Matthew 15:23. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
The books are remarkably quiet on today’s gospel about the Canaanite woman. The modern commentaries on my shelf are very bland. Even the less radical of biblical scholars don’t think it tells us much about the actual words and actions of Jesus. On a quick glance, it didn’t seem to get much attention from the early “fathers” either. I found some incomprehensible ramblings from Origen in the 3rd Century and a sermon from Augustine in the 5th. The consensus of modern opinion seems to be that the story is based on the early church dealing with the growing numbers of gentile Christians. One woman scholar makes a big deal of the fact that the gentile in this story was a woman. Perhaps this means that gentile women played a central role in the structure and mission of the early church.
That is all very interesting. But somehow it didn’t seem to get to the heart of the gospel I heard this morning. Stripped down to its bare bones, it is an awful story and doesn’t leave me with a Jesus I’m all that fond of. If you want Jesus to give you the warm fuzzies, stay away from the story of the Canaanite woman.
Try to hear it again without two thousand years of sediment. The bitter reality is simple: if you are a woman and you want to get any attention in a man’s church, you had better (1) be ready for humiliation and (2) be smarter than Jesus. “Send her away.” Get rid of the woman-pest so we can carry on our meeting in the locker-room. “Go away, lady. We men have more important things on our mind.” It’s a picture that is close to a reality that goes way back before the New Testament and continues on into the present day. It is not a very pretty picture, but it’s real and because it’s real it is a place from which we can start our exploration of the gospel. Karl Barth explains that part of the journey of faith is recognizing and embracing completely the up-front reality of everything in all its apparent “Godlessness.” Faith begins by getting in touch with the awful reality that God’s presence isn’t obvious. Can you begin to imagine how absent God was in Jesus’ response to the woman of Canaan? Given all the pressures to create a cuddly Jesus, it is a great mystery that this story has survived at all! For that reason alone, it must be very important.
“Canaanite woman meets locker-room religion.” That’s the headline on today’s gospel. If we start there then maybe we will start with something we can identify with and learn something about how God operates. This foreign woman-pest is hurting. She is desperate. She will do anything to save her child. She has heard that Israel’s God can work miracles. And she goes to where she has been told the power lies—to the man. She went to the man whose story she has heard. And she cries out for help and mercy. Can you imagine her desperation? Can you appreciate how humiliating it is to be shouting out after a bunch of men you don’t know? “Go away, woman, we men have better things to do.” Can this be the God of healing she has heard about?
Martin Luther has came close as anyone I know to the heart of the story. In his sermon on the Canaanite woman he asks: “Is this the kind, friendly man? Or are these the good words that I have heard tell of him, whereon I have relied? It must be untrue. He is thine enemy and favoreth thee not….Her own ‘Help me Lord’ leadeth but to the reply ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.’ What will she say here? He answereth her ill…Yet she leaveth not off..but granteth she is a dog, nor desireth more than a dog, namely to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” “Is not that a masterpiece?” Luther says in wonder at the woman’s brilliance. “Yet all these sayings ring a bit stronger to nay than yea. In sooth, simple yea is in them, but very deeply and secretly, and what appeareth is simple nay. Thereby is indicated how our heart standeth in trial…[the heart must] grasp and hold the deep and secret yea above the nay.”
Luther doesn’t try to excuse Jesus. He drinks deeply of the reality of the woman’s rejection. He sees in it the reality of every life. There is no warm fuzzy Jesus to satisfy this foreign woman. Male-dominated, locker-room religion dispenses no cheap “yea” in the woman’s world. The raw, unvarnished story describes this woman’s reality perfectly and uncompromisingly. It’s awful.
Only when we see the naked truth of the woman’s world in the language of this world, can we begin to understand the depth of the miracle. Only when, with Luther, feel the full force of the “no” of Jesus and his disciples, can we also begin to experience the brilliant and gracious “yes” of the gospel that turns this woman’s world around. The gospel has a power that can overcome the “nay,” even when the “nay” is spoken by Jesus himself. We see that power in the woman. We see it in her continuing to hold on to the “deep and secret yea” when the locker-room door is shut in her face, when it seems as if she has no hope. We see it in her brilliance. Can you imagine what it must have taken to come up with that answer? “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” “Is that not a masterpiece?” says Luther. Doubly so. It is hard to be brilliant at the best of time. But to be so brilliant as to find words to unlock the locker-room when you are scared and desperate is nothing less than miraculous.
At that moment the Spirit spoke in her. The divine gift of holy Wisdom lifted her across the ditch of despair. Holy Wisdom, Sister Sophia, took her by the hand and led her from the dark prison of “no” into the kingdom of “yes.” Augustine said, “Had she left after these words [of rejection] she would have gone away just as she came—a dog; but by knocking, she who was a dog became one of human kind.” More than that, I think, in lifting her across the ditch, holy Wisdom began the journey in all of us. What man could have accomplished this in a world of locker-room religion? Who but a woman and a foreigner could be the embodiment of divine Wisdom at that moment in the story of God? Who but a woman is better able to represent for all time Isaiah’s vision of a house of prayer for all peoples?
Locker-room religion is still ingrained in Christianity. Just over two weeks ago we stood in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the building designed to shout to the whole world, “my church is bigger than your church!” St. Peter’s is the biggest locker-room in the cosmos. But are things really better in the Episcopal Church? We have been ordaining women for a quarter of a century but a woman bishop is still a big deal. We don’t get it. In our own Diocese of Virginia, the proportion of women on church vestries goes down as the size of the church increases. But the issue is not just about women, it is about our vision for the Church. Are we really the “house of prayer for all nations”? Do we even want to be? Or do we, like the disciples in the gospel, actually send out signals that we don’t want to be disturbed? We perpetuate the locker-room. The woman of Canaan still calls after us. The Spirit of God, Holy Wisdom, cries out for mercy. What does she have to do to be heard?