Holy Surprise: Great Faith and the Canaanite Woman

Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28

I can’t help but wonder if there is a more challenging Gospel reading than the one before us now. Indeed, is there a more unpleasant picture of Jesus than this one where his words compare a Canaanite woman and her tormented daughter to ‘dogs?’ If there is, I certainly cannot think of one!

But that doesn’t really ‘preach,’  does it?

And so here is where I am starting today. I am starting with my sense of surprise that this makes its way into Matthew’s  Gospel in the first place! For only the Canaanite woman comes off looking good in this little vignette!

Indeed, Jesus first ignores her plea. The disciples are annoyed by her, begging that she be sent away. And then  Jesus’ response is hard to understand in light of all that we have come to know of him. In fact, as one of my staff members has been known to articulate in the last few weeks as we have delved into the Gospel for the upcoming Sundays, “This is not my Jesus.”

And this is not our Jesus, it would seem. At least not as we have come to understand him as one who is gentle and kind, meek and mild. Only this is so. Jesus does not ‘belong’ to us or to anyone— at least not in such a way that he can be possessed or controlled. We forget this, I think, especially as Jesus is so familiar to so many of us.

Now I know there are commentators who receive the words of Jesus today and cannot hear them without imagining his tone as being playful for that makes them easier to stomach somehow. And there are those who would hear this as Jesus trying to draw the disciples (and perhaps the woman, too) into a ‘teachable moment.’

But this is also so. We tend to forget that Jesus was as fully human as he was divine. Remembering this, perhaps we might consider the possibility that this was a ‘teachable moment’ for him. Maybe Jesus was the one who needed to be taught. And the Canaanite woman was the vessel for this powerful teaching:

  • About the stubborn, passionate, single-minded, willing-to-do-anything-for love of a parent for a child.
  • About where faith can be found.
  • And about the place of ‘outsiders’ in our community of faith.

Mostly these are not new lessons in scripture, course:

For one, the boundaries defining who is included in the people of God have been expanding for a long time.

  • Read the book of Ruth again and remember Naomi and Ruth and Boaz.
  • Or pause in the story of Jonah and recall Jonah and his distress at the fact that when the people of Ninevah repented they were saved. And remember the lesson that God’s love and gifts are for all people.
  • There are others, I know. What examples come to mind for you?

And there is this as well. More than once God’s mind is changed in the course of this Holy Story which shapes and defines us. For there are those who profess Yahweh as Lord who are simply not afraid to argue with him.

  • There is Abraham who negotiates with God to spare Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33.
  • And there is Jacob demanding a blessing and receiving a new name in Genesis 32:22-32.
  • There is Hannah pleading with God for a child in 1 Samuel 1.
  • Surely there are others. Who would they be?

If Abraham and Jacob and Hannah are any kind of example, the Canaanite woman before us now stands in good company. Except Jacob and Abraham and Hannah were insiders in terms of ethnicity and culture.

And  yet, with all of this, I am left where I began. With you, I still wonder, what ‘preaches’ this week? Why does Matthew include this story which doesn’t paint anyone but the woman — and a Canaanite woman at that — in a positive light?

For now, I am trying to be open. Indeed, what ‘preaches’ could be any of the following or maybe even something which has not yet come to mind.

Won’t you wonder with me?

  • Are we called to be like the Canaanite woman?  To not let any barrier to stand in the way of love?
  • Are we to learn to see Jesus in a new light — as one who could be changed — and so therefore we can, too?
  • Or are we to stand still in the end of the story where the Canaanite woman’s faith is commended as ‘great?’
  • Are we to be like Jesus in this way — that we are those who are able to learn anew that faith can be discovered and lived out in and with people whom we might least expect?
  • Are we called to recognize that the boundaries of who belongs and who does not are ever-expanding? And are we to wonder at what that looks like for us now in this world where the forces of hate and fear and bigotry would exclude and destroy those who differ from those of us who tend to dominate?
  • Is it any or all of the above? Or is the point simply to be open to such holy surprise?

Oh, I expect my call in the days to come is to be open to such surprise.

As, in the end, Jesus clearly was.

 

3 comments

  1. Jane Uzzell says:

    OK, here’s where I’m at with why it’s in the Bible–God planned 2000 yrs ahead to the fact that there would be so many outside of the “in” crowd that need to hear or see thru our actions what it is to follow Christ. There are sev’l in the outside who are begging in their own way to be included, to be loved. Charlottesville is a poignant reminder that we who have a faith and a belief in prayer and the miracles God can accomplish must persist, must turn the other cheek and minister to those so full of hate. The Canaanite woman wasn’t full of hate, but picture the mothers of the Nazi’s and alt-right. Are they maybe not begging to have their children loved and shown God’s grace so they can turn their lives around?

  2. Erich Roberts says:

    Thank you Janet for a well reasoned consideration of this pericope. Undoubtedly one of the toughest passages to preach on and yet after reading your essay I have half a dozen starting points / new insights. Particularly the ability to stand in Jesus’ shoes and reconsider the boundaries of the Kingdom.

  3. Rev. Kay Daniel says:

    The Pharisees had it all figureed out. Clean vessels on the outside were ready for service to God. But here is a Canaanite woman, on the level of the dogs that beg under the table. The pitomy of Unclean, worse than a sinner, never able to be clean, the epitomy of not-clean. Yet, within her is the faith that Jesus so rarely finds among the Jews. It is not the outside that makes one clean, but what comes from the heart – the inside, the faith, that opens us to the work of the Lord. Praise be to God for the lesson of this Canaanite woman who had faith in the Messiah.

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