Over 20 years ago, I was serving a small, rural church in western Wisconsin. This was my first experience as a solo pastor in a church setting. In one of the first months I was there, a gentleman and his wife approached me minutes before worship was to begin because they needed to talk with me. I sat down with them and the man proceeded to tell me that he and his wife were going to continue coming to this church because they did not believe in “forsaking the fellowship” but that when I would get up to preach, they would leave. He said he was not able to be taught by a woman from the pulpit. I looked over at his wife wondering if she would speak but she had her eyes looking down toward her lap, never once looking at me. It was a troubling moment indeed and I don’t recall saying anything except that I needed to get into worship. This wasn’t the first time I was told or the first time I felt less valued in a ministry role simply because of my gender.
This passage from Scripture gives us an example of how difficult it is sometimes to be heard because of preconceived notions and biases, but it also provides a perfect example of God’s eternal message of radical love for all. In the story, the good news is that the Canaanite woman, after much convincing, is finally heard by Jesus. Yet what I find ironic is how down through the centuries people have continued to diminish this woman’s voice and the power of this story by trying to explain away Jesus’ rude behavior. This depiction of Jesus is certainly unflattering if not downright disturbing. Therefore, there has always been an attempt to justify Jesus’ behavior. The most common justification people give and what I had understood to be true is that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith. Jesus had to have known that the gospel message was for all people—so he was just giving this woman a chance to prove to him that she had faith. Now maybe Jesus would test the faith of a self-righteous person of power and entitlement in this way but it seems strange that Jesus would do this to a desperate mother whose child was being tormented. It wasn’t until I got to seminary when I heard our Hebrew Bible teacher offer a different explanation of this story and I’d have to say I was blown away! He shared that this woman most likely helped to change Jesus’ mind and after this, the message of God’s radical love spread to all people, not just the people of Israel. That was a lot to chew on!
As we dig into this scene a bit more, we see that there is a fair amount of chaos unfolding. Here is this outsider woman, filled with desperation because her daughter is very ill, and she starts to shout at Jesus. Jesus ignores her plea which I can only imagine drove this woman further into desperation. Along come the disciples who don’t like what they are seeing and hearing and beg Jesus to forget about this woman. Why? Because the disciples don’t like that she is shouting at them.
The woman hears Jesus response “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, you are not one of my kind. This does not stop the woman. She drops before Jesus, begging for help. Now he doesn’t just refuse to help her, Jesus likens her to a dog. This has moved into the realm of personal attacks. Certainly we know that women had no status in the ancient world and this response from Jesus would not have been the first time this woman would have been treated this way. She would not have been surprised by this comment. But what I notice with this woman is that she did not allow this personal attack by Jesus to derail her. She did not respond with revenge and hurl back an insult to Jesus. She stayed focused on what she knew to be true—her daughter was very ill, and Jesus had the ability to heal her. This woman also knew that the healing ministry and message of the radical love of God was large enough for everyone. And because she knew this, she was able to operate from a spirit of forgiveness rather than judgement, which helped to ignite Jesus’ imagination with this understanding of God’s inclusive, wholistic movement of love in the world. This double outsider, with no status and no name invites Jesus to move, to change, to grow, to see wholeness beyond his male privilege and his cultural and religious group.
Now we don’t read anything about this woman after this event. We don’t hear from her again. But I do wonder what happened next? I’d like to think nothing extraordinary—except for the fact that both this woman and Jesus moved on. They both stepped more fully into the new realm of God’s inclusive and radical love. They lived from a spirit of forgiveness and grace; and tried as best they could even with life’s greatest challenges to live from this new place.
This story challenges me to step into faith and into maturity. As a woman, trying to be heard is sometimes very difficult but staying true to my values and beliefs rather than react negatively when I feel unheard or even worse personally attacked, is a life-long challenge. Also, I learn something from Jesus in this story. As much as I want to shout about all the times I’ve been devalued and disregarded as a woman in ministry, I quickly remember that I, too, have blinders on that have kept me from listening to others and extending God’s generous love to them.
A sobering reminder of this came to me on Christmas day a few years ago. We were at my parent’s house for Christmas dinner. When we arrived, we were introduced to a surprise guest–my stepmother’s dad who I had never met before. Even though my dad and stepmom married in 1970, we never once visited my stepmom’s parents and they never visited us. What was the most troubling to me was that they had no relationship with Todd, my youngest brother, who was their biological grandson. This cut-off from my stepmom’s side of the family and the secrets around the cut-off made me angry. And there on Christmas day all of these feelings rose to the surface with no advance warning. Because I felt my anger to be justified, I chose not to be friendly toward him. I didn’t like that we were all pretending that things were normal and fine. Even though he was very sweet and joyful, I had no desire to be generous toward him. My dad, on the other hand, was very welcoming toward him. They sat down at the dinner table together and talked and talked. I was confused by dad’s behavior so later that day I shared with him my frustration about our stepmom’s father showing up for Christmas dinner—never meeting him before that day. And dad said to me “Tam, this is just the way it is.” Dad was basically saying that life is hard, and there are many reasons why people do what they do. Dad was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—that he was doing the best he could in the circumstances that he was living in.
My dad’s vision to offer a generous welcome to a man who had been cut off from our family for decades was a far more generous vision than I had. I recognized how my sense of self-righteousness and indignation did nothing to help bridge the cut off that existed with this man. The blinders I was operating from that day all centered on seeking revenge—treating my step-grandfather the way he treated me. I wanted to continue the cycle of violence by excluding, ignoring, and denying welcome to him.
Dad was my teacher that day—he opened my imagination as to how to offer welcome and genuine hospitality to others, especially to those I had deemed not deserving of such a welcome. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to visit with my stepmom’s father again. He died not long after his visit to our house on Christmas day.
I offer three lessons from this story. The first one is the lesson of being heard. The Canaanite woman does a remarkable job of operating from her internal values and beliefs and speaks truth in love to Jesus. Her voice is heard. Secondly, Jesus is challenged to acknowledge, listen, and change. And third, both Jesus and this remarkable woman of courage and faith move on, opening themselves up to the transforming power of God’s love and acceptance and offering that to the world. Amen.
Prayer of Response by Jen Walker and Emily Lloyd
Thank you God, for our nature as humans to connect with other humans through the power of their voices and stories. May we be committed to listening deeply and responding with compassion in love, even if we get it wrong the first time. Thank you for the example of Jesus in his human-ness, showing that when you mess it up one time or more than one time, it’s not too late to listen and be changed with this deep and transformative love. Thank you God, for our voices and the ability to express complex emotions, thoughts, feelings, and needs. Thank you for our perseverance as a community of love, justice, and acceptance that will always speak up.
May this story nudge us to listen more often to the voices of people who we may be too quick to brush aside, which might be those who have the most to lose within the current hierarchy. Knowing God’s promise that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, let us be part of helping to bring this kingdom into the world, through listening and acting with love, compassion and forgiveness, as Jesus taught us. May we never stop using our voices to be heard, even in our darkest moments when the obstacles seem insurmountable. In this season of Lent, where our focus is to see and been seen: to know and be known, let us also seek to speak and be heard, not only with our voices but with what is in our hearts.