Monday, 22 August 2011

The Canaanite Woman - a study in dogged persistance

The Gospel story that was last week's lectionary reading is an interesting one. It tells of an encounter that took place between Jesus, the disciples and a Canaanite woman, as Jesus was near the borders of the Gentile lands of Tyre and Sidon. The unnamed woman has come out from her own land to seek Jesus’ help. Initially repulsed both by Jesus and the disciples, she remains undeterred and demands their attention.

We felt that this story was best explored as a dialogue, so this blog invites you on an imaginative journey, which we hope will lead you to think about the story from a different perspective, to engage with different assumptions, and perhaps lead you to different conclusions. We are going to offer you the opportunity to listen in to a conversation about what might have happened that day when Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman.

We will not be listening directly to the conversation between Jesus and the woman—although it will figure in the discussion that takes place. Instead, we will be eavesdropping on a conversation between an acquaintance of the woman, Tamar, a servant in a Jewish Christian household, and a relative of one of the followers of Jesus, known as Baruch.

Baruch and Tamar are somewhat different people. Tamar is a Canaanite, from the land of Canaan which was taken over by the Israelites who conquered its original inhabitants. Baruch is an Israelite who has become a follower of Jesus, and who has heard a version of the story from his cousin Zebedee. They have accidentally met up in one of the Palestinian market places and have been drawn into a conversation about Jesus’ latest miracle.

So now, please imagine yourself watching this scene.

B: Have you heard of the latest miracle performed by our Lord? Why, he healed the daughter of a Canaanite – and by long distance! A truly remarkable feat.

T: Can I enquire as to the details of this miracle, Baruch? I believe I may have some knowledge and understanding of it.

B: I will tell you what I have heard. She was an unaccompanied Canaanite woman – a woman without a male relative! I ask you, do these Canaanites have no sense of decorum or decency? She came crying after Jesus and his disciples, all alone, no male to chaperone her, demanding that he heal her daughter. Such presumption!

T: Now just a minute. I object to you pronouncing the word ‘Canaanite’ as if these people were a nasty plague of insects. I also do not think you appreciate the desperation of a loving mother, worried about the condition of her child.

B: If this Canaanite woman was a decent woman, she would have approached Jesus with her husband, let him do the talking, and remained quiet, eyes down and head bent. But no, she made a complete spectacle of herself.

T: I think you are embellishing the facts, don’t you agree? Perhaps this woman was widowed, or perhaps her husband did not want to beg a favour of a Jew – after all, it was the Jews who drove many of the Canaanites from their traditional homelands.

B: You must know that Canaan was the land that God promised to the Israelite people. It was foreordained that the Canaanites would have to relinquish it. And rightly so. Just look at some of the dreadful practices they had – worshipping strange gods, boiling baby goats in their mother’s milk – disgusting! All of this stopped when Israel took over the land.

T: I believe you are exaggerating – both about their practices and whether Israel indeed stopped them. But what right do you have to use this ancient history to belittle the woman we are speaking about? Whatever her ancestors did or didn’t do, it was hardly her fault.

B: I disagree. We all know these things can be passed down from generation to generation. And I reiterate – what was she doing running around alone on the public roadways crying after strange men? And a why would a Canaanite seek help from their Jewish conquerors like that?

T: I believe you know the answer to that. She understood that Jesus was a healer, someone special. I heard she called him “Lord”.

B: Well, there is that. I suppose his fame and reputation had spread even into Tyre and Sidon. But this is no excuse for her behaviour, and she must have known that the Messiah was to come only to the Jews! There is no mention that he was to help Canaanites.

T: I have heard that he made that abundantly clear to the woman – and called her names. I thought a Messiah was meant to love everyone, not to mention have some sympathy with a race that had originally shared a homeland.

B: Nonsense. The Messiah was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel – everyone knows that. And a lone woman shrieking like a mad thing out in public – she deserved to be called names! And for presuming to quarrel with our Lord.

