Sunday, August 20, 2017
If you are familiar with this story of the Canaanite woman asking Jesus for healing, you may wonder like I have what this says about who Jesus is, and how could Jesus really call anyone a dog? This is one of the most challenging passages of the gospels, but it’s right here in our bibles. What’s more, Mark also recounts this story of Jesus calling this foreign woman a dog in Mark chapter 7, so we find it two places in scripture. This passage is a good example of why Lutherans preach from a lectionary with assigned readings that we are reading across the ELCA every Sunday — I wouldn’t have picked this one personally to preach on, I have to admit! There are ways you could find excuses for Jesus’ language and behavior towards this woman, and when you look at Biblical commentaries there are many ways to interpret this passage. Today, though, I would like us to consider what we tend to overlook about what we believe about Jesus as Christians: that Jesus is both fully divine AND fully human. And at least for today’s read, I am approaching this passage as one of the gospels clearest depictions of the fully human side of Jesus.
The truth is, if we imagine that we were in Jesus’ shoes, we can see how we might react in a similar way. Jesus is tired. He’s trying to get away and rest, which seems like something he’s always trying to do. He’s just been arguing again with the Pharisees who are plotting to kill him. You could say that the Canaanite woman caught Jesus on a pretty bad day. I have two children who are under two so I know personally what it’s like to be pestered persistently after a long day when all I want is some peace and quiet. The disciples are feeling the same stress and exhaustion Jesus is, so they ask Jesus to send this woman away, and Jesus agrees that would be a good idea…at first.
Jesus is also focused on his goal. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house Israel,” he says. Up to this point, Jesus has been clear about his primary purpose being this, that God has sent his son to save the children of Israel, as the Messiah. Gentiles like the Canaanite woman were not a part of the original plan. So not only is the woman annoying and bothersome, she doesn’t fit the description of the kind of person Jesus has been called by God to minister to. This is a very human Jesus, that perhaps Jesus at this point has a blip of memory loss or is not fully knowing the whole plan as an all-knowing God would. In a remarkable turn of events, it’s not the disciples but a foreign and despised woman who is seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter, who opens up Jesus to a much bigger plan for God’s mercy and salvation – she, too, can benefit from God’s grace. And Jesus praises this woman’s faith and heals her daughter as a result.
I don’t think I can pretend to fully explain this story today and what it might mean for us, but I’m going to take a stab at it. The human side of Jesus as one who was divine and human is important to consider for our relationship with him today. The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is! She knows he has power to heal her daughter. She calls him Lord and Son of David. He can help her. He can show mercy on her and her daughter. This is true for us as well – Jesus can help us and show mercy on us if we but ask. But beyond the healing power of our Lord and savior is also an important and often overlooked human characteristic of Jesus: he is responsive to us. The Canaanite’s interaction and persistence with Jesus causes Jesus to respond more mercifully and generously than he might have originally planned at first. Jesus responds to us in our prayers, just as he responds to the Canaanite woman with extravagant mercy.
The Canaanite woman has faith that Jesus will respond to her even when his response isn’t what she wants to hear the first time. And she has faith great enough to believe that even a few crumbs of God’s mercy is enough for her and her daughter to find wholeness and healing. Let’s think about that image for a minute. Think about a cake, a muffin, a fresh loaf of bread right out of the oven – any baked good that makes you happy. Are you salivating yet? God’s mercy is like one of the best baked goods you’ve ever tasted, fresh and warm and wonderful, so good that even just a taste, a few crumbs, is enough for you to be satisfied. That’s what the Canaanite woman believes. With that faith, she opens up Jesus’ understanding that even just the crumbs of God’s mercy can reach beyond a narrow definition of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And when you read through the gospel of Matthew, you’ll notice that right after this, Jesus goes on to heal many people regardless of ethnicity, from Israel or not. And then Jesus feeds the four thousand men plus women and children. As you know from that story, Jesus doesn’t just feed them crumbs, but multiple loaves and fish so that all are able to eat until they are full. The Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus is that God’s mercy and salvation is not just limited to the children of Israel, and after this encounter Jesus’ purpose is expanded – offering mercy and salvation to all.
From the beginning, God created all people in God’s own image and sees all people of ultimate worth and value. We humans have messed this up, from the time that Cain killed Abel to the present day – the gathering of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia come immediately to mind. In Isaiah we hear God’s vision that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s faith and persistence is that God doesn’t just give out the crumbs to some, even if the crumbs of God’s mercy would be enough. God gives the whole loaf. God’s mercy is abundant, inexhaustible, unlimited, never runs out, for anyone – whoever you are, no exceptions. It is the encounter with the Canaanite woman that clarifies God’s role and purpose for Jesus, even for Jesus himself: Jesus has come not only for the lost sheep of Israel but for the whole world, for all of us, too. Jesus gives us his own body and blood, bread and wine, broken and outpoured for us, and not just a few crumbs. At this table, all are welcome, no exceptions – Gentile or Jew, woman or man, prisoner or free. And through that meal, Jesus promises us healing, salvation, and wholeness. In other words, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not just for a certain kind of person, but for all of us. We have a relational God who sends his son Jesus to be with us as a human being, to be in conversation with us through prayer, to feed us through Holy Communion, to heal our relationships still today with his forgiveness, grace, and love. So we may not have this passage all figured out, and that’s OK, but we can trust that even the crumbs of God’s grace will be more than enough. Amen.