[Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’ ]
Jesus left that place 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. [Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28]
I have to confess that for many years, this gospel reading about the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter completely baffled me. I just didn’t understand the obscure interchange about the dogs and couldn’t cope with its rude and argumentative tone, so I just tuned it out. But over time, I’ve come to terms with this marvelous anecdote about a woman who offers Jesus a bit of intellectual and spiritual comeuppance. And I suppose that in itself might cause us to reassess our own suppositions, because we like to think that Jesus was clear on his mission, and that he had all the answers….and indeed in other places in Scripture where he gets into a verbal tussle with the disciples, or with the occasional Scribe or Pharisee, he’s usually the one coming out on top, offering some deep insight or at the very least a pointed comeback. So this story about the Canaanite woman stands out as an exception – because it seems that Jesus himself had something important to learn, and learn it he did.
In brief review, this is how it goes: the Canaanite woman approaches Jesus demanding healing for her daughter. He ignores her and leaves the disciples to deal with her. She won’t give up and they get annoyed. “Sorry”, he tells the disciples, “I can’t help her. My mission is only to the house of Israel, and this woman, a Canaanite and a Gentile, someone well beyond the limit of my concern, doesn’t qualify.” But she persists, and then he has no choice but to deal with the problem. And don’t we just cringe at what he says to her? In the common Hebrew slang of the day, Gentiles were called dogs – a demeaning and bigoted put-down of an entire people. And shockingly, that’s what he calls her. “I’m not giving my help, which is meant only for the children of Israel, to you a Gentile, a dog.” What a phenomenal insult. And the full impact of it can only be understood when we realize that in the verses immediately previous to this Jesus had taught that it’s not what you put into your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out – meaning, the things that spring from the heart – thoughts, feelings, opinions, and so on. “What comes out of your mouth in hurtful words defiles,” he had said in no uncertain terms, and here he has just done it himself. The irony is just a bit thick.
But the Canaanite woman doesn’t even bother to get upset about it. This gutsy and determined woman just takes it, and uses it to trap him in a classic turnaround. “Yes”, she says, “but even the dogs benefit from what little may fall from the master’s table – even if it’s just crumbs” – which is to say, she believes that whatever small amount of his attention and kind regard that may come her way will be sufficient to cure her daughter. She doesn’t care who he thinks his mission is to – she only knows what her heart tells her, and it tells her that the will and power to heal knows no boundaries, ethnic or otherwise. There is no room for anyone to be diminished or rejected in God’s kingdom, and she is demanding equality. She is demanding that he see her and her daughter as the children of God that they are.
This is one of those moments in Scripture when we catch a refreshing glimpse of Jesus’ humanity – and not simply that he was capable of being rude and dismissive (which may make us feel better about the times when we lose it ourselves), but also that he was open to recognizing error and embracing change with grace and equanimity. In the compelling argument of a Canaanite woman, Jesus detected a broader revelation of the commonwealth of God than he had yet conceived…. and in the face it, he couldn’t stay the same. He was willing to become something more than he, as yet, knew himself to be…. someone who transcends all the boundaries and exclusions and definitions and limitations the world has to offer.
This week, as we witnessed once again appalling extremism and racism on the world stage in all its virulent forms, and as we stand on the cusp of renewing our own baptismal promises along with the candidates who today will be welcomed into the Household of God, the story raises some good questions for us to ponder:
Jesus was willing to listen to an initially unwelcome but compelling argument and then experience it as transformative. Would we do the same?
Jesus was willing to risk stepping beyond his own realm of familiarity and comfort to do what was right. Would we do that?
If a modern-day ‘Canaanite’, meaning someone outside the realm of the Christian faith, challenged us, today, to think about our response to racism, extremism, and all insidious forms of discrimination in a way that does honour to the Gospel, would we?
Someone once observed to me that at Baptism we should give out crash helmets to the newly baptized – symbolically preparing them for the inevitable knocking about that happens when life and faith intersect and there are hard ethical choices to be made. Every generation faces such challenges, and the promise of our faith isn’t relief or exemption from those realities, but rather the knowledge that God’s will is always to bring order out of chaos; that the uncompromising love of Jesus will dwell within us and shine through us; and that the Spirit will be present within the community of faith to guide, sustain, support, nurture, and energize. This is the faith into which we will baptize Sumerlee, Fenton and Harper today.
Thanks be to God for the blessing of the Canaanite woman whose faith, trust and persistence led Jesus to a deeper knowledge of his true purpose – and perhaps, by extension, our very own. And so we pray:
“Let your ways, O God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among all nations. Let all the peoples upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing praise you, and honour you by extending that mercy to all. Amen.”
The Venerable Nancy Adams