T: Don’t you think calling someone “dog” is rather insulting? Even if it is the Lord who says so? And as the Canaanites were killed or were hustled out of their land by God’s orders, I would think that it is time to make some amends to them. Why shouldn’t the Messiah share the love around a bit? And what would you do if your daughter was gravely ill, possibly possessed by a demon? Wouldn’t you make the effort to seek out help from the one person you thought might really be able to do something? What would you be prepared to do to make your children well? Maybe she was right to quarrel with Jesus.

B: Hmmmmm, I see your point. Of course we all want what is best for our children. And the scriptures do occasionally say that God is indeed the God of other people. But you must admit that she behaved in a somewhat irregular way.

T: I am admitting nothing of the sort. This poor woman goes in search for help for her daughter, and she is told to go away, she is scorned for not being a Jew, and called a dog into the bargain. It seems to me that Jesus and the disciples left themselves open for criticism. It is to her credit that she persisted with such a rude lot.

B: You are not telling the whole story. She was helped by Jesus. In fact, I think you are exaggerating what happened.

T: Am I? Let me recap as I heard this story. The woman called Jesus ‘Lord’, and asked for help. The disciples ignored her, and wanted her sent away. So Jesus tells her that he is sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. He then informs her that this is because it is wrong to take bread from the children (that is, the Jews) and throw it to the dogs (that is, the Canaanites). Are you honestly telling me she did not have a right to feel rather insulted?

B: (reservedly) Well, I suppose when you put it that way, you have a point. But still, a woman alone in public, crying out – I am not sure about this at all.

T: Then let me put it another way. If Jesus decided that after all, she had a case, and he decided to help her, then what is your problem? Just put yourself in the place of us women. We live in a world where we have little say about what happens in our lives. What is a woman meant to do if her husband dies or neglects her? What if she has no male to care for her? Remember what the law says about caring for widows and the oppressed. Baruch, you place great value in these laws, don’t you? So surely you should be prepared to some sympathy to this woman?

B: I am not entirely convinced. She must have been some sort of outcast to behave that way.

T: If Jesus decided not to judge her, why should you? After all, when he did engage her in conversation, he accepted her argument as the right one and healed her daughter. I have also heard that he called her faith ‘great’.

B: Are you sure? I heard that he said to her that her saying was clever, and for that her daughter was healed. Why would Jesus commend the faith of a Canaanite woman?

T: Well, he did. And I believe that once she had convinced him that her faith was sound, he was making a point to those men in the Jewish faith who didn’t believe. You know, if even a Canaanite woman believes I am the Messiah, then surely those who teach the Law should believe this too. After all, they should know the prophecies and scripture that point to Jesus.

B: I grant you that this meeting between Jesus and the woman of Canaan was rather unusual. There may have been extenuating circumstances. But you must understand that in Jewish custom, men normally only speak to women in public like that if they are related by blood. No wonder Jesus acted the way he did in the first instance.

T: Men are so quick to judge! They have to be argued into a reasonable frame of mind. And even in this rather unusual situation, Jesus did not shame her for being a woman. His quarrel with her was the fact she was not an Israelite. You Jews are so exclusive!

B: But he did concede the argument to her.

T: Are you saying then that she changed Jesus’ mind?

B: I suppose I am. I guess she must have been someone pretty special.

T: Yes, indeed. This woman stuck to her beliefs. She was dogged, she was persistent, she was not going to be ground down by rudeness or by being pushed to the side. Why, she is like the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, who dared to defy Pharaoh. Or Moses’ mother and sister, who persisted in their quest to save him. There is great power in the way that this woman acted.

B: She took quite a risk, then, in acting like this.

T: Indeed she did. But remember – she was someone pretty special. It is an interesting point, isn’t it? Some people I have heard speaking about Jesus tend to claim that he is always the one who was right; that he will always persuade the other person, always win the debate. But in this instance, it is the woman who seems to be the one who speaks the deepest truth, and she comes out as the victor. In the end, Jesus admits that she is right, and he grants her request. Perhaps Jesus was the one who was transformed. So that doesn’t suggest a woman who is an outcast, does it? It suggests a woman brimming over with wisdom and spirit!

