Faith In Real Life Blog
Sharing Christ’s Love: “Growing Into God’s Call”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24 He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26 He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27 She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28 Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
This passage is full of surprises and insights. There are two themes I want to mention to put these verses into context. Preceding this chapter, Jesus feeds the five thousand and shortly after these verses in the fifteenth chapter, Jesus feeds the four thousand. All of these people were drawn to Jesus and almost all came to listen to him unprepared to spend so much time with him. In both cases, Jesus saw that they were hungry and he fed them. Jesus is nothing if not practical. Nowhere in either ‘feeding account’ is there any mention of Jesus asking people to qualify for food. If you were hungry, you were fed. It was not, if you were a Jew, or if you believed, or if you had faith, you got fed. Neither was there any mention about how the people should use the food they were given—even if some of them might have hoarded it and sold it to buy drugs. A bit of a stretch but my main point holds, Jesus responded to the needs of the people in front of him. He did not screen people or even expect a particular response. For Jesus, loving others was always a gift.
The second theme, closely related to the first, is Jesus’s exchange with the Pharisees and scribes in the opening verses of the chapter. “The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3 He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? Caring for people mattered more than rules and tradition. The commandment of God is to “Love the Lord you God with all of your heart, mind and strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus taught that all of the rules and tradition were in service of that commandment. For Jesus, those rules and traditions could not become more important than the rule of love.
So when Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman, it is particularly surprising that he ignores her desperate plea. (But he did not answer her at all.) And later explains himself by saying: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then he insults the woman when she goes to her knees to ask his help—‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ So much for mindfulness and unconditional love. In real life, we are all trapped by our history and our traditions. Jesus was no different. He had understood his call to be the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In this story we witness Jesus’ humanity and we witness an example of the evolution of his understanding of God’s will for him.
With the eye of retrospect, we tend to forget Jesus the man. We almost always think of Jesus as Christ. He is divine. But, as a man, his understanding of his calling was a process. He wasn’t born as an adult. He is shown learning and discerning in several instances in the bible. When he forgets about his parents as a young teenager. His response to their anxiety when they could not find him was: “Why were you searching for me, did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:52) Even if he had precocious insight into his relationship with God, he knew he had disobeyed his parents. Later we read, he rejoined his family and was obedient to them. It is the first example of Jesus understanding that devotion to God does not mean you can ignore the people in front of you. The chapter ends with the words: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years…” His learning about his calling was just beginning.
In our passage, Jesus’ understanding of his calling expands to people outside of the house of Israel. At the time this was a startling concept. Again, we tend to take it for granted—hence our appalled response to how Jesus initially responds to this woman. The Jews were the chosen people. God had stood with them for centuries. Jesus’ job was to call the lost sheep back to God—to show them how God wanted them to live. That is what a messiah does. How could God’s care extend to people the Israeilites had conquered—the Caanites inhabited this land long before the Israelistes arrived? Caanities had no rights. God had already put them second and beneath the Israelites.
From this perspective, theCanaanite woman’s cry for help—her demand to be noticed, was rude, intrusive and absurd. Jesus, confined by his own understanding of his place in Israelite history, responded accordingly. As long as the Caanites could be viewed as ‘less than’, or the Israilites as ‘better than’, such behavior is understandable and predictable. But in the face of dismissive rejection, the Canaanite woman persists. She does not accept the secular norms. She does not ‘keep her place’. She challenges Jesus’s assumptions and, perhaps unwittingly, asks him to ‘practice what he preached.’
Please notice that this woman’s struggle is the struggle of every minority group in human history. Second class citizenship has been assigned to children, women, black people, the homeless, immigrants, etc. This list has no end. We, humans, categorize each other. We assign value and worth by rank. And when we do, we lose sight of our common humanity as children of God. This woman persists. She tells Jesus that even dogs get crumbs from the table. This is when the light bulb turns on in Jesus’ self understanding. He recognizes her faith and treats her with respect and kindness.
But what was the woman’s faith? We might argue that she ‘knew’ (by faith) that Jesus could help her and because she believed so deeply, Jesus helped her. The problem with this view, as one of our FIRL members pointed out, is that it implies that God measures faith and rewards accordingly. That has the terrible implication that when your daughter dies of cancer, it was because your fervent prayers were somehow insufficient–that this suffering was a consequence of a ‘lack of faith.’ I unequivocally reject that conditional thinking.
I suggest that the faith Jesus recognized was that NO MATTER what the secular world said, this woman believed she mattered. She was living like she was loved—even when the world around her (including Jesus) did not see her value and worth. She acted like a child of God—whether or not the world was blind to her. This is an incredible faith. Anyone who has felt marginalized knows how hard it is to continue to believe we matter when the world thinks otherwise. The Christian faith begins with the promise that God loves us. Faithfulness is living like we are loved.
By any standard, Jesus was prejudicial, dismissive and insulting. We all are—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. We are all limited by our histories and our assumptions. That is what it means to be a creature. The key is that Jesus allowed himself to be challenged. Though the woman was violating the social norms of her society—she had no ‘right’ to speak to Jesus in such a way, Jesus was willing to expand his understanding of what it meant to love. He was willing to acknowledge that God’s call was bigger than he had imagined and bigger than he had assumed. In theological parlance, she was screaming, “I am a child of God”. When Jesus recognized that, he grew in wisdom and stature. We are called to do likewise.
We are called to follow him. In real life it is irritating to listen to annoyingly persistent people—whether that be a whining, inconsolable child or minority groups marching in the streets. But, unless we imagine we are better than Jesus (or are in complete denial about our place in the world), we too must be willing to be challenged. In secular parlance, this woman screamed “Canaanite Lives Matter”!! She did not say anything about Israelite lives don’t matter. That would simply be a reiteration of the ranking of the world that was oppressing her. Jesus heard her and finally saw her as a child of God.
This woman lived the faith that whether or not the world accepted her, God does. It requires courage and faith to live such a life. This woman demonstrated both. Likewise, it takes courage and faith to suspend our certainties and assumptions to stay open to God’s will for us. She was persistent, irritating and annoying. But Jesus’ life and mission grew because of her. Stay open to the challenges to our assumptions. It is in those places that we discover God’s will for us.
We would do well to learn from both Jesus and this woman.