Our Gospel reading for this morning is challenging. What should we make of Jesus’ harsh-sounding words to the poor woman in the story? If I had been on top of things, I would have asked Deacon Terry to preach this morning! It’s too late for that now, but I am sure Terry would be happy to explain exactly what Jesus meant after the service. I encourage all of you to ask him!
Our reading comes from Matthew, but Mark also tells this story, and adds an important detail that helps to make sense of the whole thing.
Like Matthew, Mark tells us that Jesus has just finished a bitter exchange with Pharisees and scribes. Like Matthew, Mark tells us that Jesus’ own disciples have not understood what Jesus was saying in that exchange. And then Mark tells us that Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon where—this is what Mark adds—Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet [Jesus] could not escape notice” (7:24).
Jesus was not in the area to do a little ministry. Jesus was worn out with teaching and healing large crowds, arguing with increasingly hostile opponents, and trying to help his disciples understand what it was all about. And so, Jesus took a short vacation, his only vacation ever, as best we can tell.
But the get-away Jesus wanted was not to be. Our Canaanite woman found Jesus and demanded a miracle. That context helps to accounts, at least in part, for Jesus’ irritated reaction to her.
But now let’s shift perspective and focus on the Canaanite woman. By the end of the passage, she impresses Jesus enough that Jesus praises her faith and grants her prayer. What strikes me is how she did that.
Here, too, we need to start with context.
The fact that this woman approached Jesus at all is surprising. Jesus had never been to this area before, so the Canaanite woman had almost certainly never heard Jesus speak or seen Jesus in action.
Even if she had heard Jesus, she wasn’t likely to have responded all that well. Canaanites tended not to like people from Israel. In Jesus’ day, hostility between Canaanites and Israelites dated back more than a thousand years.
Partly that long-running hostility was about land and wealth and historical violence. But the hostility between Canaanites and Israelites was religious, too.
This woman did not worship the God of Israel, probably did not know anything about God’s promises, and had no reason to seek out or listen to a Jewish teacher. If she knew anything at all about the religion of Israel, what she must have known was that Israelites vigorously rejected her gods.
Finally, this was a woman approaching a group of men in a deserted area, men whom she had every reason to assume would be hostile, men whom she must immediately have seen as in fact hostile. Approaching them under those circumstances was risky at best.
Despite all the reasons this woman has NOT to approach Jesus, she does.
And we know why. Her concern for her daughter outweighed everything else. Clearly the woman had heard about Jesus, heard that Jesus could work miraculous healings. And this woman was prepared to do whatever it took to help her daughter.
But think about what the Canaanite woman must have been feeling as she approached Jesus and the others. Probably some hostility. And a lot of fear. Fear for her own safety. Fear of rejection and disappointment. Above all else, fear for her daughter.
And when we are motivated by fear, we are rarely at our best.
I don’t know the right way to approach Jesus in this woman’s situation. But I am pretty sure it is not what she did. She “came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’”
That’s an aggressive approach. The word that sticks out to me in Matthew’s description of her approach is “shouting.” I don’t like shouting. I especially don’t like being shouted at by a stranger, asking me for a favor when I am resting with friends on vacation
I am sympathetic with this woman. She had plenty of reasons to be anxious, and anxiety often comes out as aggression.
But aggression is not a great way to get people to help you. It certainly isn’t with me. And it doesn’t work with Jesus or the disciples. Jesus ignores her shouting, and the disciples complain to Jesus about it.
The Canaanite woman realizes that this interaction isn’t going well.
Let’s consider her options. She could shout louder. Maybe, if she pushes a little harder, Jesus will do what she wants. A lot of people in the United States today seem to think that’s a good strategy for persuading people who disagree with them. But, as best I can tell, that strategy has NEVER worked in all of history. We’d all be better off if we could let that one go.
Alternatively, the woman could give up. After all, what chance did she, a Canaanite, have to get a fair hearing from a Jewish religious teacher? Giving up wouldn’t help her daughter. But at least she would have the satisfaction of complaining to her friends about “those Jews” and how unfriendly they were. That’s another common strategy today. The problem is, it doesn’t accomplish anything except to build up more inter-group hostility.
What this woman in fact does is the better way. She shifts from aggression to humility. She shifts from making demands to expressing vulnerability. She stops shouting. Instead, she kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.”
That’s not the end of their interaction. But my guess is, that’s when the woman persuaded Jesus to help her. That’s when she would have had my attention.
And that’s a good lesson for us. I’m not sure how her approach would work in debates about public policy, although it would surely be better than much of what we have now.
What I know is, this is the right approach in our personal relationships.
I have spent plenty of time trying to badger Carrie into doing whatever it is I want her to do. I’ve also spent plenty of time sulking when she didn’t do what I wanted. Neither option has worked well for me.
But when I come to Carrie in humility, when I have the courage to be vulnerable, when I stop making demands but tell her what I need, she bends over backwards to help.
You would think I’d do it more often!
This is also a lesson in how to pray.
Sometimes we need to argue with God, and that’s OK. It’s also OK to ask God to bless us with the things we want and need.
But the best way to pray is to do what this Canaanite woman does. Let go of our fears. After all, we are entering consciously into God’s presence. Go easy on our demands. God knows what we want.
Instead, approach God in humility, acknowledging our weaknesses and our ignorance, and our needs. Ask God’s help. And trust that God’s answer will be the right one, even if it’s not the one we want.
I invite you to practice this woman’s kind of vulnerability and openness this week. It’s easier with God than with friends and family. But if you trust someone enough, try it with another person, too.
And, in your prayers, imagine God responding, “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as is right.”
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan