Love is as Strong as Death… Jesus and the Canaanite Mother

Matthew 15:21-28

The passage from Song of Songs comes to mind for me this week:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.                       (Song of Songs 8:6)

For though these are words spoken between earthly lovers, I have seen its truth play out in other ways and circumstances before my eyes, especially this: that ‘love is as strong as death.’

Or even stronger than death.

For here it is.

Just over a year ago I stood at a friend’s bedside in the emergency room.  She had been unexpectedly diagnosed with a deadly cancer, which was not localized. Ten days later she would hear it was stage four. Five weeks after that she would die.

It was as though she already knew this on that first day.  And she said to me, “I am not afraid to die.  I am afraid for my boys.”

And again, just this week, I was with a grandmother who said much the same.  “I am not afraid to die.  I am afraid for my grandchildren.  They have already lost so much.”

Love is fierce. It is powerful. It protects, it nourishes, it encourages, it prods, it holds, it stops at nothing and on and on…

For at its best and truest, love is as strong as death.

And to be sure, we see it again in today’s Gospel when the Canaanite woman is surely moved by such powerful love that she will stop at nothing to get what her tormented daughter needs.

Indeed, I think of her and of so many like her in the small piece of the world I know, who are desperate for such healing which too often seems so elusive. Others who in their love for these vulnerable ones would stop at nothing for even a glimmer of the wholeness we imagine came to this woman’s daughter in today’s Gospel.

But this is so, of course.  It is a challenge to get to the healing in the story before us now. Jesus’ words seem to contradict all that we know of him.  It is as though even he does not yet fully comprehend the power he brings to the world as he speaks to the desperate woman kneeling at his feet.

More than this, his words sound demeaning to our ears, and perhaps they sounded the same in that time and place as well. There are plenty of other places where this debate plays out. This week I leave it to others to try to sort that out. Indeed, since I cannot begin to know or understand or explain it, for this moment I am just moving beyond it or around it to the wonder that is ours to witness in this Canaanite woman.  And to what lengths she is willing to go for the sake of such love.

As Jesus did.

As Jesus did over and over again and most vividly on the cross.

As you and I are called to do the same. And not only for those we know and love, but for a world which is crying out for such profound healing as well.

For what must this mother have set aside to seek healing for her daughter?

And how many times have we also seen this face to face in those whose loved ones’ illnesses suddenly shift every priority in their lives and days and nights are spent in hospital rooms, or learning to provide medicine for healing or comfort in a way they never imagined, in the pressing need to recognize that death threatens and in the wonder in deeply knowing that their love is even stronger than that?

I imagine that you, like I, have images of particular people who come to mind as you wonder at this.

Indeed, I imagine that you, like I have found yourself in a similar place yourself.  And if not yet, surely one day.

  • For the Canaanite woman set aside everything that would normally take up her day: household chores, to be sure, and perhaps more than that.
  • She abandoned other family and friends, to seek the help her daughter so desperately needed.
  • She set aside that which would normally have held her back from voicing this profound request as a woman in a male dominated culture and as a Gentile approaching a Jew.
  • She pushed beyond the very vocal protestations of the disciples.
  • She even stared down Jesus himself, the one she knew held the gift she was seeking, her love was so great.

Because love is as strong as death.

Maybe even stronger.

It is sometimes believed that Jesus is, in a way, learning as he goes, as he makes the way to the cross.  Indeed, his eyes, his ears, his heart are always open to discover new ways in which to communicate the gifts of God to the world.  We see this in his teaching, again and again. Surely, he is taking all this in as well in this encounter with this desperate woman.

For in this Canaanite mother, Jesus recognized that faith is to be found in unexpected places, that God is already at work far beyond those Jesus first believed he came for and he witnesses, as do we all, the strength of such love which gives it all away for the sake of the one so beloved.

In the case of my friend who died last year, obviously love could not keep her alive, but that did not mean that death won, for her legacy lives in memory and in faith and in a thousand, thousand gifts passed on.  And she died in the promise that Love held her then and always will.  As it does and will her two sons.

In the case of the other one I speak of above who is facing this as well, even now she is considering the ways in which her love can be passed on to those two young ones in concrete and real ways, although I expect that has already happened.

This Canaanite mother is a powerful example of the strength of love. The sort of love which is always of God.

I expect Jesus recognized this as well.

  • What stories might you tell this week which illustrate the love the Canaanite mother showed?  I expect they are all around us, even as Jesus recognized and pointed out so long ago.
  • In your understanding, is it possible that Jesus also learned from her what love looks like? Especially ‘love that is as strong (or stronger than) death?’
  • Have you ever known yourself to be loved with such love?  Have you ever loved in that way? How does such experience help you understand and tell the story that is ours to share this week?