The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting:
Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.
The Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart is an ancient prayer, prayed in the hearts of the searching and suffering: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Or, simply: Jesus, have mercy. The older I become, the more aware I am of my need—and more truly my desire—for God’s merciful love, these small but powerful words welling up from my heart, as they did from the Canaanite woman in our gospel this morning.
In Latin, the word for mercy is misericordia, which is the combination of two words, miseriae or misery and cordis or heart, the literal meaning of mercy being: the heart which gives itself to misery. Between these poles of God’s mercy and human misery, between our own giving and receiving of love is the playing field of life where all of humanity strives and competes, and stumbles and struggles to reconcile the miracle of life with an oft merciless reality.
Which is where we find a Canaanite woman this morning, who in the face of her daughter’s misery was on the offensive for answers, healing, and mercy, running up the field of life and shouting: have mercy on me Lord, Son of David. Now, she was a Canaanite or a pagan, meaning an enemy of the Jews, who considered Canaanites idolatrous and unclean. And yet she cries out in faith, but a faith not prescribed by religion.
The overtone of her prayer—have mercy on me Lord, Son of David—was messianic; yet Jesus ignores her: he said not a word in answer to her. It’s as if he’s at odds with himself. Because this is the same Jesus who has touched lepers and corpses, eaten with tax collectors and sinners, driven out unclean spirits, healed on the Sabbath, affirmed the interiority of sin, and thus righteousness and obedience, and the same Jesus who passionately denounces the hypocrisy and elitism of the status quo.
I would imagine that most of us have at times felt ignored and unheard by God; like Jesus’ disciples in our gospel last week who were at sea as a fierce storm threatened their very lives. They were terrified, and alone. Where was Jesus? Though he eventually came to their rescue, these very same disciples are impervious to this mother and daughter’s misery. Give her what she wants, they tell Jesus—not because they have compassion upon her suffering—but because she is bothering them with her loud shouting. To them she is a nuisance, and a pagan nuisance at that, and they want Jesus to get rid of her. Sadly, then as now, the mercy shown to us is not always returned in kind, especially to those who are different from us.
Jesus responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as if to say, I can’t deal with her now, I’ve got my hands full. And this is when the Canaanite woman does something significant: she drops to her knees before Jesus. But rather than being an act of desperation or helplessness, I think she is empowered. She does not seem afraid but resolute or convicted that she and her daughter are worthy to receive the saving power of Jesus. Her humble receptive posture speaks volumes: Here I am Lord, as I am; have mercy on me.
Jesus finally responds to her—though it’s hard to hear—because he calls the woman a dog: It is not fair, he says to her, to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs. The term “dog” was a common one for pagans and Gentiles, as both dogs and Gentiles were unclean according to Jewish law. But for Jesus to speak these words with a sense of racial disdain would be contrary to everything else we know about him. Perhaps his brusque response is because he’s worn out from giving, feeding, and healing—from showing mercy.
Most likely is that Jesus views the woman’s request for mercy as illegitimate or unsanctioned because she is not Jewish, and his mission, as he understands it, is only to the Jewish people. After all, she is a Canaanite, and he is a Jew. Boundaries and taboos have been crossed, quite literally; as Jesus and his disciples have entered into the region of Tyre and Sidon, and are in foreign territory and the land of pagans. But like a hungry little dog, the Canaanite woman keeps nipping at Jesus’ heels: Ah yes Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ tables. Between her land and his, her culture and his, her class and his, her religion and his, her gender and his, between her misery and his mercy, this woman seeks to traverse the playing field of life and bridge its disparate poles.
I think her answer to Jesus is quite compelling because she while she is respectful or deferential she is not subservient; in that she claims her place in God’s household. She deems herself worthy, not as a privileged insider, but as the family’s dog, who in fact relishes the crumbs from under the table. Her hope is in what others have devalued and discarded, but in which she sees possibility. She allows for what the disciples and even Jesus have yet to consider and grasp—that there is enough—that Jesus has enough power for the household of Israel, and for her; and that but a crumb of Jesus’ mercy—a mustard seed of faith—is enough to defeat the darkness that has overwhelmed her daughter.
The wideness of God’s mercy had already been foretold as we read in our Old Testament passage from Isaiah:
My house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
In the end, Jesus, who never loses a verbal contest to anyone else in scripture, concedes the argument, and please note, to a woman, and a Canaanite woman at that, saying: Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.
Misery and mercy marry, if you will, and God extends his magnificent heart, which the Canaanite woman is open to receive, her daughter immediately and miraculously healed. In that same moment, Jesus’ own heart opened to the widening of his mission from only the lost sheep of Israel to the lost sheep of all nations, and to all people. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by this person and uncomfortable experience into an understanding beyond what he had known.
At the very least, our gospel passage tells us that something else is possible, beyond what we think, and think we know, if we are open to receive its grace; for the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind (Episcopal hymnal 470, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy).
Turning to our epistle briefly, St. Paul also wrestles with misericordia, concluding that God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all. In other words, God has bound the human race to free will, oxymoron that it is; and free will, imperfect as it can only be, gives rise to disobedience or willfulness. Personally, and collectively, we do what we want, regardless of others and its effects, which often leads to misery, for which we need mercy.
It is not that God wishes us to suffer or sin; but rather, that the Holy One desires to lavish merciful and reconciling love upon us. If we could see directly into the radiance of the Son, the depth of human suffering would be revealed, as would its redemption in the heart of Christ that is ever giving itself to the world, and birthing all of creation anew.