Faith to fire back

August 11, 2008

I struggle with the story of Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman. I
don’t know if it’s the lack of compassion in Jesus’ voice or the
exploitation of power or the tone of condescension, but if this were
the only story I knew of Jesus I’d be turned off.

What do we
do with this text? With any text that we don’t know how to preach? Or a
text we just don’t like? A seasoned pastor told me that she never
preached on a text she didn’t understand. On one level that makes a lot
of sense: it keeps one from being trite or fake in the pulpit.

But on another level, how much do I understand any
of the texts I preach on? Maybe wrestling through the ones I don’t like
is as important as preaching on the ones I think I understand. The hope
is that even with difficult texts I’ll see something about God that I
need to know and share.

When the
Canaanite woman calls to Jesus, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. He
doesn’t give her the time of day. But the woman is persistent. Her
daughter is suffering, and this Jesus can help. So she keeps calling
out. The disciples urge Jesus to make her leave. He seems to agree and
says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In
other words, I did not come for you, so get lost.

She kneels and says simply, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus is unmoved. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus
calls the woman a dog! I have a hard time even reading it out loud. If
I were this woman, I’d be so disappointed that I would leave and find
myself a different messiah. One who cares. But the woman fires right
back at Jesus. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall
from the table.”

This time Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!” and grants her wish. Her daughter is healed.

Is
the point to encourage great faith? Is it a lesson in a Rudy-esque
spirit of perseverance? Is the point that Jesus has the power to heal
us if we beg? This Jesus is no soft, warm, cuddly Messiah who is always
there for everyone at all times. This text suggests that Jesus is not
always nice, and was not always available to everyone.

Yet every
time the woman addresses Jesus she calls him Lord. Three separate
times. She understands who Jesus is: He is Lord. Period. Jesus does not
have to fit our expectations for Jesus to be who he is. He is the Lord.
Maybe that is the fundamental point.

Maybe this is why she was
so persistent. She had faith in Jesus as the Lord. She allows Jesus the
freedom to speak and act as the Lord. Maybe because of this she is not
offended, like I am, when he calls her as a dog. Maybe she decides that
before the Lord of the Universe we all are dogs, and that we are all
dependent on free scraps from the table. She has the faith to fire back
at Jesus. This is the kind of faith that seems to move Jesus to give a
second look.