Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Maybe We All Have Encountered the Canaanite Woman

Maybe we have all encountered Canaanite women. For me the most dramatic example of this was Denise. She was separated from her husband, who kicked her out and recently released from a mental hospital with a post-traumatic stress diagnosis. She had lost her home, her job, custody of her daughter and the last shreds of her dignity. But she was convinced her daughter was being abused by her husband. She was loud, in need of medication and volatile. When she brought her emotional wave into the office, she frustrated my secretary, angered my fellow lawyers, and embarrassed everyone else in her path. No one listened to her, or believed her- she was a mess.
She would call or “stop by” incessantly, demanding my time without regard to my sense of priorities. I wanted to make her go away. But what if she was not just unstable, but also right about her daughter- the cause of her ceaseless desperate crusade? For the first two years I represented her, I resented her. Yet, I could not bring myself to dismiss her, even when I was told I could. I stuck it out. She fought with me, but she begged me to help her. She gained greater stability, and in the end, she was right, and we were able to prove it. We regained custody and she could start the healing process for herself and her daughter. It was not immediate, but in legal circles, two years was pretty close. I came to change my mind about mental illness- no longer a blanket excuse to ignore. I completely identify with Jesus and the disciples. But what about Jesus?
Jesus should not act in this irritated and insensitive way, right? I think it would be easy to focus upon this as an inquiry into why Jesus acted the way he did. “See, even Jesus had a bad day.” It could certainly help justify what we do or do not do at times. After all, we have had those days too, when people have argued with us, or chewed us out. We are tired, and just want to get away from it all. We want to live out the Corona beer commercial where the person sitting on the beach gets to throw that ringing cell phone into the sea- NOT NOW!
Yet, someone blurts into our world, like this woman. Maybe it is the homeless person who doesn’t take the hint and keeps following you asking for food. It could be the person who starts coming to church, but then becomes a whole lot more needy than we care to see. Whatever it is, these people mess with our world, and they point out our impatience, as well as our prejudices and self-imposed limits on caring. Who are our “Canaanite women”? We want a God who will love and accept us, BUT the road stops short at our barriers- substance abusers, AIDS victims, migrant workers, or ___________. We can tell ourselves that we’re like Jesus. It’s not like Jesus was doing nothing- he was doing some good stuff, and he had a mission and a people.
But let’s not get comfortable with this story as proof that we get to slack off in carrying out God’s mission. Because this is not the gospel message. Because here comes that Canaanite woman, and she takes the picture everyone is looking at and turns it upside down.
She is a social outcast on many levels. She has no man. She belongs to an ethnic group that is despised. She is poor. She probably smells. She has a child who is a freak. She is yelling out constantly- she makes everyone uncomfortable. Jesus could hurl a racial slur. After all, no one would think twice. But instead, he just tries to ignore her. She keeps on crying out, and now the disciples are begging him to make her go away. So he has her yelling on one side, and the disciples whining on the other. Oy!
So he tries to tell her she is none of his business. Yet she has the audacity to challenge and seek not a just a meek request to be nice to her. She demands to be called an equal. She not only dares to insert herself into Jesus’ group, she argues with him. She even goes so far as to tell him what his mission really is. And it hits him. Suddenly, his tone and focus change. He has been surrounded by leaders of the people he came to save, who reject him. His disciples are his insiders, but fail to grasp who he is. He is surrounded by people who just want something, but have perhaps no plan of commitment.
Until now, Jesus has basically focused upon the chosen group, for better or for worse. And although the official message is that everyone is equal, the reality of this in practice hasn’t quite taken off.
In this time of groundbreaking politics in this country, it all sounds kind of familiar- some people should know their place, wait their turn, go home or get lost. Race and ethnicity make us uncomfortable. We believe in ideals, but…
“Give me your tired and your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free, but.. maybe not so much.
We could focus on why Jesus acted like he did at first, but the gospel message is in what he did next. And this is what WE are called to embrace and live out. She kept pushing. She used his logic against him. And Jesus was moved. He could have grabbed the picture back from her and turned it “right side up.” But he didn’t. This woman who had nothing to lose, and who had nothing to give other than her soul, was laying it all before him, bowing down and worshipping him. While she sought him as a desperate parent, she called him what none of those who should know him did. She called him “lord”- the word of total faith and commitment.
This story pivots in a new direction. The living out of the universal claim that God’s will and salvation, and God’s message of love, mercy and forgiveness, are not for a few, but for all. Even and especially those who may challenge our view.
The Jews despised the Canaanites. They were the bitterest of enemies. Yet this woman they want to dismiss is instead a heroine of faith- persistent and extreme, and an example of total commitment. Her life may not be ours, but her faith example should be.
This commitment to faith will not always be easy. This aspect of the story is also true. But God stands with us, and is calling us. Luther in Freedom of a Christian, notes that through Jesus Christ we are freed from bondage to sin. And in this freedom, we should be inspired to do good things out of love and worship of God. Who does God care for? This is who WE should care for. Not just those like us, but those NOT like us. Not just those we like. But also those we may think we have good reason not to like.
We often pray in our prayers here for “those whom it would be easy to forget.” Today we are urged to live this out. Let us not forget all of the “Canaanite women” but strive to embrace our faith and to carry out God’s mission of love, mercy and forgiveness, and of equality for all.

1 comment:

Pastor Eric said...

Was Jesus really trying to ignore this woman? Did this woman really teach Jesus something? Or was Jesus testing this woman's faith in front of people who doubted her? I have heard various interpretations of this text, but the main point is what you so elegantly laid...mercy is for all people.