Woman, Canaanite, Mother
Year A - Proper 15 - August 15, 1993 - St. Paul's Episcopal Church - Smithfield, NC
Lessons: Is 56:1(2-5), 6-7
“And from that moment her daughter was well again.”
Woman, Canaanite, Mother
Let us pray:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen
The lessons this morning are so very rich. First from Isaiah comes a plea for universalism, for inclusion, for a broadening of the base of God's people and their worship.
It begins with these ringing words,"maintain justice, do the right.” Those words alone are worth our attendance here this morning. Then we have the beauty and power of Psalm 67 that begins with a paraphrase of the blessing in the book of Numbers 6:24-25)and ends with the psalmist expressing a hope that all people may one day fear God.
And Paul, our dear St. Paul, gives us enough material for a doctoral dissertation as he offers the conclusion that human disobedience is only temporary, and that when the Jewish nation comes to Christ even the dead will be made alive.
No shortage of preaching or reflection material in those lessons! Wow!
But what about our Gospel lesson? Well, lots of issues here too, some already raised by the other lessons, like the issues of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, like who is worthy, like God being the God of all, Jew and Gentile alike.
But Matthew presents us with a more difficult case. Matthew tells us a story in the life of Jesus that we, at first glance, wish were not there. Matthew shows us a side of Jesus that makes us more than a little uncomfortable.
He shows us a Jesus who sounds remarkably like us!
(Read the lesson, Matthew 15:21-28)
Throughout the history of Christian reflection on this passage, all sorts of attempts have been made to soften or explain away the harshness of Jesus towards the woman in the story. But there it is in black and white, even set apart in red in some Bibles to make us extra uncomfortable.
What about another translation? No that doesn't help either.
Jesus still appears harsh, the woman persists in her faith, Jesus responds to her faith, and the child is healed, no matter the translation.
Because the story presents us with difficulties, however, is no reason to retreat to the other lessons, or to make excuses for either Matthew or Jesus.
Perhaps the difficulty of this event especially as presented by Matthew, is our invitation to explore, to climb into the story, to visit with this version of Jesus who sounds so much like us.
Matthew has Jesus and his friends outside the borders of Israel, in present day area of the Lebanon, seeking rest, reflection, and perhaps re-creation, away from the stress of preaching, healing, feeding the multitudes, and confrontations with the authorities.
Then a Canaanite woman confronts them. Because she is a woman, she is less than equal in that society, Jewish or Canaanite. Because she is Canaanite, she is considered unclean and even despised by her Jewish neighbors.
But her daughter is possessed, a euphemism perhaps for mental illness. So, finally who confronts Jesus is not just a woman, not just a Canaanite, but also a mother, the mother of a sick child, a mother in pain over her inability to help her daughter.
It is here that I want to stop and dwell a few moments, at the point of contact between Jesus and the mother of a sick child. Upon the initial contact, Jesus is silent. Matthew says, "But He did not answer her a word."
It is to this moment of silence that I inv1te you. Jesus is silent many times in the gospel narratives, when he looks at Peter after Peter's denial, in front of Herod, and in front of Pilate when Pilate asks, "What is truth."
In these and other places, Jesus is reported to have been silent. Just as Jesus in silence looked at Peter, we can conjecture that he also looked at Herod, at Pilate, and at this forlorn mother seeking mercy for her sick child. Frederick Beuchner writes in his book, Telling The Truth, “Before the Gospel is a word, it is silence.” The silence of Jesus catches us off guard. It focuses our attention, and His. The silence becomes the companion of His look, His stare. Perhaps T. S. Eliot says it best, "Christ is the still point of the turning world."
What is Jesus thinking in that moment of silence? The truth is we really do not know. We only have his next words. He offers the woman, the Canaanite, a theological statement, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.'
But this mother, this mother of a sick child does not want theology, she wants results, and so she insists, “Lord help me.” She reminds me of Billy Sunday when asked if he could explain his theology replied, "I don't know anymore about theology than a jack rabbit does about ping-pong, I just know I'm on my way to glory."
It is likewise for this mother of a sick child, no theology for her, not even from Jesus, just, "lord, help me."
If she is persistent, so is Jesus; he turns from his theological statement of exclusivity to a typical Palestinian riddle, 'It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.'
All the time He is speaking to the woman, to the Canaanite. She however is answering Him not as a woman or a Canaanite but as the mother of a sick child.
In a classic and even humorous Palestinian response called a 'hiyel', she gives as good as she has gotten, "Yes, lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
Now it happens, Jesus recognizes her faith, the faith of a persistent mother with a sick child, he sees and hears no longer a woman or a Canaanite, but a mother who wants her little girl to be well again. And at that precise moment, the girl is healed, the mother is finally vindicated and we are able to see Jesus as one of us, as brother, as friend, as fully human and fully divine. The mystery of the Incarnation right there in the space of a few verses in this troublesome and incredulous story.
Who is it that shall come to us in our moment of rest, reflection, and weariness? Who shall come to us and we will see only, female, male, foreigner, non-believer, white, black, Hispanic, right-wing, left-wing, straight, gay, catholic, protestant? Who shall come to us broken and in pain and we shall not see the real person, the father, the mother, the daughter, the son, the sister, the brother, the Christ?
Perhaps our learning from this lesson is that when we finally see the real person, it is at that moment that our eyes are opened. Perhaps it is when we are eyeball to eyeball with a real live person, in the same sort of pain we have known, that all the silence and all the rhetoric becomes Gospel. Perhaps it is then that the child in us and the child in them are healed.
“And from that moment, her daughter was well again.”