Who gets God’s mercy? Not them!
Jesus certainly seems to have a knack for upsetting the orthodox, religiously impeccable Jewish authorities. Their carefully defined practices for maintaining ritual purity have been debated by the wisest of rabbis over time and serve as their assurance that they will be received into the presence of the Most High God as worthy and righteous.
With an almost off-hand, casual attitude he dismisses the rituals and purity practices that the Pharisees practice with painstaking detail. They have publicly criticized him and his disciples for failing to practice that ritual purity, for defiling themselves by eating with unwashed hands and compounding the sin by eating in the company of others who are equally unclean.
When his disciples point out that Jesus has offended the Pharisees, he essentially dismisses them as irrelevant. The Pharisees have failed to grasp the nature of the kingdom of God. “You are not defiled by what goes into your body,” he tells them. “You are defiled by evil intentions and evil deeds that proceed from an unclean heart.”
It’s not what goes in…it’s what comes out.
Jesus’ own teaching is almost immediately challenged by the woman he encounters in the region of Tyre and Sidon.
The gospel writer describes her as a “Cannanite,” which, for Jesus’ day is an archaic term. One commentator remarked that it’s the equivalent of calling a modern-day Norwegian a “Viking.” In this same story, told in the Gospel of Mark, she is described as a “Syro-Phonecian” woman, a term familiar in Jesus’ day. The name “Cannanite” comes from ancient Jewish history, and while it is used in the Hebrew scriptures, it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament, and it’s not a polite term.
“The Hebrew scriptures sees Canaanites themselves as evil. Matthew’s use of the term “Canaanite” to describe the woman highlights the nature of this woman and her daughter as the worst of outsiders. Canaanites are the quintessential enemies of Israel, the ones God had (supposedly) commanded them to exterminate… because their sins were so extreme that contact with them, especially through inter-marriage, would lead Israel into idolatry and immorality.
“So, the Canaanite woman is not merely a gentile, but a representation of those peoples who are God’s, as well as Israel’s, enemies.”
The essential “evil” of the Canaanites, of course, is their failure to recognize Israel’s God and to practice the ritual religious practices that characterize observant Jews.
And so, just after Jesus has condemned the Pharisees for their failure to understand that it is what proceeds FROM the heart that matters, he encounters a woman whose heart appears to understand exactly who he is. She throws herself on his mercy with a humility and a persistence that is staggering.
Her first cries for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter are completely ignored, which apparently does nothing to quiet her. The disciples, finally annoyed by her persistence, beg Jesus to dismiss her.
And so, perhaps with a wave of his hand he tells her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Even that fails to stop her pleas.
Kneeling in front of him she begs him to help.
And then, in what is most certainly a shockingly unexpected reaction, Jesus delivers what you would expect would be the final insult:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In all the scholarly debates over this scene, there has never been any clear explanation for why Jesus would say something so derogatory and so demeaning.
But what I think is even more astonishing is the woman’s reply: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She makes no attempt to make herself any more than what she is: she part of an outsider group of people who have never practiced the orthodox religion of the Jews, a people historically seen as enemies of Israel, and an insignificant woman of that nation. She knows who she is…but the more important fact is that SHE KNOWS WHO JESUS IS!
In contrast to the Pharisees, who believe in the ability of their own actions to make them worthy of God’s attention and blessings, this woman has no illusions that she has done anything to make her worthy of God’s attention, but she has recognized in Jesus the one who embodies the mercy and the healing power of the Creator. And Jesus calls her recognition of who he is “faith” and grants her what she has asked of him.
As much as we may believe this is an ancient issue that has nothing to do with us, we “religious” people still carry an awful lot of baggage related to our ritual practices.
I have often heard people say “I was baptized Catholic (or Methodist, or Presbyterian or Lutheran), when the truth is that baptism is into the death and life of Jesus Christ, regardless of the particular religious institution where the baptism occurred.
Nothing has more potential for creating controversy and conflict than the ritual practices we carry out in worship, and while our worship matters deeply for feeding our souls, it’s not a matter of whether we are doing the “right” things, but whether worship opens us to the transformation of our hearts that Jesus says is the true source of evil or righteous acts.
Lutherans are often known for being the ones for whom works don’t matter, and we often see ourselves the same way. But the Lutheran understanding, like that of many other denominations, is not that works don’t matter, but that works aren’t what redeems us. It’s only when we recognize that we are as unworthy and as unable to help ourselves as that Cannanite woman knew herself to be, and as willing to beg at the feet of Jesus, that we are able to fully let go of the idea that somehow, someway there is something that WE do that makes us worthy to approach Jesus.
And how incredibly amazing that it’s in the face of utter humility and knowledge of unworthiness that we are most open to receiving the gifts that Jesus freely offers.
I want to finish up by telling you why I think Jesus spoke to the woman the way he did that day. I think he was letting the disciples know that he was perfectly aware of how they were viewing this woman. I think he wanted them to hear out loud the prejudice and hatred that he knew was simmering in their hearts- and then have them witness the way God saw her and how God chose to relate to her and to treat her.
It’s a story to remember when we encounter people we are tempted to ignore or treat with disdain because we judge them to be unworthy; when we fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as better than someone else because of what we believe we have made of ourselves; when we are mislead by the fiction that what shows on the outside is what matters most; when we are tempted to divide people into “insiders” and “outsiders.”
Because in the eyes of God, there are no outsiders…only people who see with eyes of faith, and are transformed and healed by the unmerited, extravagant mercy, grace and love of their creator, and those who have yet to know how well and deeply they are loved.