"Mercy!" by Pastor Kinsey
Is this the same Jesus we know in the rest of the gospel stories? the Son of David, the Rabbi and teacher smarter than all the rest, the one who feeds 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes? How did this story make it into both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels? Is Jesus really equating this foreign woman with dogs?
One explanation, is that our modern ears do, of course, bristle and take issue with Jesus’ treatment of the Canaanite women – but when it comes to the much more lengthy and equally harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees, who were a very faithful and religious denomination of 1st century Judaism, we don’t really bat an eye!
And, the thing is, this is just the opposite of the first listeners to Matthew’s gospel. In the late 1st, and early 2nd centuries, the early Christians wouldn’t have batted an eye over Jesus’ treatment of a woman, or a man, from Canaan, the traditional enemy territory and people, who were under threat of death from Israel, according to Deuteronomy. Whereas, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees would have been, very controversial, and his own disciples even raise objections about it, to Jesus.
So what’s going on here? I think it’s helpful to view it through the lens of, ‘mercy.’ The Canaanite woman, who is a one person greeting party for Jesus when he enters the district of Tyre and Sidon, has already heard of Jesus, no doubt. His reputation as a merciful healer and teacher precede him. And the woman pleads with Jesus, in the identical words of so many other un-named petitioners, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
But notice, the mercy she asks for is not directly for herself. She asks on behalf of her daughter, who she says is tormented by a demon. Her daughter is not with her, apparently, but perhaps she’s heard that Jesus heals even without being in charge of the action, just touching the fringe of his garment without his knowing, has the power to heal, according to Matthew in an earlier story. So, she assumes that mercy for her daughter would mean the exorcism of the evil spirit, and is bold to ask for it – in fact, she won’t give up.
Even today, women have had to learn to be bold in their ask. So many studies have recently told us that men not only get paid more than women in the Corporate world, but they also ask bigger. While for women, it’s traditionally been ingrained in their upbringing, to be nurturing and attentive to the needs of others, before their own, and so they don’t ask near as often, or for as much.
Maybe that’s partly because women are used to being talked down to, interrupted and put in their place, as we’ve seen so publicly in recent months, even in the hallowed halls of the US Senate! First it was Elizabeth Warren, who had the gumption to criticize then nominee Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. She was reading the words of Coretta Scott King about the past racist policies of Mr. Sessions, and was censored by another Senator, Mitch McConnell, using the very obscure, Rule 19. Ms. Warren persisted that she didn’t think the testimony of Martin Luther King’s widow should be objectionable on the floor of the Senate, but she was voted down – though, not to be defeated, she found a much greater audience than the Senate’s CSPAN, by taking to Facebook! (And Senator Warren’s testimony proved to be prophetic, as the voter suppression agenda, and other discriminatory policies, that AG Sessions has gone on to pursue, prove the point Ms. Warren was making.)
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, received much the same treatment a couple of months ago, when questioning, guess who? Mr. Sessions again! When he wouldn’t give a straight answer to her questions, and when she persisted on behalf of the American people who wanted an answer, this former District Attorney, and, five year veteran as the Attorney General of California, was shut down by her male colleagues. Later, Senator Ron Wyden pointed out that when he asked similar probing questions, he was not silenced!
The Canaanite woman is as persistent as Senator’s Warren and Harris. When she first asks Jesus for mercy for her daughter, he doesn’t even dignify her with an answer. Yet she kept up until the disciples come to Jesus demanding he send her away. Speaking to all in general, Jesus gives the theological reason why he can’t help her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says, and therefore not to this foreigner. Which makes sense to a point, if Jesus was only a prophet and reformer for Judaism. And that was likely how the disciples saw him, at least, in the beginning. But there is this thing called mercy, that this Messiah, this Son of David, represent.
And to his answer about the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the woman now comes closer, and she kneels before Jesus, the posture of worship, and implores him, “Lord, help me.”
And now for the 3rd time Jesus aims to silence her, and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That is, Israel’s food that Jesus gives in the form of healings, teachings and miracles, cannot be given to those outside God’s covenant. And, as that hurtful remark hits home, and starts to sink in, the woman has already formulated her reply, in that self-deprecating way of a really smart and persistent woman: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table!”
Have you ever been stonewalled when you petition God? Felt as if you are not deserving in your prayers? But, finally we see – Jesus gives in. Did the woman know that he would? Probably not, but I’m pretty sure she would have persisted anyway, until something happened!
In this case, mercy happens! Mercy is also translated as ‘compassion’ in the Gospels. That feeling you have when your heart goes out to another person because you are deeply moved – you’re transformed beyond what you previously understood to be true or took for granted.
Mercy is what Jesus, has already protested to the Pharisees, is needed more than rote sacrifices: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mt. 9:13)
Jesus has mercy – has compassion for the woman – which transforms him. And finally, seeing her perhaps for the first time, he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Even the crumbs that fall, from the meal that we don’t want, can be enough ‘bread of life’ for those who persist in their faith! And I think it’s really interesting that, in our Lutheran polity we say much the same thing about Holy Communion. That even taking communion in ‘one kind,’ can be valid, that is, either the bread, or the wine, is enough to contain and hold, the fullness of God’s Grace and forgiveness. And in practice, of course, even taking a small round pre-made communion host is enough bread, though we have moved to a whole fresh loaf, every week.
So, “what’s going on here,” it seems to me, is that persistence in faith has broken through the conventional thinking and plans, even of Jesus – our Lord changes, or transforms, having compassion on this foreign woman of great faith, and through this encounter, a way has opened up for the gates of mercy and loving-kindness, previously not available to her, to now pour over the walls of Israel, and negate the ongoing ancient death-sentence – and Jesus will see his mission and that of the disciples, as a mission to all nations, all peoples – crossing again and again into Gentile territory.
Jesus, is the one who is transformed in this gospel story, as we see the power of God working in and through him, for the benefit of the Canaanite woman, and the world.
And because we are disciples too – men and women – our job as followers, is to enact this mercy and compassion we have discovered in Jesus, and to be persistent in our faith, like the Canaanite woman.