Pentecost 11 A: The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson

Matthew 15:21-28

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I find the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman one of the most painful in Scripture. This year, I also find it one of the most timely.

First, the pain: Jesus treats her, well, abominably. When she begs him for mercy for the sake of her tormented daughter, he ignores her, remaining silent in the face of her pleas. He then seems to give in to the pressure of his disciples urging him to send her away. When she refuses to be ignored and pleas her case once more, he insults her by calling her a dog. It all feels, quite frankly, rather awful and not at all like the Jesus we expect.

Now, I know the traditional interpretation: Jesus isn’t really being mean to her, he’s just testing her by constructing barriers to see if she’ll overcome them. And then, when she passes her test, he gives her an “A” by healing her daughter. Truthfully, as you may guess, I don’t buy it. It runs contrary to pretty much any other story of Jesus in the Gospels. Rather, I think Jesus has a pretty specific focus for his mission and that focus gets enlarged, broadened, and pretty much broken wide open by the faith and audacity and persistence of this woman.

“Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With this painful, even pitiable, yet faithfully persistent plea, the Canaanite woman asks to be seen and heard, recognized as another child of God. And through her person and her plea, she teaches Jesus something about himself and his mission that is crucial for him to learn. I realize that we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus “learning,” but I can’t think of another term that better captures Jesus’ expanded sense of mission at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel that ends with the commission to take the good news to the very ends of the earth.

Second, why this matters and is so timely: It’s way, way too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human, but let’s be honest: it’s really, really easy for us to imagine God is just like us. On one level, that ability to imagine God is like us is absolutely crucial. It is, in a sense, the whole point of the Incarnation – that God became one of us – and therefore allows us to imagine being in relationship with God. The problem is when we imagine God is only like us – as in, not like others.

And just as the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision and compassion and mercy are bigger than what he may have initially imagined, so also might the Canaanite woman teach us the same at a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists march the streets: every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God made manifest in Jesus on the other side.

But here’s the thing: I think we probably know this. That is, I don’t think the folks in your congregation thinks Jesus is only like us. And I think it’s also unlikely that those to whom you will preach this week believes Jesus looks just like us and isn’t also concerned about those who look different. So what do we do?

I don’t know. That’s hard for me to say, but it’s true. I don’t know, that is, what will be most important and fitting and effective in your context and congregation, and I hesitate to presume to tell you. But I do know that simply knowing that God loves all people is not enough, not when groups march to assert their superiority over other races and ethnicities and too often claim that God backs their views.

I also know that as important as the law is in telling us what we ought to do, it fails to create in us the ability to do it. Which is why I know we also need to proclaim the Gospel clearly and compellingly, the Gospel that in Jesus’ cross and resurrection we discover that God’s love is, in fact, for all; that God is working in us and with us and through us to make this world a more just and equitable place; that God will grant us courage and grace sufficient to meet the challenges of the day; and that when we stand with and for those who suffer or are persecuted, we encounter God in a powerful and palpable way. Because the amazing thing about the Gospel is that, unlike instruction or good advice, it creates in us the ability to do what God would have us do and be the persons God calls us to be.

As I said, I do not know what will be most helpful in your context. Perhaps it’s a sermon opening up this passage as reminding us of the vital, challenging, and ultimately life-giving truth that God loves all people and bids us stand against those who deny human rights and dignity to anyone. Perhaps it’s a prayer on behalf of those who suffer the effects of racism and against those who inflict injustice and bigotry. Perhaps it’s arranging for someone from a different community to speak at an adult forum. Perhaps it’s a litany of repentance and for courage. Perhaps it’s an invitation to a prayer vigil at or for another faith community.

I will say it again: I do not know what will be most helpful in your context, and I respect your ability to prayerfully discern that. What I do know is that knowing what is right without speaking it in some way is not enough. The Canaanite woman’s first plea was met with silence. Imagine what would have happened if she had turned away, discouraged, fearful, or defeated. Would Jesus have sensed God’s larger mission? Would he have said that the forgiveness he offers through the gift of his body and blood is “for all” or just “for some”? Would he have imagined that God loved and sent him to save the whole world, or just part of it. We don’t know. We do know, however, that this woman did not retreat to silence but spoke out, offering a testimony that rings down through the ages: “See me! See me as a person, not as a woman or a Canaanite or a minority or a foreigner or someone from a different religion or as a burden. See me as a person and child of God.”

And he did. The question before us, Dear Partner, is whether we will.

Blessings and courage to you this week and always. And gratitude to you for your work and words, for they, too, are both timely and important.

Yours in Christ,