Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
There was once a little girl who was about to start kindergarten. She lived in a not-so-great area of town and she was supposed to go to a not-so-great school. Downtown, there was a really excellent school. It had great teachers, a diverse student body, lots of enrichment programs. It was how every public school should be. But little girl’s parents were young – an artist and a graduate student, and they could not yet afford to live in the neighborhood with the good school. Each year the good school accepted a handful of kids who lived out of district. Nowadays, there would probably be some sort of electronic lottery system, but this was the 1980s, and it was simply first come, first served. So on Registration Day, out-of-district parents would line up outside the doors of the school, hoping to enroll their kid. The little girl’s mother had a deeply-held belief that a great elementary school education would be one of the most valuable gifts she could ever give her daughter. The night before Registration Day her dad was out of town, so the mom asked some family friends to help her by keeping the little girl overnight. Then the mom packed a sleeping bag, a book, a flashlight, and a thermos of coffee (no cell phones, of course) and she spent the night by herself on the front steps of the elementary school so that she would be first in line the next morning.
A woman alone outside all night in an urban area – it seems like a dangerous, yet heroic gesture. But to this mother, it was not heroic. It was just instinct. The mother was desperate to get her daughter a spot in that school. And when the sun came up the next morning, she did.
This is the sort of crazy thing that loving and determined mothers do when their child’s well-being is at stake. It doesn’t matter whether the child is 3 days old or 30 years old. I could have given so many other examples of parents who become fierce advocates when their child’s future, or health is at risk.
In this very parish, I can think of many parents who have been tireless advocates for their children. But I chose this particular story because I know it best. By securing a spot for me at Eakin Elementary School, my mother set me on a course of receiving and valuing a great education.
Today in the Gospel lesson, we meet a mamma with a sick kid. And this mother is desperate for her daughter to be freed from what torments her. She was a Canaanite, a Gentile, from the area that is now coastal Lebanon, just a little south of modern day Beirut. She is so determined to get help for her little girl that she’ll try just about anything; just like a mom with a sick child today who might go head to head with doctors or insurance companies. When we meet this woman, she has resorted to asking for help from a strange Jewish man with an intriguing reputation. It’s a long shot, because she knows full well that Jewish men and Gentile women do not interact. It’s just not done. But he has wandered into her region for some reason. She’s a desperate mamma with a sick child. He’s here, and what has she got to lose by trying? She approaches him and begs him to have mercy on her. She ignores the aggressive whispering and glances of his entourage, all of whom look thoroughly embarrassed by the spectacle she is making. But a desperate mom doesn’t care at all about causing a scene. And then, it starts to get interesting. This woman approaches Jesus because she needs his help, and I don’t know that we’ll ever fully understand Jesus’s actions here. He doesn’t respond to her initial plea in the gentle way we might expect from him. The two of them have this fascinating and disturbing brief conversation. When she kneels down and begs for help, Jesus does not respond with his usual overt compassion. He uses an unattractive metaphor to reiterate the current boundaries of his ministry. He calls her a dog, a common insult about Gentiles at that time. Maybe he really meant it: He came up within the Jewish community, to reform the Jewish community, and at this point, he seems to truly believe that his ministerial jurisdiction does not extend beyond the Jewish community. Or maybe he calls her a dog as a term of endearment, like she was like a sweet little puppy. Or maybe it was a test of sorts, to see how desperate or faithful she really was.
Smart people have argued for all three interpretations. But regardless of why and how Jesus handles this interaction at the beginning, this conversation with a desperate Gentile woman ends up being a turning point in Jesus’s ministry. And there are some really good lessons for us here.
Let’s talk about them!
First, mutuality: Jesus is the healer, the miracle worker, the one who ministers to people in need. This tenacious and faithful woman, a complete stranger, is in desperate need of a miracle for her possessed daughter. But here, before Jesus blesses this family with healing, the Canaanite woman ministers to Jesus. He is called to minister to her, but she ministers to him right back. This will not come as a shock to anyone who strives to be aDoer of the Word. Those whom we serve have amazing gifts to share. Every single mission trip I go on, there is always a conversation among the team about how the gifts we give pale in comparison to the gifts we receive. These conversations are all variations on the theme of mutuality in mission, and I always treasure that moment when it comes. This past week was no exception. The participants of our local outreach mission week spent their days working hard to repair a home here in Richmond. New windows were installed, siding and trim were painted, a lawn was mowed, weeds were whacked, and so on. Our mission team gave many gifts to the homeowner who could not manage all these needed tasks on her own. But one night over dinner, Nancy Warman led our group in a discussion to reflect on the gifts the homeowner had offered us, and we came up with a long list: her humor and wit, her joyfulness, her depth of spirit in the face of some pretty serious financial and health challenges and more.
All of us agreed that it was an honor and a great blessing to be with her and witness her many gifts this week. When we do outreach and mission, we always receive just as much as we give. Mutuality.
So when the Canaanite woman helps Jesus begin to expand the scope of his vision beyond Judaism, when she makes him smile with her quick-witted retort about dogs and crumbs from the table, she is ministering to Jesus just as he will minister to her when he heals her daughter.
Just like my mom who knew in her gut that a good education would set me on the right path in life, the Canaanite woman trusted her gut feeling that the bizarre Jewish healer was in her town for a reason. Up to this point, Jesus did not make a habit of leaving Jewish territory. But on this occasion, he had, and the woman has faith that his being there is not a coincidence. She goes to meet him, and right away, she addresses him in a way that showcases her faith. She calls him Lord, Son of David. By referring to him in this manner, she shows her hand right away. She says, I know you are divine and I am not. I know you are Jewish and I am not. I know you are a man and I am not. I know all of these things should be impediments to your helping me, and yet, I am here because I have faith that you will help me. Immediately upon meeting him, she recognizes Jesus for who he is, in contrast to the disciples, who have been with him for 15 chapters and are still figuring out who he is.
Now, sometimes faith comes to a person in an instant, like it does for the remarkable Canaanite woman, and sometimes it takes a longer period of time, like with the disciples. Both the fast lane and the scenic route will get you to Christ. The important thing here is to trust your instincts. And allow your gut feelings to lead you to faith.
Finally, vulnerability: The Canaanite woman asked Jesus for help. She needed help, and she asked for it. She allowed herself to be vulnerable. What a simple concept, and yet what difficulty we often have doing it. If there was ever a week to be reminded how important it is to ask for help when we need it, this is it. This week, we are grieving the loss of a man who needed help, but none of us knew it until it was too late. Now all we can do for him is go back and re-watch old favorites like Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society. We can belly laugh and ugly cry, because he loved to help us feel those big feelings, even if he didn’t always know how to handle them himself.
We can hug our loved ones tightly, commit to learning more about the signs of clinical depression, and we can promise one another to try and ask for help when we need it because at some point, we all need it. I’ll end by saying this: When you need help, please won’t you follow the example of the Canaanite woman and ask for it? Your church will be here for you. Your priests will be here for you. And we promise to ask for help when we need it too. Together, our community can take care of one another.
Learning the lessons of the Canaanite woman: Mutuality.