Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
This gospel passage takes us into uncomfortable territory. We travel from a land of Pharisees and parables to one of Canaanites and demon possession. The words of Jesus to the Pharisees are harsh, the words of the woman to Jesus are insubordinate. It does not sound like the comforting gospel hope we crave in the midst of this chaotic year.
It begins simply enough with the usual characters—Jesus, a crowd, Pharisees, disciples. Jesus tells the crowd that their words have meaning and significance enough to defile them. It is what they say, and not what they eat, that makes them unclean. This brings about the anger we expect from the religious leaders, and then, of course, the parable, the confusion, and the explanation. Everything is shaping up for this to be a standard gospel tale.
Then, Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon. Lebanon. To a land of outsiders with whom they share nothing but the status as people conquered by Rome. A land of people declared unclean.
The next thing we hear is the voice of a mother crying out for the sake of her child.
We heard these cries in the lectionary cycle three years ago. It was the Sunday after a man drove his car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. As I read through reflections, sermons, and news articles written that week, I was stunned and grieved by their familiarity to today. The woman cried out with the church that Sunday and she keeps shouting after us.
Unclean words continue to flow from our mouths. The days are filling to the brim with words of evil intention, murder, and slander. We wash our hands more now that perhaps ever before, and yet we remain unclean. In this cacophony, the woman keeps shouting after us. She keeps crying out, and with the disciples we turn to Jesus and say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” There are so many people shouting at us, we are inundated with injustice. Please, enough, send this one away. We cannot take in another voice.
When Jesus finally speaks, the words do not sound like Jesus. The gospel readings from these last weeks have been filled with Jesus opening his hands and inviting in. At the feeding of the crowd, Jesus did not permit the disciples to send the people away and on the stormy sea, Jesus called Peter to him. These words Jesus spoke to the Canaanite mother are dismissive. They sound like the speech which comes from the heart of humanity.
In a reflection on this gospel passage titled “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus,” Grant LeMarquand notes the placement of this passage in the gospel. It is preceded by the Exodus motifs of miraculous feedings and control over the sea. “The healing of the daughter of the Canaanite women might also be seen as a part of this New Exodus complex – a parallel to the conquest narrative.” She comes and calls out to a son of David, a descendent of the king of a nation which gave her people no mercy. She keeps shouting after him for the mercy and help her people were never given.
After being told that Jesus was not there for her, or her child, or her people, the woman kneels before him. In asking again for help, she rises to a challenge to her faith, persevering toward salvation. Jesus looks down at this woman and repeats to her words that continue to proceed from defiled hearts and mouths, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Not you. There is not enough. You are beneath me, less than human.
In that moment, this woman had a choice. She could grieve the way things were but accept her place in it. She could continue kneeling in the dirt as Jesus walked away, her daughter still tormented, her life unchanged. If she had remained silent, she could have accepted that who she was remained below the sight of God. Yet, these dismissive words were from defiled people, from humanity. These are not the words from the heart of the merciful Lord, Son of David.
So, she put her face toward the insult. With faith in who God has been revealed to be through Jesus, the faith that called her to him that day, she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” There is enough. My daughter will not be tormented to death. I will not leave defeated. I am not below the sight of God.
I hear a smile when Jesus speaks, “Woman, great is your faith.” I see confusion once again on the face of the disciples as she joins her daughter, healed from the demon. Her shouting ended that day, but it still echoes. Her cry for mercy. Her cry for help. Her cry of defiance.
She keeps shouting after us. She shouts in the voices of the oppressed and conquered, in the boiling cries for justice and mercy. Each day brings us a new iteration of this voice. So many people are shouting in defiance and faith, decrying the defiled state of the world. Sometimes, I want to ask for these voices to be sent away. They are too loud, there are too many, they are too painful. Then, I remember all those times when my own voice cried in defiance. I remember days distant and near when I followed a call of faith to be told, “Not you.” I remember looking up in defiance and saying, “Yes” as I stood up in the dirt where the women who went before me had knelt. I see a smile and confusion, and my voice joins the echo.
As I turn from that place and look behind, I see a crowd. The Canaanite woman is kneeling and shouting out with the cacophony of too loud voices. It is transformed into a melody, decrying what is defiled in the heart of my humanity and yours. It is great faith, shouting after us, and rising to the challenge.
 Grant LeMarquand, “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus (Mt 15:21-28)” (n.d.): 2.
Image Credit: Exorcising the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter by Peter Gorban