Franciscan clergyman Richard Rohr likes to say, Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. He came to change our minds about God. The last time I had an argument with the Almighty, I was speeding off to a pastoral emergency. I remember roaring a prayer, which was along the lines of What are you thinking? Where are you? (those are revealing prayers, aren’t they?) And almost immediately, I had a very clear feeling that God was already there. I could trust that God would do what God does. And I would be doing what I could do.
Have you ever argued with God? It can be a humbling experience. Not because God doesn’t know what is in the human heart, and not because the Almighty roars back at our shouted prayers, but because getting real with God can allow us to remember who we think God actually is.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear a story about a Canaanite woman who has the courage to argue with Jesus. Her faith trusts in a God of mercy and healing, a God who works through Jesus. Is this one of many gods? Or a God (capitol G) above all the other small-g gods? Who knows. We do know she is willing to contend with Jesus until she has access to the grace that is infused in his blessing.
Let us consider for a moment the Canaanites. In the time of Jesus, Jews looked down on Canaanites because they worshipped many gods: idolatry was especially loathsome to the people of YHWH. The word Canaanite is actually an ethnic catch-all term, referring to various indigenous groups of people who lived in the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Some scholars think that the Israelites were originally Canaanites.
I find it really interesting that Jesus and his disciples wandered around the region of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, deep into the gentile territory of what is now called Lebanon. They must have encountered many Canaanites. If Jesus is focusing on the children of Israel, he is traveling way out of his comfort zone.
Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman begging him for the healing of her child. She seems to be invisible to him. This is surprising, because in other gospel stories, Jesus is open to encounters with other marginalized people in need: the Gerasene demoniac, a Samaritan woman at a well, a Roman centurion, a woman who bleeds. I wonder if Jesus knew about the three women in his genealogy who are Canaanites: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth (listed in Matthew 1:3, 5). What is it about this woman that causes Jesus not to see her and then to brush her off so abruptly? That is a mystery. Jesus is not acting very Jesus-y in this passage.
This story is often preached as a test of faith, because it is painful for us to read it with any other interpretation. Jesus calls a woman a dog. If he is comparing her to a house pet, he is still being rude. These words do not reflect well on the Good Shepherd. Ouch. And she persists, loudly. She knows something about grace: her statement about dogs under the table eating the crumbs sounds like our Prayer of Humble Access.
Remember, please, that Jesus, Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine. I think today, our gospel reveals his humanity. Jesus has a change of heart (challenging our assumption about the immutability of the divine?). As he opens his heart, light of grace floods into that room. We must note that he does not say let it be done as you believe but as you will. This woman’s will, manifested by her articulation of her need for grace – which Jesus identifies as faith – leads to the healing of her daughter.
What does all of this mean for us? Do we need to expand our understanding of how God operates? This story is inserted in Matthew’s gospel immediately following a discussion of ritual purity. Can it be that we, too, need to expand our understanding of what renders anyone worthy of God? St Paul, the great apostle who moved beyond the Jewish community to share the good news of Christ with the Gentiles, reminds the Romans that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. God is merciful to all. Can it be that, like Jesus, we need to be open to changing our minds and our hearts?
Years ago, someone I knew as a fairly stubborn atheist asked me for a prayer. There was a health issue that was generating concern. I asked why he wanted the prayer. Can’t hurt – might help. I blessed him, because I trusted that prayer is efficacious across party lines. We don’t need to change God’s mind about us. We need to change our minds about God.
I wonder how our prayer can change our relationship with those we consider neo-Canaanites? There are so many creative ways for us to separate ourselves from others, even when we have something in common with them. It can be difficult to empathize with people whose experience or practices are different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not an issue in our home or neighborhood, if it does not impact our people, then we are tempted to dismiss complaints as unwelcome and unjustifiable noise. And yet the truth is that what impacts another human impacts each of us. What harms or benefits someone else’s child harms or benefits my child. Like the Canaanites and the children of Israel, we are all foundationally connected to God and to one another.