This is one in a series of reflections under the title ‘Classic gospel stories’. It followed a reading of Matthew 15:21-28 and was first delivered in Hardwick and Dry Drayton churches in their communion services on 20 August 2017. This particular Sunday followed a week in which neo-Nazi demonstrators clashed violently with others in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a terrorist suicide bomber killed a number of civilians in Spain.
This is an interesting story in our series of classic gospel stories as told in Matthew’s gospel. Most recently, we’ve had the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 under the title: ‘Jesus took five loaves and two fishes…’, and we’ve had the story of walking on water under the title: ‘So Peter got out of the boat…’. Today we have the, perhaps less well known story of Jesus’ conversation with a Caananite woman under the title: ‘She knelt saying: “Lord, help me…”’.
Jesus and at least some of his disciples are out and about and they meet a local woman, a non-Jew. She is following the group and annoying them by repeatedly calling out “Lord, Son of David help me”. Jesus says nothing at this point but his disciples don’t want her around. They are shocked and perhaps a little scandalized at her assertiveness – a foreigner and a woman directly addressing them in the street! At the very least she is a distraction, at the worst she will attract finger pointers and scandalmonger. “Jesus, you have to get rid of her”, they say, “send her away”. But Jesus stops and begins this enigmatic and unusual exchange with the unnamed woman.
She is nothing if not persistent: once Jesus has stopped walking she takes the opportunity to kneel, and says: “Lord, help me!” Jesus speaks to her and she replies, calling him ‘Lord’ a third time, and engaging seriously i dialogue. And at last Jesus commends her faith, healing her daughter.
This is a story of interruptions, boundaries and abundance. Any one of these might be something for you to reflect upon. So here are thoughts and some questions about each in this story.
Dealing with interruptions
Firstly, how are you with interruptions? Sometimes I can get so intent on a particular idea or timetable or plan, that when someone interrupts with another idea or something I have not thought of, my initial reaction is one of annoyance. Like when I have carefully planned and shopped for the evening meal for based on who I think is going to be around and the time I have available to cook, and Ben says, “Oh by the way, Mum, I’ve invited a few friends round this evening, they’ll need to eat something, is that OK?” Of course, the answer to that kind of disruption is a deep breath, regroup and adapt and order pizza!
How are you with interruptions? Particularly when the interruption might be something from God?
This woman was God’s interruption of the course of things expected by the disciples. This woman interrupted the disciples and Jesus and whatever they were doing. And, as a woman and a non-Jew she interrupted the usual way of doing things, interrupted the accepted cultural norms. And the disciples’ reaction was ‘Send her away…’.
This woman was one of God’s interruptions to the expectation of the Messiah being limited to the Jewish people. She is part of that repeated nudge of God’s mission being extended out to all the nations. Becoming explicit at the end of Matthew’s gospel with Jesus’ command to ‘go make disciples of all nations…’.
For the Biblical scholars amongst us, you might also want to note a couple of other things that Matthew highlights as he reinforces this point. He calls her a Caananite woman. Caananite was an obsolete term in Jesus’ day, it belongs to the stories of the Old Testament. So why did Matthew use it? Scholars think it might be because he us to make the link between this woman and other non-Jewish women in those ancient biblical stories. Stories of women like Rahab and Ruth, also outsiders, and also God’s interruptions into what might be a more expected scheme of things. Matthew’s gospel remember begins with the genealogy a list of names and narrative links, which includes several unexpected interjections, where the path of the story of God’s people jumps forward because of a God-given interruption from an outside who was listened to and not sent away. (Baukham, Gospel Women, p43-45).
The lesson for us, of course, is to sit lightly to the accustomed ways of doing things, to our plans and expectations, so that we can watch out for the interruption sent from God, whether into our own lives, our families lives, our work lives, or our church life. Will we move beyond our first reaction of “Send him/her/it away”, and so that we can listen and learn and adapt?
Crossing boundaries and ‘the power of boundary-crossing faith’ (Gench, Back to the Well, p12)
In approaching Jesus, the Caananite woman crossed the boundary of the accepted way of doing things and not just that, but social boundaries too, most obviously of gender and race. Here was faith in Jesus in an unexpected place. She calls him Son of David, she calls him Lord three times. She kneels before him – and Matthew uses a word for kneeling in worship. What right had she a non-Jew and a woman to revere Jesus in a way that even the disciples hesitated to? Here was deep faith from someone outside the boundary, who could not be called ‘one of us’ by the official disciples of Jesus.
