The Canaanite Woman and Jesus

Proper 15, August 14, 2011

I read a story this week in the Seattle Times about a young 28-yr-old cab driver from SeaTac running for King County Council. The hitch in the story is that this young man came here from Somalia and is Muslim. He was recently naturalized as a citizen and is part of the change that is going on in South King County which is making white people the minority.

The comments section of the story shows that there's tension around all of this in South King County. Some people there are clearly nervous and afraid. This young man experiences some people saying “go away”, and some people saying “welcome”. In one of the comments, a Renton resident opined that anyone not born in the United States, no matter if they are a US Citizen, should be allowed to run for office. The point is that there's tension in the air, and that reflects tension felt all over this country around the issue of immigration. We're caught up in concern about boundaries, and it's very complicated.

This is nothing new.

In Jesus' day his Jewish community had clear boundaries with respect to the Gentile community. This story has tension in it over those boundaries, and this story is about those boundaries shifting in a major way.

Jesus, after a controversy with religious authorities that is essentially about boundaries, goes away. Where he goes is to Phoenicia, to Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile country.

Then comes the drama and tension over boundaries.

A woman of the area approaches Jesus. She's a Gentile. Matthew's Gospel uses the term “Canaanite” to describe her. This is significant. It's a loaded term, with a meaning that goes right back to the ancient days of Israel when the Canaanites were their feared enemies.

Her approach is bold, and – despite that fact that she is not a Jew - in the language of Israelite faith.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

“Kyrie eleison,” she cries. “Lord, have mercy.”

How would you answer her?

In Matthew's Gospel in previous chapters we have Jesus quoting the prophet Hosea twice in two different contexts: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The Israelite God is the God of mercy. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whom I will have compassion,” reads the Book of Exodus. That's how Israel's God defines God.

The disciples know how they will answer her. “Send her away”, they say to Jesus, “for she keeps shouting at us.”

The disciples' response is not all that surprising, given what we know of them in the Gospel account. Like many of us religious folk, they tend to forget the manifold mercy of God in favor of setting up clear boundaries. Boundaries, after all, make religious life less threatening than would be the case if we risked the adventure of faith in a God of immense capacity for mercy. The church has had sad occasions of saying “go away” to some folk or other.

But Jesus is someone of whom we expect more. This makes his response to the disciples troubling.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

The woman draws nearer. “Lord, help me.”

It really doesn't more comfortable for us at this point, either.

A painting of this scene by 15th Century painter Jean Colombe shows Jesus turned away from this supplicant, his back to her.

This captures something of the encounter. No matter how you slice it, his first response is not “nice”. He echoes an old Jewish slur of his day in referring to those Gentiles outside the community of God's elect.

“It is not fair to take the children's food and give it to the dogs,” he says.

Well, that seems to be a clear message! Is Jesus really saying that his mission to proclaim God's dominion of mercy has limits, and the boundary is a traditional boundary of Jewishness?

This encounter is not over yet.

The challenge Jesus throws down she picks right up and throws right back at him. If you're a baseball fan, it's like Jesus drills one right across center field just out of reach of any player's glove, making someone stretch out full length and skid in the grass to catch it.

And catch it she does. It's a beautiful play!

“Yes, Lord, but even the puppies eat the crumbs from under the master's table.”

To extend the baseball metaphor, if you're rooting on this woman's team, you're on your feet at this point.

And Jesus, if he lived in our day and was bested this way in conversation might well have said “Touche!”

How much she knows of Israel's God's own self-definition we don't know. Was her response to Jesus informed by such knowledge, or was it just the desperation of a mother who dearly loves her child? Is it chutzpah, or us it just her expressing her last hope?

Whatever it is, Jesus is clearly won over to her appeal.

It seems obvious to me that he is delighted with her response, and with the faith that it demonstrates.

“Woman, you've got great faith! May you have just what you're asking for!

So you decide. Was Jesus learning something new that day from a woman coming to him from outside the community of the Jewish people? Was he undergoing a transformation in that moment in which he realized more fully than ever before that God's mercy could not possibly stop with Israel, but had to overflow the boundaries of Judaism?

Or was Jesus using irony that day, being tongue-in-cheek, using conventional language of his day to make the very opposite point, and having the perfect conversation partner in this woman?

I'm not sure we can know this for sure.

But at the end of Matthew's Gospel, it is clear that the Good News of God is for all nations, and that God is calling disciples to learn the way of Jesus' mercy and compassion.

We're living in times of tumultous change, with the shifting of boundaries in this country and across the world. We're living in a time where many are fearful; when a sort of tribalism infects our political and economic life and discourse, and when a sense of scarcity bedevils many people.

In times like that, it's only too easy to circle the wagons; to stay with one's kind; to hold onto the familiar so tightly that we can't receive what God might give us in the newness.

It happens in society; it happens in the Church of Jesus Christ as well, leading to struggles over control of finances, liturgical traditions, patterns of association and the assignment of authority in the church.

It's very easy, like the disciples, for us to react when our boundaries are threatened by saying “go away and quit bothering us.”

But with our Lord today, we keep learning what it means to belong to a merciful God.

It's comfort for us who sometimes wonder if God will be merciful to us, and encouragement to put our requests before God boldly. It's a prod to show mercy, as we have been shown mercy.

Image: Jean Colombe, 1485-89

Technique: Illumination

Location: Musée Condé, Chantilly

Notes: From "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry".