During one of the weekly text studies with other clergy that I attended last winter, a pastor described a troubling event. I can’t remember how long ago this took place, but it seems that it was within the past 5 years. An African Bishop had come to the area to describe to congregations the effects of mission work in his area.
After spending the day with a local congregation, he began driving to his next destination. Passing through a small town in NW Ohio that evening, he was stopped by the local police, questioned, and harassed simply because of the color of his skin. He was finally free to leave after a local pastor was called to vouch for the Bishop.
Those who fall outside of our own categories (whether we recognize it or not) are at times treated as less than human. We struggle to trust and we do not like differences that stretch our comfort levels. On the blogs and internet news where comments are allowed after the story, I sadly read about how immigrants and people of foreign backgrounds should earn their way to success and conform to our practices, or leave the country.
If you don’t believe the same way as a political party, then you are a traitor. If you look or talk differently than me, there is something distrustful about you. If your religion does not match mine, it is questionable. In other words if you aren’t like me, then you are less human than me.
The story of the Canaanite woman is one of the most difficult Biblical stories to preach. Jesus stretches our comfort zones as he sounds a little edgy. Where is the loving and merciful Son of God that we so tightly grasp in our faith. Yet it isn’t the only time in Scripture that Jesus comes across as ‘short’ with his words. There were times that I believe he was frustrated.
In our text, Jesus traveled into territory north of current day Israel, today known as Lebanon. He is on a specific mission to reach a community of Jews settled outside the national boundaries. Jesus was literally on a mission. Have you ever heard the saying, ‘He/she looks to be on a mission’? Serious, focused, perseverant.
On the journey, Jesus and the disciples are approached by a Canaanite woman. Two things to note here...first it is a woman (little more social status than a pet dog in those days) and second, she was a Canaanite whose culture was known to be an enemy of the Jews. She interrupts Jesus’ mission with her own request of healing for her daughter.
First Jesus ignores her. But her perseverance is annoying the disciples. They ask Jesus to tell her to leave. So Jesus does just that. In what sounds like a sarcastic overtone that should make her stop pestering the group, he says that he has come ONLY for the lost sheep of Israel.
Is Jesus annoyed by the interruption of his mission? Was the human Jesus committed to the judgmental Jewish traditions at the beginning of his ministry? The Canaanites would have been seen as a people less than human to the Jewish nation. Or could he be testing the woman’s faith to see if she truly believed who he was? We don’t really have an answer.
In any case, this woman was persistent. She kneels before him (a sign of worship) and pleads “Lord help me.” He pushes back, ‘Is it fair to take the children’s food (his teachings to Israel) and give it to the dogs (Canaanites)’? This question is hard to grasp. Is this loving, forgiving Jesus really calling the Canaanite woman a dog?
This woman (whose name is not given) is stubborn in her faith as she doesn’t blink and responds, “Even the dogs eat crumbs on the floor!” She is telling Jesus that she believes in him and his ability to heal and she is challenging him to do what he preaches. “Jesus, I know who you are, I believe in you, now heal my daughter like I know you can.”
It was a gutsy move on this woman’s part. She was standing up for what she believed; which was a whole lot more than could be said about many of the Jews (Jesus’ own heritage). The Jewish community would have been shocked to see a woman and a Canaanite stand up to Jesus like that. The Pharisees (Jewish scholars) would have been stunned by her faith in him. And they all would have been taken back by his mercy for her when Jesus commended her for her great faith and healed her daughter.
According to a commentary that I used in preparation for this message, this is the only time that Jesus says “GREAT is your faith.” And the recognition of Jesus’ mission changed at that moment. The mission was not based only on people of Jewish descent, but included any place where faith was to be found.
How often do we stand persistent in our faith like the Canaanite woman? Do we have the strength to oppose injustice such as racism, bullying, or mistreatment of the outcasts in our community? Are we open to letting Jesus shine through us or are we settling for the crumbs?
I pray that each person who leaves this place will seek to nurture their faith. That God will provide the courage, strength, and persistence to show compassion for others while pointing toward Christ. And that in the end, Jesus will look at each one of us and say, “Great is your faith.” Amen.