The tendency to separate other human beings, even our neighbours, into ‘one of us’ and ‘not one of us’, is such an easy trap to fall into. So many of the worlds ills – from loneliness to terrorism – are born of them-and-us boundaries. At one end of the extreme, look at Charlottesville; look at the incidents in Spain – boundaries of race and faith; in the UK look at the UKIP-type responses to immigrants. But when ‘we, as people of Christ, stick to the pattern of divine mercy, which is blind mercy, [we ignore expected boundaries], we reverse a pattern of exclusion’. (Gensch, Back to the Well, p20). Of course, it doesn’t solve the complicated problems of resources, but it means we remember as a first principle our common humanity under God. Is there an ethical and political principle to explore here, I wonder?
We are often more comfortable in church as elsewhere with those who we see as ‘one of us’, but faith does not know those boundaries. Tellingly, the only two people commended for their great faith in Matthew’s gospel are the Roman centurion and this Canaanite woman – both foreigners, both outsiders to the official people of God: the centurion from the occupying power of Rome, and this woman from the indigenous pagan population (Baukham, Gospel Women, p45). And this woman had to fight for her voice of faith to be heard. Who, I wonder, are the outsiders in our community? Who are on our margins? Who are the voices that we don’t usually hear? Is it the loners or lonely? Those who live with depression or other forms of mental illness? Is it those with a different educational background to us? Those who don’t have the same cultural norms as we do? And what if among them are those who are being commended for their great faith, and we are missing it?
As a brief aside, I am interested that Matthew portrays this woman as publicly using words of worship (calling Jesus Lord) and engaging in intellectual, theological debate. Beyond the parish, I am aware of still being part of an institution in which we have intentionally to make sure that women’s voices are valued in more senior and strategic roles. But at a parish level, and if we are talking about gender marginalisation, I think we have to ask ourselves whether men feel like outsiders in church life and if so why?
God works as often outside of the boundaries as within them, something we would do well to remember. Where do we as a faith community have a role to play in crossing or dismantling boundaries?
A sense of abundance
And finally some thoughts about abundance. This story comes not long after the feeding of the 5,000 with all the leftovers, and not long before the feeding of the 4,000, also with lots of leftovers, so it perhaps makes sense that this conversation in between is using the metaphor of bread. It becomes clear in the dialogue between Jesus and the woman, and echoing the feeding of the 5,000 that ‘so lavish are God’s blessings and the abundance of God’s table that even after the children are fed, enough bread remains for all.’ (Gensch, Back to the Well, p12).
This is ‘abundance thinking’, recognising ‘God’s eternal and limitless capacity to give’, (Cherry, The Barefoot Disciple, p140), ‘his expansive resourcefulness and endless generosity’ (p139). Think also of the water turned into wine at the wedding at Cana, the endless supply of living water offered to the Samaritan women at the well. (These are ideas explored in much greater depth in Sam Wells’ book, ‘God’s Companions’).
‘Abundance thinking’, ‘abundance theology’ says that God gives us all that we truly need to worship him and all that we need to fulfil the tasks and the mission to which he calls us. It would be a cruel trick if he didn’t, if we believe that he has done the calling and inspiring, though we might not have spotted everything he has given us for the task ahead just yet.
However, ‘the life of the church on the ground in parishes and dioceses, [some argue], is more likely to be animated by a different train of thought, what we might call scarcity thinking’ – ‘the kind of thinking that is convinced that there is not enough resource to do all that we can, should or could… the kind of thinking that responds to a great idea with a heavy heart, [saying]: ‘if only things were different, then we would do it;’” the kind of thinking that that sets the boundaries to protect what we have because of a fear that there is not enough to share (Cherry, The Barefoot Disciple, p140). Where, I wonder, do we need to shift our thinking? How is God calling us to be church here? Because I believe he will give us all we need to fulfil that calling.
Abundance thinking also recognises that the abundance of God’s table is for all who come, even those who feel unworthy or on the outside. To God you are neither, and this table, this place, this worship, this community, and the healing that comes from Jesus are for you.
So a few reflections from the story of Jesus and the Caananite woman – on dealing with God’s interruptions, on the power of boundary crossing faith, and on the implications of actual abundance. Choose what you would like to muse on further…
F. Taylor Gench; Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels
R. Baukham; Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels
S Cherry; Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility
S Wells; God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics