This is a difficult story, there’s no doubt. First of all, Jesus challenges our traditions, our touchstones, and tells us off for defiling our language and our relationships with our unclean hearts.
And then directly afterwards he has this interaction with a woman of Canaan.
First, he ignores her. Then, he denies her. And after that, he insults her with a proverb.
Her retort is not a witty comeback, a clever piece of wordplay designed to disarm him, to make him laugh, giving as good as she takes. This woman is on her knees before him, comparing herself to a dog begging under the table for scraps of food, begging him in the language of his temple, his Psalms, Son of David – she cries out not in her own language, not in the language of Canaan and the Baals, not the language of her people but of his – she is on her knees and she is going all out to try to convert him to compassion even for her, even for the enemy of the Israelites, even for the enemy of their God.
Does she even believe in the God of Israel? Who knows? But she believes that Jesus can help her. He is her daughter’s way out of trouble and into a new life.
And at the end of the brief exchange, Jesus does heal her daughter, and he goes on to heal many of her neighbours, and even to share with them the bread of life, the selfsame miracle with which he had fed the lost sheep of the house of Israel, with baskets of broken pieces left over once more to take home and extend the feast.
Preaching on this story back in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom said,
“For both Christ went out of His borders, and the woman out of her borders, and so it became possible for them to fall in with each other: thus He says, Behold a woman of Canaan coming out of her own coasts.”
“Do you see how this woman too contributed not a little to the healing of her daughter? For to this purpose neither did Christ say, Let your little daughter be made whole, but, Great is your faith, be it unto you even as you will; to teach you that the words were not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was the power of her faith.”
This meeting, in other words, has ramifications far beyond this woman and her daughter. By coming out to meet Jesus, by inviting him into her heart, her home, into relationship with her, a Canaanite with whom no relationship was possible for a traditional Jew; by meeting him halfway, this woman becomes a bridge between her people and his. Jesus has just said that the traditions and rituals of the Pharisees were less important than the commandments upon our hearts, to love God and our neighbour; and here is the proof: that through a meeting that crosses traditional boundaries, in a moment when enemies become co-conspirators in an act of healing, a woman receives mercy for her daughter, and it is through her faith that many are healed.
This has been a really difficult week in America. Behind it all is the story yet to be fully told of the death of a young man whose parents have hardly had the breath yet to grieve. In the forefront, we have seen the spectacle of camouflaged police offers perched on military vehicles aiming long guns at the residents they are sworn to serve. We have heard the stories of those gassed and arrested and assaulted like enemies.The image of a city at war with its own citizens has been hard to bear.
What has helped, in the past couple of days, has been the reaching out of relationship. Once people put themselves on the same side of the barricades, once the people with the firepower, and, let’s face it, all kinds of power; once some of them were willing to stand next to instead of over the people without it, there came in the night a glimmer of hope, a small spark of peace.
Churches in and around Ferguson, Missouri, including the Episcopal diocese, have been praying, marching, meeting, lifting up those around them. They know that it is by reaching out, crossing borders, flaunting barricades to hold hands with one another that healing begins. They have learnt from the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman that there is no such person on our borders as the enemy, no one who must be outcast, no one who does not need and deserve mercy, and the love of God.
It is the call of the churches to be, to build those bridges across barriers, to allow grace and mercy to flow freely, so that all may feast together. We are all in need, kneeling at the feet of Christ, and we say, here, that we have the faith to make things happen. We dare not be the blind leading the blind. We have to open our eyes to see the chasms between us and our neighbours, the people who live just across our street, whom we never see. We have to find out where those fissures lie, so that we can begin to build those bridges. We dare not be the blind leading the blind.
We can begin by acknowledging the things in our own hearts that defile us, the prejudice, the enmity, the disgust. We can begin by cleaning up the language that comes out of our mouths, remembering that promise we made at our baptism, not to stand on our own dignity, but to uphold the dignity of every human being. We dare not call anyone dogs.
We dare not call anyone dogs.
The disciples could not bear her pain and they begged Jesus to send her away. We have seen, to, this week how hard it is to hold another’s pain. In the suicide of Robin Williams, we have recognized our own blindness in the darkening face of depression. It is difficult to build a bridge across that deep chasm, but we can keep reaching out, offering our hands to hold onto. If nothing else, we can hold out hope.
The disciples could not bear her pain, and they begged Jesus to send her away. We dare not send her away, because we too are in need of God’s mercy; we have seen our sisters and brothers, we have known ourselves tormented by demons. We know our own need.
Many of you grew up, as I did, reciting the Prayer of Humble Access from the Book of Common Prayer each time we came to the Communion table. Today might be a good day to revive it in our hearts:
“We do not presume to come to this thy table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…”
Amen. Lord, have mercy.
*Chrysostom homily quoted from