“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Now I know that you all know this. Mental illness carries all kinds of stigma today.
I have known this since I was a child and we experienced it in our own family. Back then it was something whose name you whispered. I’m not sure it is so very different now. When I was young during that time during the prayers of the church where we stood in silence and remembered people in need, I would close my eyes shut tight and silently plead for Aunt Donna’s healing.
It didn’t come.
And now we go to visit and we find a woman who has somehow ‘survived’ but whose life and world is narrow. Over-medicated when she was younger and suffering who knows what sorts of abuse or neglect in all sorts of ways and places, she can still be delusional. Indeed, her daily treats of Pepsi and cigarettes may be her only joy. And yet, she scrawls across the pages of composition books her prayers… raising her own voice in the only way she seems able in behalf of family members and neighbors and friends — many of whom have long since died. Along with the occasional prayer for a favorite food — or beer. Something she has not enjoyed in a very long time.
It is a terrible thing to witness. It is all the worse when it is someone you have loved. Indeed, although it happened half my lifetime ago, I remember like it was yesterday sitting in my folks’ living room listening to my own mother’s utterly anguished cry as we tried to digest the news of my young cousin’s death by his own hand. He had the same debilitating illness his mother had. We had no words.
It is surely heartbreaking.
And for all the time and effort and resources poured into it, we don’t understand it still. The brain is complex and multi-faceted, and while it can be miraculous in its healing powers, it is also marked by such mystery that healing too often eludes us.
And if we don’t understand it now, imagine how it must have been in the time of Jesus. It made perfect sense to attribute this daughter’s torment to a demon. For this is how it must have seemed — as though some outside force was taking over and making her life and the lives of all those around her, simply miserable. And if it’s bad today, just imagine what that daughter’s prospects were then. It is unimaginable, really.
So it is no wonder that the Canaanite woman in this story would go to any means necessary to secure her daughter help. She risked ridicule and rejection — speaking out in a time and place when women certainly did not do so. Indeed, she would go anywhere, approach anyone — even Jesus who was not part of her own tradition or culture — she raised her voice to high heaven to get the attention of the one who, in ‘casting aside a few crumbs,’ might fulfill the hope she hardly dared hope. For her daughter’s sake and for the sake of everyone who ever loved her.
Now I know there is a great deal to stand still in as we read the story before us now:
We wonder how Jesus could have ignored her at first. Even if he had wanted to, it had to be hard to shut her out. For this is the cry of a desperate woman. In fact, we hear that both the narrator and the disciples described her as ‘shouting.’
We wonder at Jesus’ initial response — even while we understand that he had understood his mission differently: that it did not, at first, include such as her.
We wonder at her brilliance. It is a rare thing to ‘win’ a theological argument with Jesus and this one: a woman, an outsider, and one whose life was as hard as it could be — does so.
We wonder at the faith that is already working within her. Even though she is a Gentile, somehow she sees Jesus as having come for her as well.
And we wonder at her persistence. And yet, we don’t. For it is surely no surprise to anyone who has ever loved and lived through what she has lived through, that she would dig down deep for what she needed and risk it all for the sake of that love.
I don’t know exactly how I will approach this when I preach it. But this is what keeps coming to mind. This is one of those remarkable instances where the woman in the story reminds me a lot of God. And if not actually God, then certainly one created in God’s image: Her willingness to risk it all — to go to any means necessary for the sake of her suffering child. It does sound an awful lot like what God did for us in Jesus, don’t you think? And I find myself wondering if we all did this, wouldn’t the world look a whole lot different than it does? Even when it comes to the fates of those suffering from mental illness…
I get glimmers of this from time to time:
I listen, for instance, to the woman who lost her son to a heroin overdose. She raised her voice continually while he was still alive. And the day after she found him dead, she was vowing to make his death mean something — to do what she could to keep another family from suffering as they were. And she has devoted every day since to reaching out to other mothers who find themselves where she was.
I think of another mother who is weeping over her son’s battle to another addiction… and her pleading with me to help find him some help.
Oh, yes I find myself thinking now of all those I know who suffer because of this sort of illness of a loved one and who don’t speak or only dare to whisper it aloud because of their fear of our misunderstanding, our judgment: eating disorders and addictions, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or just a deep, deep sadness that has the world closing in and renders it impossible, even, to get out of bed in the morning. The stories are countless and from what I can tell, touch most if not all of our families and I find, even now, that I am compelled to raise my own voice of pleading for forgiveness for my own too-long silence and wisdom to find a new way. Because if this week’s Gospel means anything, it tells us that even the ‘leftover crumbs’ of what Jesus offered would be enough to change everything. And these are mine to give and to share. These are ours to share with those who suffer so.
And it all started with a mother’s willingness not only to speak, but to shout. For the sake of love. Oh yes, I do wonder what would happen if we all were to do this. Maybe at least these ‘demons’ would come out of the shadows and become something we can better address as communities of those who follow Jesus. And I expect if that were so, almost anything would be possible, don’t you?
- It is clear that I see this story as being about Jesus’ responding to mental illness. While this may not have been the case, it surely seems to speak today. What do you think?
- What is your own experience with mental illness or disorders or addiction? How is that like being ‘tormented by a demon?’ How does this mother’s encounter with Jesus speak to your own experience?
- What do you make of Jesus’ initial response to the woman? How does that square with your understanding of who Jesus was and is?
- I know I am probably venturing into new territory when I compare this woman to God. What do you think? Does that comparison work? Why or why not?