Have you ever felt as desperate as the Caananite woman in today’s gospel? Emotions seem to explode from us when we’re desperate. We’ve all seen pictures on the television of women and men wailing with grief over their children slaughtered in a bomb attack in the Middle East. They often collapse in unbearable pain over the bodies of their precious children. We’ve also see almost desperate happiness. Again, emotions physically explode in tears and dancing when an almost hopeless situation turns out right. Remember the flood of joy and relief when the men trapped in the Chilean mine were rescued? It was so different from the desperate sadness of the families who heard their loved ones had died in the West Virginia mine.
Desperate situations seem to make an outward show of emotion acceptable. When we’re surprised by events – death, new life, rescue, fear – we let ourselves go. Usually others around us or those witnessing an event on TV understand why people are suddenly acting differently.
But isn’t it interesting that we often also feel uncomfortable with a show of emotion? How often have we heard the words, “You’ll get over it,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip,” or “Don’t cry, it was only a dog”?
Somehow, our Western culture especially has evolved to a place where keeping it all inside is best. We don’t want to make others uncomfortable, even when we’re being torn apart inside.
Listen to the disciples in today’s gospel reading: “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us!”
The Caananite woman had a very sick daughter. What loving mother can bear to see her child in any kind of pain? And this woman was desperate. She was desperate enough to break many of that culture’s rules concerning encounters between women and men. She shouted not only at a man, but at someone special. But she not only shouted, she threw herself at his feet when he ignored her. But she not only did that – she argued with Jesus. She put herself in danger of severe consequences. Her desperation overcame her fear. Her concern for her daughter made her emotional! It’s easy for us to say, “Yes, yes, good for her!” But what might we have wanted to say to her if we’d been there?
Jesus isn’t at his “good old helpful Jesus” best today. He’d just been teaching about how people relate to others. He was very cleverly sticking it to those Pharisees who commanded the people to keep every law fastidiously while they themselves were – remember Jesus saying this – “whitened sepulchers.” Some Pharisees were less than good examples to their people, leading fairly self-centered lives, while demanding other people live very controlled lives. So Jesus is saying, it’s much more important to consider how you use words, how you speak to others, how you praise God, than to think only about what you put into your mouth. What comes out of the mouth builds up or tears down.
And God bless Peter! “What do you mean?” he asks.
Jesus reminds him that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. To the Jew, the heart is life. What we say can be life-giving or destructive. This isn’t news to us. So, we see Jesus being very frustrated in this passage. His followers don’t seem to understand. The Pharisees who were trying to trip him up were deliberately not getting it. And so, we’d imagine that when he got the chance to demonstrate, Jesus would immediately be helpful to this woman.
We’re surprised when he first ignores her, and then seems not only to ignore his own teaching, but he is rude to her. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” What? Isn’t the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus said so himself.
Several things are going on here. We realize, first, that Jesus doesn’t seem bothered that the woman is shouting. It’s the disciples who are uncomfortable. They don’t want to be bothered by an emotional woman breaking the rules, demanding help. Jesus makes no comment about that at all. We certainly can’t presume ever to know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment in that time, but perhaps this is an example to us that her emotion and desperation were perfectly understandable and proper. What Jesus seems to point to is his own mission. He’s done this kind of thing before. Remember the wedding feast at Cana? His mother wants him to help out the wedding couple. “They have no wine,” she says. “What’s that to me, it’s not my time,” Jesus replies. Not quite the way we might expect him to answer his mother. But he reacts by expanding his ministry perhaps a little early.
Here, he is first mindful of his mission to the Jews, the first of God’s chosen people. This woman is pushing the boundaries. She’s a Caananite, not of the family. Like Jesus’ own mother, this woman knows he can help her. Jesus very well may have been impressed with her persistence, and he pushes just a bit. “It’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” How typical of that time. The Caananites were considered less than respectable by the Jews. But is it typical only of that time? Here’s another lesson this passage teaches us. How have we considered the “other” in our own cultures? If we’re honest, there are those we consider less than dogs today.
But this Caananite woman is not only desperate, she’s fearless. “Even the dogs get the crumbs on the floor.” A Pharisee might have slapped her down for that remark, but Jesus seems finally to get by his own frustration and see her as a woman of faith. Once again he expands his mission and breaks down a barrier to accept and include a non-Jew. This is a big step for him. Matthew is showing us how Jesus’ mission and ministry is growing, tearing down centuries old boundaries, and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. In both instances, Cana and the need of this woman, Jesus responds to the marginalized. In these cases, to women, but there will be many more – the blind, the crippled, children, outcasts of all kinds. Our first reaction to Jesus’ seeming rudeness is turned to an understanding of what he knows is happening. Jesus seems to enjoy fearless people who aren’t afraid to engage him on human levels of love and emotion.
So what can we learn about ourselves here? Several things come to mind. The obvious lesson is to ask ourselves, whom do we accept as our neighbor? Do we still harbor in our hearts signs of racism? Whom do we think of as less than dogs? Living in our current culture of fear is hard. We’re bombarded with images and words coming out of some of our own leaders’ mouths that put the fear of the “other” into our hearts. Jesus might remind us,“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Today we have a lot to think about when we consider this.
Another thing we might learn from today’s passage is a simple thing. Emotions are a gift to us from God. We might consider how we react when we’re faced with either our own or others’ expressions of emotion. Do our own cultural boundaries cause us to keep it all in or expect others to do the same? Can we imagine ourselves ever allowing someone to share a real depth of emotion with us, or are we too quick to shut them down too?
We’re missing something if we don’t allow ourselves to be free. The Dalai Lama offers this wonderful saying: “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be.” This is exactly what Jesus shows us today.
Would that Jesus could say to each of us today, “Great is your faith! Great is your love.”