When I was a child, I think I actually would occasionally sleep walk because I often did things that I had no memory of doing the next morning, leaving the light on, letting my dog in the room and drinking the glass of water I always left by my bedside table. But I apparently didn’t realize this because once, when I was about 4 years old I went to my mother and said “Mother, I thought you said Jesus loved me and cared for me.” “Well yes sweetheart,” she responded, “He does.” And then I asked, “And you said He stands by my bed every night and watches over me?” “…Yes?” “Okay” I responded. “If He loves and cares for me so much, then why does He keep drinking my glass of water every night?”
We do not like the idea of when Jesus does something that doesn’t fit with the loving image of Him that we have in our heads. We are so used to paintings and pictures of movies of Jesus smiling at people who come to Him or who need Him, reaching out to them with calm serenity and a deep loving look in His eyes that a scene like we read in our Gospel lesson today can very easily jar and clash with that image, and leave us feeling very uncomfortable. It almost seems that Christ is acting very un-Christlike. This passage shows a desperate mother, sick with anxiety for her child, who is so desperate for help that she approaches a man who is from a people group who has been at odds with her own for centuries. Enemies even! And she begs, she begs for help.
And what does Jesus do? At first, He ignores her, He is silent. And after his disciples beg Him to do something, to at least tell her to go away, He seems to affirm what they say. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This statement, especially to today’s readers with all of the conflict and division we face, seems particularly strange coming from Jesus, because it is dismissive and excluding based upon background and race; essentially Jesus is more or less saying “I came for the Jewish people, and you are not one, so what claim do you have on me?”
What are we supposed to do with that? Yes, Jesus does eventually heal her daughter after her clever response: “Yes, but even dogs eat the crumbs under their masters tables.” But what do we do with what Jesus said to her? Many Biblical commentaries actually seem to struggle with this very question. I would know; I was amazed at the vast approaches of the ones I read in preparation for this week: they usually ignore Jesus’ side of this discussion and focus on how persistent the woman is, who seemed to change Jesus’ mind.
But God does not change. The same Jesus who died for the world on the Cross is the same Jesus who has this conversation. And furthermore, if we are truly to believe that all of Scripture is breathed out by the Holy Spirit, we have to accept the fact that the Spirit, in His infinite wisdom, chose for the Gospel writers to recall this particular story and record it for our benefit, and for our good.
I said a moment ago that God does not change, and I stand by that statement because if we carefully analyze the details in this story, we will see the truth behind this statement. For this story is not unique of a Canaanite woman chasing after God, even though her people were declared enemies of the Israelites and their God. In the pages of the Old Testament we have the story of Rahab, the Canaanite woman who begged the Israelite spies in Jericho to spare her and her family and allow them to join Israel and she would hide them and care for them; and because she did and she feared the Lord, God allowed it. Then there is the story of Ruth the Moabitess, the Moabites being a tribe that God had cursed in Deuteronomy, but she would not take no for an answer from her mother-in-law Naomi, and refused to leave when she was told to go home, saying instead “Your God will be my God.” And the Lord blessed her.
These women, these foreign women who should be enemies of the Israelites and their God, decided to pursue that God. And they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And God honored them for that. And here history is repeating itself, and Jesus is fully aware of it. Why? Not just because He is omnipotent and all knowing, but also because Rahab and Ruth were both His ancestors…in fact Matthew goes out of his way in this Gospel to include them both in the genealogy of Jesus. And so Christ sits here and allows the same story to play out. A desperate woman, a foreigner, an enemy to come to Him. And He acknowledges and plays out the fact that she is not of the Covenant people, she has no claim on Him, but this desperate mother will not be deterred, she still chooses to believe in Him, she chooses to trust Him, she still chooses to seek after Him. And He honors her for that. Just as He did for Rahab and for Ruth thousands of years before.
And just like before, this is a challenge to those who were supposed to be followers of God, the Israelites, those who were in Covenant with Him, who had a claim. Rahab chose to follow this God when His own people had not liked what He said to Him and rebelled in the desert. Ruth’s Israelite family had left Israel because of God’s silence during a period of famine, Ruth chose Israel and takes its God as its own. And in this story Jesus is the promised Messiah come for the Jewish people, but many reject Him, some plot to kill Him, but this Canaanite pursues Him and trusts Him even when He is silent or seemed dismissive. And for that, He honors her. Because she displayed the ever persistent faith in her heart that His Covenant people should have. And so through this strange conversation, Jesus allows her to be an example to His followers. As God once said through the prophet Jeremiah “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”
And so Jesus makes this woman and her faith a challenge for us today, will we continue knocking when the door seems like it will stay closed? Are we willing to continue to pursue Jesus like she did, even in the times when He seems to be no listening, or even silent? Or will we be like many of the crowds of followers and disciples who turned away during such times? When Jesus was arrested, and He stood accused before Pilate, He remained silent, and where were His followers? Far away no longer trusting or believing. When Jesus was silent before this woman where was she? Still asking, still pleading, still trusting that He would hear her, still understanding that He had complete control.
One of the grandmothers of one of the children I work with in my day job I feel exemplifies this because of how she continues to pursue and plead with God for her grandson. Praying that he will continue to progress and be able to learn and lead a full life, and she doesn’t ever stop. I hear her each week, and how she trusts that God is listening and will do this, even though it doesn’t seem that He is listening. Problem behaviors continue to crop up, he’s started to run away, and it’s just exhausting for everyone involved. But she trusts that God is listening, she chooses to pursue Him in the midst of the hardship instead of giving up, like that Canaanite woman, she continues to ask. She once smiled and said, “I know He’s honoring this request, He sent you and provided the clinic, didn’t He? In His own time, He’s honoring my request.”
My father once admitted to being frustrated with God when he was younger because it seemed that God was silent and dismissive for his many prayers for his sister Rosemary; why would He never answer the pleas and requests for her? But with her passing this past week, as we have been planning the funeral for her, there are so many people who want to attend, so many people whose lives were touched by her that we have actually had to schedule two different services in two different locations. God may not have answered the prayers we offered on her behalf in the way that we desired, but in the last few months of Rosemary’s life, it became clear that to me that the Lord was in fact responding to them. Two of her house mates in the home she lived, we found out, have spent the past few years taking her to church, where they said she loved to sing the hymns, smiling as she people who loved her dearly. All those years and years of prayer and continual persistence after the Lord were not wasted, for she was loved and she was accepted, and for that, we can give thanks, and an amen.
Jesus, through His interaction with this desperate Canaanite woman, challenges us to follow in her footsteps, to strive after Him no matter the obstacles, no matter if we do not see Him reacting to us immediately in the way we want, to continue to pursue to continue to ask. And our liturgy encourages us to do the same as well. Soon we will come to the Eucharist but before we come to the Table, we will pray the Prayer of Humble Access. Jesus said it is not fair to give the food to the dogs, and the woman humbly says yes but even the dogs will eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table. And so we will humbly acknowledge in that prayer “We are not worthy to eat the crumbs from under your table, but you are the same God whose nature is always to have mercy. …” And so like her, we will come forward with hands held out in supplication, choosing to believe, choosing to trust that Jesus will meet us.