With this reading from the Gospel, about Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite woman, we wonder, "Who is this person, and what have you done with the Jesus we know and love?"
Jesus has left Jewish territory and wandered into the land of Tyre and Sidon, called Syrophoenecia by Mark. It has been centuries since this territory was called Canaan by anyone, so it is a sort of mystery why Matthew would call the woman a Canaanite. Unless, perhaps, he wanted to make it clear that she represented the ancient enemies of the Jews.
Jesus should not have been surprised that people there knew about his healing powers. But we are surprised that he so firmly rejects this woman's request to heal her daughter. Jesus is even more surprised at her insistence that he take care of her daughter.
This woman seems to have no husband, or at least the husband does not know what she is doing. Women in that culture have no business going out, meeting with strange men, and asking for something from them. Especially, women in that culture have no business meeting with an itinerant preacher from another religion, from another country. Most especially, women in that culture have no business telling that man what to do. She must have been desperate!
The text doesn't say much about the daughter, other than she is tormented by a demon. Demons in those days were blamed for all sorts of problems. There may have been some behavioral problems, or perhaps epilepsy, something that seriously disrupted her life. The issue was severe enough that her mother is willing to do anything to heal her.
When the woman approaches Jesus, she knows Jesus might refuse to listen to her, but she is willing to take the chance. Perhaps she has even rehearsed her responses. She knows only that she will not take "no" for an answer.
The disciples try to keep her away from Jesus, but she is persistent, and insistent. She names Jesus for who he is, Son of David and Lord. She knows and proclaims that he is someone with God's power to heal her child.
Here is the shocking part for us. Jesus tries to deny he is sent to heal people outside the Jews. Apparently, he thinks that he has gone to Tyre and Sidon to have a time of rest away from the crowds of Jews, only to encounter foreigners who also want to be healed.
He tries arguing with the woman. "It is not yet time for foreigners to receive the gifts I have come to give." She disagrees. "I am willing to accept the crumbs that are left over, the small bits that dogs would be happy to lick off the floor," she says. "I am not asking for the whole shebang, just a tidbit, just enough for my daughter." This woman has chutzpah!
And her conviction that Jesus can and should heal her daughter convinces Jesus that he has been thinking about his time on earth all wrong. He has realized that she is right, and he is wrong to try to deny her the gifts he brings from God. "Go home," he says. "Your faith has convinced me. Your daughter has been healed."
... There are people who try to explain away Jesus' response to the woman. They talk about puppies instead of full-grown hounds eating under the table. They suggest that his response was said with a wink, as a test to see what the disciples might do. After all, he has just told this parable about what defiles: it's not what goes in, but what comes out. They suggest that Jesus was testing to see if the disciples understood what he had been teaching them.
These explanations demonstrate a belief that we have to have a Jesus who can't change, who can't be taught a thing or two by humans. But that aspect of Jesus, his very humanness, is what appeals to me most. It's important to me that he came to earth to share God's love and grace with us, and to learn first-hand what it is like to be human.
Being human is complex. It must be difficult for God to find the balance between meddling in human affairs, pulling strings as if we were puppets, and leaving us to solve our own problems.
For example, if Jesus were here today, walking the earth, I would not appreciate it if he said to the refugees in the Southwest that his time had not yet come for them.
For example, I wish that Jesus had been able to remove the demons from the mind and heart of Robin Williams.
For example, I wish that there was an easy solution to the poverty and violence in the “projects”, the housing communities for poor folks.
For example, I wish it would be easy to convince people in the neighborhood that when they don't know Jesus, they are missing out on the best relationship they could possibly have.
I love it that God is all-wise and all-knowing, and yet flexible enough to change the divine mind on occasion. I love the story about Abraham arguing with God about saving the city of Sodom. "What if there are 50 faithful people there? Would you kill them along with all the guilty ones?" "No," God replies. And the conversation continues until the number of faithful people is very small. "No," God replies.
Do we not want a God who considers all the factors, and who occasionally has a different answer to the original question or situation? A God who will hear and respond to our urgent prayers?
Do we not want a God who can help us stretch our boundaries of who is included and who is excluded from God’s care? Does not the Psalm for today also say exactly that? Isn't that just what Isaiah tells us God wants? Even Paul insists that all are included. Actually, Paul says that none are excluded, because God’s grace is for all.
This week, I suggest you consider your image of God’s boundaries. Who do you believe God includes and excludes? What does it mean to you that Jesus was forced by an outsider, a representative of his ancient enemies, to reconsider the boundaries he had assumed he should respect? What can you learn about God’s grace from this moment in Jesus’ life?
Please pray with me: Gracious God, we give you thanks for your love and care for us. We thank you for the people you place in our lives. Help us to see all people as your children, as your beloved, as people who are never outside your boundaries. And we thank you for your willingness to respond to our pleas for mercy, just as the desperate woman did so long ago. Amen