Grace to you all and peace from God the creator, and our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Today’s gospel is quite a shocking reading. We hear that Jesus, upon being asked to heal a Canaanite woman’s daughter, initially refuses to perform the healing. Not only did he initially refuse, but he was outright unkind in their interaction, calling her a dog–an insult that I am sure we can all agree would be offensive and hurtful if anyone used that term to refer to another person. Yet scripture records this as what Jesus said not only in Matthew, but also in Mark, so it has clearly been very intentionally included in the gospels.
Yes, if one keeps reading, the Canaanite woman’s daughter is eventually healed, and Jesus does praise her faithfulness, but what of Jesus’ insult?
Throughout the history of the church, there have been various ways people have tried to explain this in order to redeem it, to find anything positive in it. Despite those attempts, many commentators believe that this is an instance within scripture where Jesus is “caught with his compassion down,” and he is forced to confront his own prejudices as an Israelite man in the first century. You see, the term Canaanite has a very specific connotation, as there were no “Canaanite” people living at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Through naming her as a Canaanite, it recalled the struggle between the Hebrew and the indigenous population of the land in the Old Testament. This is one of the places where we can recognize Jesus as being fully human, and it is where we can see out own selves mirrored in his attitude toward the Canaanite woman. There is a strange irony that after Jesus’ preaching on what defiles, it is his own words that are turned back upon him. It is a reversal of roles where the respected teacher and rabbi learns from the outsider.
As Lutherans, we are really good at acknowledging the ways that our prejudices permeate our whole being. We often refer to the root of our human prejudice as sin. This recognition of our sinfulness, which we regularly name in the confession and forgiveness, can be experienced by what we have done and by what we have left undone. In an increasingly polarized world, it is becoming more common, and easier to label people and ideas as good or bad, right or wrong–leaving no room for ambiguity, for mystery, for learning. This labeling and naming has the result of shutting down dialogue.
Like the disciples in this parable, too often we will quickly say “send them away, they keep bothering us” when approached by a panhandler or someone experiencing homelessness. We then justify to ourselves that, “I am only responsible to care for my own family, my own household. They have to fend for themselves.”
Even those in power with the resources to offer help–pastors, teachers, business leaders, CEOs, mayors, presidents–respond, “I only have limited resources, and you don’t fit my set of criteria.” And at times, those people in power, us who have power, hurl, we even hurl insults at those who are not “of our house.” It is all too easy to think of the times people in privileged positions abuse their power by calling those who disagree with them names–yes even calling them dogs.
We are so very good at justifying our own actions rather than admitting to the prejudices that persist.
But in the face of being dejected and derided, the Canaanite woman persisted. She continued to demand the care and healing she knew was God’s intention for all of creation. She called Jesus, “Son of David,” a messianic title that connected him with God’s action in the history of the Israelite people. Like Jewish people from the time of Abraham, she argued with God, she argued with Jesus, over matters of Justice. Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Job–They all did this! In Luke 18, Jesus even says that in our prayer, we are to be like the persistent widow who demands justice in spite of the unjust judge. And the reason for this is that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is Just. In our Psalm, we heard the Psalmist saying, “ Let the nations be glad and sing with joy for you judge the peoples with equity.”
The concept of singing with joy because of judgement may seem strange when judgement so often carries a negative connotation. Yet, the justice and judgement of God is carried out with equity. Equity that results in people receiving what they need to flourish as God intends.
The Canaanite woman demanded that Jesus act justly and with equity toward her daughter. She recognized Jesus as God, and noticed and named God’s promises. And through her faith, Jesus’ mission, which to that point was only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” was opened briefly, and we were given a preview of Jesus’ words in the great commission, “to go therefore and make disciples of all nations–all people”. The Canaanite woman, who never denounces her Canaanite identity for that of a Christ follower recognizes that her salvation, the healing of her daughter are with this Messiah, Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, like the disciples and even Jesus at the beginning of this story, we need to take care not to lose the forest for the trees. Our human tendency toward sin means that we have an especially challenging task of living out our faith as God intends us to. Dear people, it is easy to fall into despair with this knowledge. Yet the good news is that despite our tendency to miss the mark, to sin, and despite the prejudices we express, God continues to reach out toward us. As Paul wrote to those in Rome, “God has not rejected God’s people…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
It was this calling that Jesus recognized. It was not a burning bush, or a voice from the sky, but the voice of a Canaanite woman, a person who had been pushed aside. It was through her call for God’s justice that she became the rabbi and Jesus the student.
And Jesus’ example of humility, through his transformation from name calling and refusal to heal her daughter to that of saying “great was her faith,” is something we should all seek to emulate. A humility that allows us to recognize when our sin is working against the Love and equity of God.
This is a story about Jesus. In Jesus, we can witness the greatest of human possibility in relationships with others. This possibility of human relationship is only experienced through Jesus when he is reminded in no uncertain terms that this is God’s desire for all of creation. That God is just and desires equity for all of creation. We recognize in Jesus our own possibility of understanding common humanity where on our own, we could notice difference only difference. And once we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, as deserving of God’s love an justice we can never see them as “other” again. Thanks be to God for the Canaanite woman and all those who make sure we don’t forget God’s desire for the flourishing of all people. Amen.