A Homily edited & revised for
August 17, 2013, Year A
(first posted August 14, 2011)
The Gospel Lectionary reading for today brings to us the plight of the Canaanite woman, a misfit to Jesus and his crowd if there ever was one. And yet, somehow, strangely, she and the Master find a connection.
"We are here, once again, at a point where Jesus' fundamental mission is being defined. He wasn't simply a traveling doctor whose task it was to heal every sick person he met. He had a very specific calling...God's people needed to know that God was at last fulfilling his promises. The kingdom for which they had longed was beginning to appear...he was himself God's appointed king."
But, there is so much more here than the mere context of the passage and why it was included within the Gospel. Initially, we will ask of the text what we learn from the woman, and then will ask of the text what we learn from Jesus' response.
WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM THE WOMAN?
First, we know this was a woman and a Canaanite, which meant she didn't count for much in Jewish culture. By this I mean to remind us that the tenor of the times often treated woman as less important than men. We also know that her racial make-up meant she was treated as inferior as well. The society of Jesus's times would have had little use for her.
Sadly, we know there are still places that practice this sort of bigotry even today.
The Gospel presents us with a different way, however. The Gospel, where it is truly practiced, actually offers the opposite as end result. The Gospel, through the power of the risen Christ, breaks wide open equality for all people, even women and even those of a minority race. The Gospel consistently breaks down the inequalities that men and governments erect, and replaces them with level ground not only around the cross, but within the social structure as well.
Said differently, no one is more important to GOD than the other, which should give us pause concerning our own prejudices.
Second, we also learn that the woman is a mother, and this made all the difference. Her child was in great need and she was willing to do anything to bring her child aid. She simply would not be denied.
Notice the text:
"Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
"He [Jesus] said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
She dogged Jesus so much that the disciples were weary of her pleading and bleating, and even Jesus uses a racial slur toward her as a way to dissuade her from her course, but so strong was her mother-love, she would have none of it.
When, finally, Jesus addresses her, in an amazing moment really, she bargains with him and finally persuades him to help her daughter. As I say, amazing.
Perhaps the best way to view this woman for today's purposes is to see her as a clear example of the power of compassionate, intercessory prayer. She persisted in her petition to the LORD and finally he answered. This carries an important lesson for us. Namely, that compassion must drive our prayers if they are to hold into a fearful future.
Said another way, getting down and dirty in prayer means we have a mother-love toward the other for whom we pray. It means we harass the Father; it means we consistently, with tears, offer our care and concern for the one whom we love. It means we take no notice of our own station or our own brokenness. We do not, even for the slightest moment, allow anything to dissuade us from calling and calling upon the LORD.
Recently, this was brought home to me. There is something for which I am praying that is so close to me I cannot even utter the words, I can only offer tears to the LORD. I have made petition after petition for this need, but so far the LORD seems to be treating me like a Canaanite woman. I must confess that I had finally give in to despair, until reading of this woman and persistent love. So, I am back at the LORD again, haranguing him and harassing him.
WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM JESUS’ RESPONSE?
There is something else here for us. We should also look toward Jesus' response to the woman, for in it we find nourishment for our souls.
Notice first, even though Jesus is consistently on mission, he is open to conversation. The disciples were done with hearing the shrill petitions of this mother --
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us,”
but Jesus opens himself to her words, and after that, I suspect, he didn't have a chance; he had to help her.
As I read the text I wondered if the reason Jesus takes on the needs of the woman was because the disciples wanted to dismiss her. It would be consistent with Jesus' methods to use the events found "on the way" to teach openness to the closed hearted disciples.
For whatever the reason, Jesus stops to listen to the woman and is drawn into her need, even though it did not fit his mission at the time. I take this to mean that there is an openness to GOD’s ears that goes beyond convention and the normally accepted.
GOD hears the prayers of sinners -- aren't you glad? I am.
Or, put differently, we could say that GOD always has his surprises.
Or, put differently still, GOD and his ways are mystery, and just the moment when we think we have all things figured out, the LORD comes at us from a different direction, which serves to explode our nice, thought-through outlines and theories.
Notice, also, that Jesus is overwhelmed by her argument. Her faith believed that he would meet her need, and this was so strong that his mission could not withstand her words. So he helped her, healing her daughter.
This is a wonderful ending, but it is not, it seems to me, repeated as often as we would like.
To be honest, it seems to preach this way borders on offering false hope to the one in need. It seems to say, pray hard enough, pray persistently, and your prayers will be answered.
We know this is not true.
And still, there is within us the hope, that this time, in this circumstance, the LORD will help us.
What to do?
Perhaps the best way to approach this question is to keep our heart upon that for which Jesus commends the woman...
Perhaps what really matters as we walk through the howls of the human condition is that we walk with faith that the GOD who is there and who is not silent will, in his time and his way, offer us exactly what we need.