Pentecost 10A: What the Canaanite Woman Teaches

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I’ve got two questions for you arising from the Gospel reading this week. And I’ll warn you ahead of time that each question which might rock a few boats in your community.

First question: can Jesus learn?

I know that may sound odd. On the one hand, we may quickly answer, “Sure, why not?” Until we worry about the theological implications of that answer. If Jesus learns, a voice inside us may ask, does that means he’s not perfect, or complete, or sinless, or…. And suddenly a cadre of theological police seem to be patrolling the long corridors of our imagination.

I ask this first question because at the heart of this challenging and even somewhat disturbing passage is a key interpretive question: Did the Canaanite woman Matthew describes pass a test or persuade the Lord? If we go with the former – which is probably the more traditional reading – then Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. You know, about saying he was exclusive, ministering only to the Israelites, let alone calling her a dog. All of this was just a test, a way of bringing to harvest the faith that God had already planted in her.

As I mentioned, this is probably the more traditional read of the story. In fact, many commentators will draw our attention to the fact that the word translated “dogs” is actually the diminutive form of the word, meaning “little dog” or “puppy.” I think we favor this interpretation because it saves Jesus from looking like, well, kind of a jerk. Instead, he’s the all-knowing faith-tester, the drill sergeant to the new recruit, tearing her down in order to build her back up again. (Maybe you can guess, but I don’t favor this interpretation. 🙂 )

The other possibility, of course, is that Jesus’ own sense of God’s kingdom is challenged, stretched, and enhanced by his encounter with this fierce and faithful woman. Maybe, that is, Jesus is serious – that is, he believes he was sent only to the Israelites – and the woman takes him on and, in fact, persuades him that something larger is at stake. In this context, her “great faith” isn’t so much an amount, but rather is simply the fact that she just holds plain holds on. She won’t let Jesus go until she wrests a blessing from him on behalf of her daughter. Moms with sick kids are like that – they won’t let anything get in the way of their taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors or health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a slightly narrow-minded messiah-type.

If you go this direction, then Jesus can, in fact, learn. And he does. He learns that God’s kingdom and his mission to enact that kingdom is bigger than he had initially imagined and that it is more encompassing that he’d at first dreamed. Does this mean he’s not perfect or sinless or all the other things the most orthodox among us will worry about? To tell you the truth, I think those are questions this passage isn’t interested in. Rather, I think this passage invites us to image that God’s purpose unfolded throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and continues to do so in our own lives and experiences. This tenacious and faithful woman, a complete stranger, pushed Jesus to reconsider, to learn, and to grow.

All of which brings me to a second question: can we learn?

I ask this because of a conversation I’ve repeated with literally hundreds of well-intentioned folks deeply concerned about their congregations: how do we get young people to come to our church? It’s no secret that the mainline traditions are both aging and getting smaller, and so many are wondering what happened, what went wrong, and how we might entice young adults and young families into our congregations. Rather than answer that question directly – as if I have the answer! – I instead ask them a question back: have you asked any of the people you wish would come to church why they don’t? Or what you could do differently in terms of Sunday worship that would make it meaningful for them?

The answer is almost always “no.” Not “No, we’d never do that.” But rather, “No, that never occurred to us.” Which is understandable, as our congregational patterns and worship practices seem to have worked for generations, and so it simply doesn’t occur to us to ask others what they think of them. We simply assume this is the way to do congregational life and Sunday worship.

But taking a cue from Jesus’ encounter with this woman, what we might do is wonder with people how what we do as a community of faith might be more engaging and helpful as they seek to connect their faith and their everyday life. Which means that if we want to learn, we first need to listen. And, once we’ve listened, we need to be open to changing how we nurture worship and congregational life in a way that is meaningful not only to the ever-smaller but loyal cadre of “regulars” but also to the folks who aren’t coming, or who used to come, or who might come. (And who knows, if we construct worship that is interesting and meaningful to them, it might even be more interesting and meaningful to us as well!)

So here’s my suggestion and challenge this week, Dear Partner. This week, before you write your sermon, ask someone who’s not in church why they don’t find it meaningful. Are there particular barriers or obstacles keeping them from coming (either in their own life or in the congregation)? Are there elements they just don’t understand? But then go on to ask them what might make church more interesting, more worth getting out of bed for, more meaningful and useful to them as they try to live faithfully in the world? I’m guessing it won’t be hard to find someone willing to have this conversation. Perhaps it will be one of your children, or a sibling, or a family friend. I’ve had this conversation a couple of times, and while it was initially awkward (more for me out of my insecurity than for the other person), it was also incredibly helpful. We’re good at talking in the church; I think it’s time we learn to listen.

If you want to take this further, invite your leadership team (church council or board of elders or vestry) to invite one or more conversations with people over the next few months and start your meetings by discussing what you’re hearing. Or even invite those in attendance this Sunday to have just one of those conversations in the week to come and email you what they heard. Believe me, this is the kind of practice that can be transformative if you engage it with gusto.

Because here’s the thing: the woman Jesus meets, dismisses, and then learns from is a person, with all kinds of needs and concerns and hurts and interests. And the “great faith” she demonstrates is that she won’t allow herself or, even more, her sick daughter, be dismissed. Too many people are used to being dismissed by the church. They assume (sometimes based on experience) that the church isn’t really interested in them as persons with all kinds of needs and concerns and passions, but rather just sees them as potential members or giving units. And so they have no vested interest in being as tenacious as this woman was. For this reason we need to reach out to the persons around us as persons who have a lot to teach us, and we need to do this not as a strategy to grow our congregations but because that’s what Jesus discovered from this encounter with this woman and that’s what, I believe, he would have us learn from her as well.

This isn’t easy work, Dear Partner, but I know you’re up for it. Why? Because when you get right down to it, you don’t simply care about your congregation for its own sake, but rather for people who make up that congregation and for those who might also find life in it and contribute their questions and insights and strengths to it. And so whether you go in this direction or not, thank you for caring so much about yoru community of faith, and blessings on your life, ministry, and proclamation this week and always.

Yours in Christ,

Notes: 1) Post image, “Christ and the Canaanite Woman,” Rembrandt (c. 1650), The Getty Museum.
2) If you’re interested, you can find the letter I wrote on this three years ago at Working Preacher.