Sunday, August 14, 2005

Proper 15A: Not taking "no" for an answer

There's at least one in every parish -- a difficult person. In every parish I've served there's been at least one (sometimes two or three) person who comes up to me at the end of every service or drops in to see me on a regular basis who never has a good word to say and is always offended by something I've done or said.

The Canaanite woman in today's gospel reading seems to have been that kind of person. The impression I have of her is that she was loud, pushy, aggressive, and obnoxious. And nobody, including Jesus, seems to have liked her.

The text tells us that she "came out and cried, 'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.'"

Look at this woman from the point of view of Jesus and the disciples. Apparently, they found this woman unpleasant and annoying. Jesus tried to ignore her: "He did not answer her a word." His disciples "begged him, saying, 'Send her away, for she is crying after us.'" Jesus even insulted her, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

But she was unfazed, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

Why did she keep pestering Jesus? I believe that she was driven to this behavior because of three things: she was a woman; she was a Gentile; and she was desperate.

The first century world was dominated by men. In the normal course of things Jesus and his disciples would have had nothing to do with her, would not even have exchanged greetings with her. For a woman to speak to a man without being spoken to first was a serious breach of decorum.

Secondly, as chapter four of John's gospel tells us "Jews have nothing to do with Gentiles". Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite woman; other gospels speak of her as a Syro-Phoenician. She was one of the original inhabitants of the land who had been conquered by the Israelites. She was not even a respectable Gentile, such as the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, she was desperate. Her daughter was possessed by a demon and in desperation she turned to a wandering Jewish miracle worker.

In other words, the woman's behavior was a strategy for getting Jesus' attention.

Do you know anyone like the Canaanite woman? Who are the difficult people in your life? Who are the people that nag you, who are constantly asking for your attention? Who are the people that you try to ignore and wish would go away?

Are there people in our lives who are trying to get our attention? Will they have to take extraordinary measures to get us to hear and respond to them?

Maybe the story of the Canaanite woman should prompt us to listen and watch and learn from those around us. Someone may be trying to say, "I'm hurting; I'm in need. Help me."

Now, Look at her behavior in a different light. Instead of doing what Jesus and the disciples initially did and ignoring her or trying to send her away, think of her behavior as praiseworthy.

She was persistent in the face of discouragement. When Jesus ignored her, she continued to plead for his help. When the disciples wanted to send her away, she came back. When Jesus dismissed her, saying, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs", she ingeniously turned his rebuke to her advantage: "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

It takes real courage and determination to behave as this Canaanite woman. What do we want as badly as this woman wanted healing for her daughter? For what cause or task will we labor persistently day after day, pleading and speaking out? What is that will make us willing to endure being ignored and rebuked?

Many put that kind of courage and determination into their careers. But what if we were willing to be as persistent and outspoken in God's service as this woman was in seeking healing for her daughter? What if we were to divert some of the energy we spend in self-advancement into the advancement of God's kingdom?

In conclusion, I want you to remember two things about this little story. First, be faithful. In the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, how many people do you think Jesus singles out for their faithfulness? Any ideas? Only two. And who do you think they were? Peter? James? John? Mary Magdalene? No, the two persons whose faith Jesus commends were Gentiles: a Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant and this Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. Both of them were outsiders. What do you think Jesus was trying to tell us? Sometimes it’s easier for those on the outside to see the truth and have faith than for those on the inside.

Faith is more than believing. Faith is belief plus behavior. John Wesley said that we are saved by faith alone but not by such a faith as is alone. We are saved by the kind of faith that the Canaanite woman had, a faith that made her willing to push beyond the bounds of propriety.

And that brings me to the second point I want to make. Like the Canaanite woman, be willing to be difficult for God’s sake, for the sake of compassion and justice.

Like her, we are to have compassion for those who suffer, the courage to try to change things that are wrong, persistence in trying to change things, and faith that God can change things. When we seek comfort for those who suffering or relief for those who are oppressed, we are not to take "no" for an answer, even when the “no” comes from the highest human authority and even when the “no” seems to come from God.