B: Well, it is clear that Jesus was affected by her. And I guess it follows that this must be good news for all of those people who aren’t Jews, but who want to follow Jesus.

T: Ah, now I think you are on to something. If the Messiah allows himself to be transformed, just think; if we emulate this, then we could transform our world, not just our two peoples. Think of it. The Canaanite woman was despised by Israel, whose ancestors took over their land. So the way that the disciples and Jesus responded to her at first, was simply the customary way. Such a response perpetuates resentment and hatred that then runs from people to people, from generation to generation.

B: Yes, I can see that humiliation, resentment, and violence have been passed down by people who do not stop to think that things may have changed, that there may be a better way. Jesus, with his final acceptance of the woman and his gift of healing, has set aside these conventions of ethnic hatred. In his final words, he treats the woman as one of the faithful, and opens up the way for all of us to do the same.

T: Now Baruch, I do confess that I hear something of the prophet in you now.

B: A prophet? Me?

T: Yes – you, even if I confess this somewhat reluctantly. I thought that Jesus was wrong in his initial statement to the woman; but I can see that his final words and his act of healing show he really does have an unconventional attitude and behavior towards those normally despised. That appeals to me, for it is this sort of attitude that can heal these historical rifts and create community. When we are dealing with Jesus, we should expect the unexpected. And I like the relationship with God that this story implies. Israel is not the only nation loved by God – all people are God’s children.

B: Imagine – a whole town full of people who could do that – who could reach out to each other in love and acceptance. Who could, in spite of a long history of enmity between them, accept that they are all equally loved by God, and that their faith and worship could be shared and celebrated together. This is indeed a miracle. What is to stop it happening now?

And I can see that this story symbolizes so much. When we are in trouble, the natural thing to do is to reach out for help from God. This simple act of asking for help should not be a problem. Why is it that we all just cannot talk to one another and help one another? Why is it that race or gender or religion should determine how we treat each other?

T: Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to step back from our own prejudices, and try to see the world as others see it, we might all live life in the way that God intended. Like the Canaanite woman, we all need to acknowledge that we can come, just as we are, before God. We can put aside what other people think about us, and what we think about other people, and simply speak directly and honestly to God. And in this way, we can become the vessel for the good news, and spread it out to everyone around us. Our world needs such honesty – and such persistence.

As we leave this discussion and return to the present time, let us think about how it touches us in the twenty-first century.

Every one of us can be caught in the familiar and well-worn patterns of our lives. We know what we think about certain issues; we know what we think about certain people. And sometimes, what we think can be judgemental; we can, condemn people without a fair trial, we can determine our attitudes without weighing up all the factors. In the familiarity of our lives, we can perhaps breed contempt all too easily.

This Gospel story provides us with a clear role model – an unexpected picture of Jesus, confronting a woman who acts out of character, who transgresses the rules of behaviour for her day, and who provokes Jesus into seeing things differently, and valuing the other person in a new way. It is an important reminder to us, never to be so settled, so comfortable, that we are incapable of changing our mind or revising our opinion. Because in the story, that is precisely what Jesus did.

The Gospel story also provides us with a role model of faithful discipleship, in the woman who had such a deep-seated need that she was not constrained by propriety, and she acted in ways that she might once have thought inconceivable. What does it mean for us to live as faithful followers of Jesus? How are we called to live out our beliefs, to put into practice our ideals, to travel along the path that we are called to follow?

Today there are voices that want us to think that the foreigner is a threat – a problem to be kept away, a danger to be avoided. There are voices that press us to toe the line and follow the well-worn conventions of society. There are voices that invite us to remain comfortable, settled, and unchanging. But the path of discipleship invites us into a risky adventure and beckons us into an uncertain future. With a sense of excitement, we are called to follow.

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