, and they just want to be rid of her.
Then we meet a rather novel Jesus – not the kindlier, gentler Jesus we got to know in Sunday school. It appears that Jesus doesn’t want to help this Canaanite woman any more than the disciples. But does he simply tell her no and send her away? Does he let her down easy – saying something like I’d really like to help you, but I can’t?
No, instead he chooses to tell her no in a statement that, to our modern ears, is shockingly offensive. He basically tells her that he has come to help only “the right kind of people” and she is “the wrong kind of people.”
Jesus tells her that he has been sent to feed the lost children of Israel, not her or her daughter. But wait, there’s more…
It’s not enough that Jesus has told her no because she is not of the right race, he moves on to apparently denying her basic humanity.
Helping you, he says, would be like taking food meant for people and giving it to a dog. The implication is that, in the eyes of Jesus she isn’t even a person. What was Jesus just saying about what comes out of the mouth…
What does she, this anonymous, persistent, obnoxious Canaanite Woman do? She has been deeply insulted. And she is still a protective mother with a sick child. Does she put her tail between her legs and run? Does she get angry and hurl even bigger insults back at Jesus? No – she does essentially what Jesus would do… She turns the other cheek.
There is a frequent pattern in the Gospels in which Jesus is challenged and tested by hostile authorities. In these tests he responds with answers that move the discussion to a whole different plane. I’m thinking of statements like “the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” And “it’s not what you put into your mouth, but what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.”
She seems to be saying to Jesus, OK – so I’m a dog. But even dogs get some of the crumbs. People can be fed at the table and the dogs can get the crumbs at the same time. These are not exclusive things.
What can Jesus do? He grants her request.
All of which leaves me scratching my head and wondering why Matthew included this story. Jesus doesn’t really come across looking too good… the disciples look even worse… It seems to be a story about the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
But maybe this particular story isn’t so much about Jesus. What if we shine the spotlight on this anonymous Canaanite woman. What can we learn from her?
Well, we know that she is a person of great faith in God. We know this because she begins her request by addressing Jesus as Lord. There is no challenge in this. She doesn’t say “if you are Lord then help my daughter.” She simply prays – Lord, son of David, heal my daughter. She begins in the faith that Jesus can and will heal her daughter. And at the end of the passage Jesus acknowledges her great faith.
She is willing to fight for a cause – even an apparently lost cause. When she is told no, she keeps on trying. God, in the person of Jesus, tells her in no uncertain terms that her prayer will not be granted. Yet she persists.
When she is insulted, she keeps right on trying. Her own ego doesn’t get in the way. When Jesus appears to disrespect her, she persists, nonetheless. She doesn’t defend her own ego.
It would be very understandable if she had snapped back at Jesus. She could have said something like “You’re supposed to be Lord, but you’re just another narrow-minded bigot. Who needs you.” But she persists in faith.
It’s true, she did seem a bit strident, irritating and obnoxious at first, but this is a parent seeking help for a sick child. Today we think of great parents as the ones who fight for their kids.
This Gospel story that at first glance is incoherent and then quite disturbing ends up offering us a very important object lesson in how to live our own faith.
We can live in faith as she did, even when God doesn’t appear to be paying attention, or worse seems unsympathetic or even hostile.
We can begin to understand the importance of our faith and our prayer in the work of God. Her simple prayer – Lord, heal my daughter – profoundly influences the heart of Jesus – of God. If there is any question about what power our prayer may have, Jesus seems to have answered it… Our prayer can be powerful enough change the very heart of God.
Our call, as followers of Jesus, is to build the Kingdom of God – a kingdom where love is the first commandment and where justice and mercy can embrace each other. Not a kingdom where we are universally respected, or feared, or best at following the law.
We can live humbly, turning the other cheek when someone strikes us or insults us. We can show love and kindness to all of God’s children – all of God’s creation. It is, after all, what comes out of our mouths that drives our actions and makes us clean.