Yesterday I spoke at The Commons and felt so ill-equipped. This past week I had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day which left me feeling like I had nothing to offer to our community. Though feeling pretty low, I pressed on because I know that sometimes the cracks are the very thing that let the light seep through. Part of it was sheer stubbornness too. I had chosen this passage a long time ago and was determined to share it (plus, I really did want to watch this U2 video.)
Wrestling with a challenging passage, Matthew 15:21-18, I spoke about the courage to dare to ask, Jesus changing his mind and all of us being part of an extended table setting in the Kingdom. My notes are below, research was heavily borrowed from Jackson H. Day, a minister in Maryland.
1) Canaanite Woman’s COURAGE
One of the first things we notice about this passage is the un-named woman’s courage. Her guts, her tenacity and boldness are responsible for this story progressing and being recorded. She has Chutzpah. And in the Bible, it seems that women who have Chutzpah, not necessarily status, are favoured by God (Rachel Held Evans).
The story of the Canaanite woman is first of all a story of courage, and if you put yourself in the Canaanite woman’s shoes, you will realize how courageous she is. Look at what we know of her:
- First, she has a daughter who is sick with a demon, or mentally ill. Imagine her grief, watching a child that was happy and whole retreat into a mental prison. This is the source of the determination that energizes the rest of the story.
- She has heard about Jesus. She calls him by name and she knows his reputation as a healer. She hopes he can do something for her daughter.
- Third, she is a woman alone. In her culture every decent woman has a male protector–first father, then husband, then, eventually son. Where is her man? Why is he not here to intercede with these other men for her and her daughter? Because there is no such man in the story, it’s a fair guess there is no such man in her life. She is unprotected, and approaching this band of Judean strangers is dangerous.
- Fourth, she is a Canaanite; the Canaanites once lived throughout Palestine from Gaza in the South to Sidon in the North. If she heard the old stories from a Canaanite perspective, she would have heard how her people once welcomed a man named Abraham and his flocks; but his descendants, returning from Egypt, repaid the hospitality by invading Canaan, “utterly destroying” cities and farming villages, sometimes killing every living creature or sometimes, as we hear in Judges, killing everyone except 400 virgin girls they abducted for their own use. Some Canaanites were enslaved and others, like this woman’s ancestors, were driven north to present day South Lebanon. To a descendant of these “ethnic cleansing” victims, Jews such as Jesus and his disciples might appear as harsh, ruthless, unforgiving killers.
- Fifth, we know that at the time of this story Jesus and his disciples are one of many bands of men traveling about Palestine. Some are religious cultists, performing wonders and seeking alms and converts; others are revolutionaries, seeking to drive out the Roman overlords; some are simply robbers. Most of these groups are armed and we know from the story of Peter’s sword in Gethsemane that Peter and perhaps others of Jesus’ disciples carry weapons.
The woman knows she must be crazy, a lone Canaanite woman, approaching an armed band of young men from her people’s sworn enemies. Are they thugs? Will they harass her verbally or attack her physically?
They prove their decency by merely telling her to go away. Encouraged, she gets closer.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David: my daughter is tormented by a demon.” At first, Jesus doesn’t answer. Then he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Finally she comes and kneels before him, saying, “Lord, help me,” and Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In the previous story, Jesus chided the Pharisees for focusing too much on the purity laws, putting too much focus on who’s in and who’s out and missing the bigger picture. Then Jesus pulls away to Tyre, to rest and refocus on his mission after another interruption. And just as he’s getting his mind recalibrated to this mission, our woman barges in and interrupts him again. So Jesus responds out of his sense of mission – “I didn’t come here for you. Wait your turn.”
But the woman doesn’t slink away. She doesn’t give up. Her child is sick. Instead, she gives it right back to Jesus! “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She shows more understanding of Jesus in that one sentence than the disciples do in the whole gospel. She says, “Jesus, I know you have a mission, I know it’s not my turn, but my daughter is sick. Is sticking to the plan more important than my daughter’s life?”
2) Jesus’ Humanity – Can Jesus change his mind?
His limited knowledge consists of what his community has taught him. And what have they taught him about Canaanites?
Jesus will have heard how Noah, after the flood, got drunk and naked, and his son Ham saw him in this state. Jesus will have heard how Noah cursed Ham, and Ham’s descendants in Canaan and Africa, who were now fit for nothing but to be slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth — a story used in the American south 200 years ago to prove that the Bible commanded enslavement of Africans. Jesus will have learned that the Canaanites’ religion was idolatrous. Psalm 106 will have taught him that Canaanites engage in human sacrifice. Jesus will have learned that Canaanites are people who sell themselves for fertility rituals conducted “under every green tree” in the hopes that crops will grow and the flocks will produce young. Jesus will have been taught that intermarriage with such people is strictly forbidden, and all others should keep pure from association with them. Jesus will have heard that God commanded the heroes of the faith to utterly destroy, enslave, or drive out such people. And Jesus will have learned that God looks on Israel as “my treasured possession out of all the peoples…a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” while the destruction of outsiders like the Philistines is a proof of God’s existence.
So this is the terrible mental baggage that Jesus will have been carrying on that day when, needing some time away from the crowds, unable to flee them by going from one town to another, unable to flee them even by crossing a lake, Jesus leaves Judea entirely to go into the foreign country of the Canaanites.
In Hebrews we read that Jesus learned obedience. In Luke we read that Jesus grew in stature. So when did Jesus stop learning? Is it possible that Jesus could learn something at age 32? Some may would say, “No, it doesn’t fit with my understanding of God.” There are only two times that I can think of where Jesus changed his mind. Both involve women. (the other one was John 2 – water into wine). I would argue that the Canaanite woman changed Jesus’ mind and in doing so, helped to expand the kingdom and Jesus’ mission to include all.
3) An Expanded Table
This Canaanite woman’s courage prompted Jesus to change his mind about healing her daughter, and I would argue helped to change his mind about how people are invited to the kingdom table. Sent to Israel, but Saviour to all. Jesus continues to break down the barriers of who is welcome, and how Justice is for all. I will leave you with a story of a banquet. Luke 14.