Matthew 15:10-20) 21-28
I always find this an interesting story to think and pray about. On the one hand, it offers enormous hope and a firm conviction that prayer is always answered; and, that persistence and insistence is heard and welcomed by God. On the other hand, this is a story which also speaks to social bigotry, racism, religious difference and contempt which appears to be captured in Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman.
I had the same shock recently when I reflected on another example: perhaps if Jesus was telling us the story of the Good Samaritan today, the Samaritan would be a Muslim and the Sadducee and Levite would be Christian priests and lay leaders. There is an unexpected cultural shock and a religious re-imagining which causes me to take a deep breath as I think about what I have always automatically thought in this story when I take the apparently righteous position and what is now being asked of me today.
This story of the Canaanite woman and her daughter offers to us the opportunity to think about what is happening here with the group to whom Jesus is speaking, where he is; his disciples’ behaviour, his own immediate response. It then shows his enormous shift of thinking and behaviour and his wonderful gift to the woman, who was a despised foreigner and woman.
So I want to reflect about a few things that have emerged for me in this story for today. In particular, I want to talk about:
Early stories of the gospels seem to imagine the gospel was only intended for Jews who were faithful; whereas there is a clear belief and expectation, the gospel was intended by God for the whole world. In this story, we can hold both perspectives.
In Jesus Christ, God is speaking God’s truth and nature to us in terms and in ways we can understand; he is speaking as a human being who speaks divine truth in human language.
Jesus does not speak the whole truth about God. It is a truth so vast, no human mind can conceive and encompass it, so enormous no mortal can think, see, hear or feel it.
This story gives us some perspective on God’s kingdom which invites us to revisit our own instinctive cultural and racist responses and wonder if we would do any better or differently in similar circumstances; and, as I look around our communities, politics, economics and religious practice, I don’t think we do very often.
Our responses are often too instinctive and unquestioning, judgemental, exclusionary and contemptuous of those who are different to us. God is not particularly present in such times except to bear witness to our resistance, thoughtlessness and unkindness.
So as you and I think about God’s mission to those of us who are gentiles, those of us who are different, out of God’s mercy and love, what does this say about prayer and persistence from those who need help, from those who are different.
I know there have been times when I have prayed so hard for people I love, I have badgered and nagged, prayed, wept, laughed, run out of words and offered my heart. But like the Canaanite woman, I was not going to give up. And God has always answered.
Martin Luther said:
Our Lord God understood this, God could not but hear me; for I threw my sack before His door, and wearied His ears with all His promises of hearing prayers, which I could repeat out of Holy Writ; so that He could not but hear me, if I were ever to trust in His promises.”
Rudolf Bultmann wrote:
Prayer is not to bring the petitioner’s will into submission to the unchanging will or God, but prayer is to move God to do something which God otherwise would not do.”
Walter Wink put the same message this way:
When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House where it is sorted among the piles of others. We are rather engaged in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory centre of power that radiates the power of the universe.”
And I bet that all of you would be able to tell stories about the power of prayer and the power of God’s response.
That Canaanite woman was not going to give up.
The Canaanite woman represents the reality of life interrupting the smooth expectations of planned living. The disciples were urging Jesus to tell her to go away as she was interrupting and disturbing them.
You can hear their disapproval and dislike of this foreign woman, whom they thought was misbehaving in a shameful and public manner that was really unacceptable from their perspective.
But I can’t help but wonder how often we miss the signals of something really important, by avoiding the unpleasant interruptions and wonder what we’re missing that God wants us to learn.
The woman kneels at Jesus feet, she pleads with him and she does not take no for an answer.
In Isaiah, God says it is not enough for the Lord’s Servant to restore the lost tribes of Israel. God will give the Servant to be a ‘light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
Through a painful encounter with a Canaanite woman, Jesus grows in his self-understanding and accepts a new vision of his mission.
This encounter reminds us there is no-one outside the circle of God’s love and compassion.
I can see today, the height, breadth, and depth of God’s compassion still troubles some people within the church today. Those who operate out of a mentality of scarcity, fear, or suspicion say there must be limits. They act as if God’s grace is not for everyone. They think there is not enough to go around for everyone.
In our deeply divided society, people of different political views, economic circumstances, ethnic backgrounds or religious convictions are demonised and dismissed. In such a society as ours, we give explicit and tacit permission to others in our community and country to decide who to exclude from the circle of God’s love – as if we can make that decision.
Yet no one can limit the grace of God.
This story helps us as a Christian community to see the unwelcome interruptions in our busy lives as divine interruptions.
God speaks through such encounters with strangers and others outside of our comfort zones. Quite often God challenges us as Jesus’ followers to decide if we’re going to let go of our carefully made plans to respond to the unwelcome demands that arrive unexpectedly.
And finally, the contempt and disrespect this woman received from Jesus and his disciples, as they were travelling as strangers in a foreign region, was breathtaking.
Her courage and determination give us an example to follow. As does Jesus, who is challenged and confronted with his own prejudices such that he recognises and changes his opinion, perspective, behaviour, words and understanding at her insistence; and consequently, when he truly sees and hears her, he is then breathtaking in his welcome, acceptance, and gift of recognition and the healing that is done immediately for her daughter.
I would wish that many of our leaders and ourselves, would be as willing to listen, learn and change as we let God into our hearts and minds, and making sure we listen for God’s word and letting it change our lives forever.
The Lord be with You.