The collect and readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9A, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Match 15:21-28.
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.
“Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me….”
Most of us know that song well. For many of us it describes the Jesus of our childhood, the Jesus of our growing up. It’s simple. It’s easy. It conjures up images of a sentimental faith and a sweet, cuddly Jesus. Those are images many still cling to. That’s how we want the world to be, the way we want to live, and who we want Jesus to be. The problem is that that kind of faith encourages a naiveté about God, life, and the world.
Look at the pictures of the Somalian famine. Listen to our politicians. Calculate the cost of our wars. Study history. Walk amongst our guests at the food pantry. Talk with a cancer patient, their surviving spouse, or the alcoholic struggling to get well. Balance the family budget, work full time, raise your kids, be faithful in you marriage, and while you are at it remember to eat well and exercise. We all know what it’s like. We’ve each got our own story. We need a faith that can carry us through this life. Too often a sentimental faith becomes cynicism, causes us to turn away from our difficulties, or leaves us feeling paralyzed. Life is neither simple nor easy. So why should we settle for a faith that is?
We’ve all grown up since the days of singing “Jesus love me” but has our faith
grown up? Yes, Jesus loves us but faith is not about sentimentality and Jesus is not always soft and cuddly. Just ask the Canaanite women in today’s gospel. She’ll tell you all about it. She’s not one of the chosen people. She’s an outsider that the insiders don’t want to be around. When we were kids we would say she’s got cooties. There’s just something about her that is not acceptable. On top of that she is a woman in a society in which woman have no real value or standing. To make matters worse she’s a screamer with a crazy kid.
Life for her is neither simple nor easy. Sentimentality won’t cut it. She needs help so she comes to Jesus. Yes, Jesus loves her but he ignores her and then calls her a dog. So what we do with that?
Many have tried to explain it away. They offer excuses trying to justify Jesus’ behavior. None are really convincing. Maybe Jesus was just tired and having a bad day. Or he was teaching his disciples something. Really? At the expense of this woman and her daughter? Others say Jesus was testing her faith; as if her life was not enough of a test. Maybe Jesus didn’t understand the full extent of his mission and ministry. I suspect all the many excuses only highlight how embarrassed we are by this text. Regardless of why Jesus did what he did we don’t like it. It makes us uncomfortable. That’s not the Jesus we want but that’s the Jesus we get in today’s gospel. And sometimes that’s the Jesus we get in life.
There are days that we pray and get no answer. We come before God and offer all that we are and all that we have. We speak our words, express our feelings, make known our needs and nothing happens. We wait. We listen. God is silent. It’s like talking to the walls of our room. If you’ve ever felt that way then you know this Canaanite woman. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. Instead he talked about her to the disciples. She heard every word. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells them. For her, however, there are no words, no gestures, no acknowledgment, no explanation. Nothing at all.
What do we do when that happens? Where do we go? Do give up? Get mad? Quit the church? Sometimes someone will come to me and ask, “Why? Why is God silent? Why am I ignored?” I wish I knew. I don’t have an answer. Even if I did I doubt it would be satisfactory. So I do the only thing I can do. I send them back. “Go pray,” I say. “Just show up. Regardless of what God does or does not do you show up. Even if its seems God does not.” That’s what the Canaanite woman did.
Jesus was silent. She could have gone home, argued, or asked, “Why?” But she didn’t. Instead she came closer to Jesus, fell before him, and kept on worshipping him saying, “Lord, help me.” That doesn’t make sense but that’s what she does. This woman who was ignored and seemingly rejected by Jesus moves even closer, entering deeper into his silence, and begs like a dog. She continues to show up trusting that somehow it is enough to just be there before him. At some point he has to act. She doesn’t know when or what he will do. She only knows that she will be there when he does do something.
This time he answers. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He called her a dog, an animal. Those words sound so harsh, so mean, so wrong. They are. But maybe they are not about Jesus or the woman. Jesus is naming the reality of the world in which they both live. The reality is that there are children and there are dogs. We see it everyday. Some have while many do not. Some are in and others are out. For some life flourishes. Others struggle to make it another day. Children and dogs.
They did not make it that way. It was like that before either one of them were born. It was that way before they met and it is still that way today. That doesn’t make it right and we should do all we can to change it. However, that is the world in which we must pray, the world in which we must live our faith, the world in which we must learn to show up. That’s the world in which Jesus and this Canaanite women meet. Life is neither simple nor easy and dogs don’t eat the children’s food in this world.
The woman knows this. She even agrees with Jesus. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She has again found a way to show up and be present even when it seems everyone and everything is against her. This time Jesus speaks and acts. “Great is your faith,” he tells her. That very hour her daughter is healed.
So what do we do with that? Some say she finally wore him down and Jesus relented to get her to be quiet and go away. That sounds more like what we do. Some say she was rewarded for her persistence. Maybe, but you and I both know of persistence that did not get rewarded. So what’s the difference? Others suggest Jesus realized he was wrong and changed his mind. Perhaps.
I don’t know why Jesus acted the way he did. Maybe we don’t need to know. Maybe this story is not even about Jesus. It’s about us, our faith, and our world. Life is difficult. Deep abiding faith is a real struggle. The world is broken and divided into children and dogs. In the dog days of life all we can do is continue to show up and that’s enough. God may or may not do what we want. It doesn’t really matter. To not show up is to only deepen the divide. To turn away means that we won’t be there when God does act. We will miss it. We will miss the moment of healing, the words of forgiveness, the acts that transform. We will never know that Jesus really does love us.