The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 15A 2020, August 16, 2020
Christ Church Hudson
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 and devotional plea for mercy, prayed in the hearts of pilgrims and penitents for centuries: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Sometimes it’s simply: Jesus, have mercy. The older I become, the more aware I am of my need—my hunger—for God’s mercy, these small but powerful words welling up from my soul; as they did from the Canaanite woman in our gospel this morning: have mercy on me, Lord.
In Latin, the word for mercy is misericordia, which is the combination of two words, miseriae or misery and cordis or heart, the quite literal meaning of mercy being: the heart which gives itself to misery. On one hand mercy, and on the other misery, two poles that would seem to encompass the entirety of existence. That place between human misery and divine mercy is nothing less than the playing field of life; this place where we play and work, and live and love, and endure for a while; this place which we will all leave one day, as did Jesus. In his short life Jesus encountered and endured intense suffering and bestowed compassion, grace, and forgiveness as profound.
It is between these poles of misery and mercy—in this situation or that circumstance—that all humanity struggles: what is the meaning of existence? why is there suffering and loss? what is our purpose and God’s purpose—if there is a God—and how is it that the creation and its creatures are so beautiful, good, and true, yet as flawed, false, and futile?
In the midst of a global pandemic, the catastrophic explosion in Beirut, a flailing economy, bitter political divide, and the fraught reckoning of racial injustice, how can we reconcile the miracle of life with life’s often merciless reality?
Sometimes my answer, when I don’t have one, which is often, is to do something very simple, like pausing . . . to notice . . . a single breath . . . or, saying three little words: Lord, have mercy.
In our gospel, a Canaanite woman had no answer either. Faced with her daughter’s misery, she is helpless against this demon, this pain of a loved one. And though a Canaanite, a pagan or Gentile, she calls out to Jesus in faith not bound to religion: have mercy on me Lord. But, Jesus ignores her: he said not a word in answer to her. It’s as if he’s at odds with himself and the gospel; 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 hypocrisy and elitism.
I would imagine that most of us have at times felt unheard, even by God; and like the disciples in a stormy sea when Jesus is fast asleep in the boat, cry out: wake up! don’t you care that we are in danger?
And yet these same disciples plead with Jesus to give this woman what she wants—not because she is in need—but because she is bothering them with her loud shouting. As in our own lives, the mercy and compassion shown us is not always returned in kind, perhaps especially to those very different from us.
Jesus finally does respond—though it’s hard to hear—because he all but 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 Gentiles, as both dogs and Gentiles were unclean according to Jewish law, though this does not make an ethnic slur acceptable. 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 and needs a break 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 to the Jewish people: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
She is, after all, a Gentile, unclean, and female. And he is a Jew, clean, and male. Boundaries and taboos have been crossed, and indeed quite literally. For, as we read, Jesus and his disciples have entered into the region of Tyre and Sidon (now modern Lebanon); they are in foreign territory, in Gentile country, and in her neighborhood.
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 turf and his, her culture and his, her class and his, her religion and his, her gender and his, from her misery to his mercy, this woman seeks to traverse the playing field of life and bridge its disparate poles.
And she does. Because Jesus, who never loses a verbal contest to anyone else in scripture, concedes the argument—and please note, to a woman! Misery and mercy marry, if you will, and the result is the immediate and miraculous healing of the woman’s daughter; and from that moment forward, the widening of Jesus’s mission from the flock of Israel to all nations and all people. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by this person and this uncomfortable experience into a newer and broader understanding of his faith and mission. May we also be willing to be so changed.
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; and to do what we want, regardless of others and its effects, leads to pain and unhappiness for which we need mercy.
It is not that God wishes us to suffer or sin; but rather that God desires to pour out the divine heart of mercy upon all—including Jesus—when he brushed off the Canaanite woman, when he was bound to the cross.
If we could see directly into the radiance of the Son, an intensity of suffering would be revealed; as would that these depths of human misery are redeemed in God’s boundless light and love. In Hebrew the word for mercy and womb (ra-chem/re-chem) are the same. We could say that God’s mercy is “womb-like mother love,” holding us, gestating us, ever birthing us into new life.
I’d like to end with a prayer from St. Faustina, a young, poor, and uneducated Polish nun who died in 1938 and was canonized in 2000. During her short life, she received profound visions and messages of Jesus’ love and mercy.
Let us pray: Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments [and times] we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.