So, this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and she has this daughter who is demon possessed.
And she cries out for mercy, she cries in hope. She cries almost hysterically, on behalf of her daughter, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
The agony of her cry expresses the depth of her concern for her own flesh and blood.
Now, for many of us listening to the story nearly 2000 years on the idea of being demon possessed is obscure and maybe even nonsensical.
What was the child’s problem? Some may speculate along the lines of a spiritual warfare, literally a demon, others might consider that she had a mental illness or other intellectual or physical impairment. In the end it is hard for us to say, but I do not think any would question that the child was in a desperate state.
Despite this the mother’s plea seems to fall on deaf ears and I think somewhat surprisingly for us Jesus answer is silence.
Even worse the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, they want to exclude her and banish her problems from their presence.
As horrid as it may sound this would have been quite a reasonable response for Jesus and the disciples to make, to understand why means understanding who the Canaanites were.
There is a story in Genesis found just after Noah has saved his family and the animals on the ark. Noah gets drunk and shames himself by collapsing naked in his tent. His son Ham comes across his dad prostrate on the floor of his tent.
Rather than simply covering him up Ham ducks outside and informs his 2 brothers about his father’s state. They enter the tent and without looking at Noah’s nakedness cover him up.
Now it is a bit of an obscure story but it is important for this encounter. Because what Noah does in response to hearing how Ham had dealt with his nakedness is to curse Ham’s son Canaan.
Canaan and his descendents were to be the lowest of slaves and the history of the Old Testament bears this curse out. The Canaanites were scorned by the Israelites.
This is why when Jesus answers the disciples request his words seem so harsh and uncompromising. He addresses the disciples saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman humbles herself throwing herself on her knees before him she begs for mercy and Jesus responds once again in words which would not be surprising for any Jewish reader of the story.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog.
Abasing herself even further the woman owns the slur of being called a lowly dog and asks for the scraps from the table.
And here is the amazing part of the story Jesus crosses the social and cultural boundaries, he changes his mind and acknowledging her faith and persistence declares that the daughter has been healed.
It is an amazing story of God’s grace and for Matthew it was a pointed story.
Matthew wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus had died and ascended into heaven. By this time in the history of early Christianity a clear split was emerging between the followers of Jesus and the temple authorities.
Some Jews had become followers of Jesus but many had not, where the Christian community was really beginning to grow was in converts outside the Jewish people.
In this there appears to be at least some level of agenda going on in Matthew’s writing. He is demonstrating how in Jesus God had begun reaching out to people outside the inner circle of the chosen people. In fact Jesus was reaching across the boundaries into people whom had traditionally been understood as cursed.
Why is this important to us? Well, for a start it reminds us of God’s concern for us who are not of Jewish heritage and as a reprimand for those of us within the church who might want to behave as if God’s love has any exclusivity about it.
But what happens when we push our understanding deeper in this story and begin to unpack some of the symbolism of what is going in the characters in the story.
Obviously in the story Jesus is clearly understood as unique in his authority over the situation that is occurring, the demon possession. God has authority over all things under heaven and earth.
But what if we see the woman in the story symbolically? What if she actually represents Jesus presence in the world?
Does not Jesus come into the world pleading on the world’s behalf for the healing of the world and its people? He reaches out and lifts people from the predicaments that have interrupted their existence: teaching, healing, casting out demons, bringing hope.
Like the woman Jesus intercedes for we who are demon possessed.
Now I use that phrase quite liberally, not literally. For if demon possession is about those things which rob us of our humanity and of our lives then we as people experience that. We are like the daughter and we need help.
I think about the week that has passed and I have engaged in personal stories of pain and illness and immersed in global situations that are staggering in scope.
How do we deal with situations of personal pain and illness and conflict in our lives? What drives people to the brink of rioting? How do we come to a situation that in a world where there is enough food to go around millions are starving in the horn of Africa? At what point did we as people who understand and have a heritage of being dispossessed and being strangers in a strange land come to treat other refugees with such inhumanity?
The cursed woman is the Jesus who begs for mercy and for healing for us.
The healing of the girl is utter grace. She does nothing to deserve it. She does nothing to earn it. It is not her faith. It is not her belief. The woman pleads on her behalf and God acts and she is healed. This is the deepest expression of our Christian hope. That God will help us because Jesus pleads on our behalf. This may seem confusing at times when we cry out to God for healing for ourselves or for others and the answer appears to be silence.
Yet is not Jesus also in the child: Jesus who shares our human existence and suffers the depravation of dignity and darkness of Calvary – dying alongside us, as one us. The worst that can happen to any of us, the demon of death, God in Jesus experiences!
And healing occurs. Resurrection! Life beyond death! Hope beyond the realms of our thinking and possibilities. The demon of death is defeated. The demons we may experience in life and in the spectre of death are not the final word of our existence – the resurrection of Jesus is!
This is the message of grace that we as the church celebrate and we are drawn into living again as God’s people, no longer cursed by demons we are drawn like the disciples into following Jesus. As Jesus followers we participate in his mission and his ministry as a celebration of that self giving love for us.
We become the woman with Jesus, we cry out for others who are experiencing demons in their lives. We cry for justice, for peace, for healing. It is a fundamental aspect of our gathering together in worship to do this. We intercede for those who long for healing and hope – we pray against the hopeless and helplessness we feel and we like the woman persist for the sake of the daughters and our sons of all peoples.
But here too we are reminded of the Spirit poured out on the disciples long ago and on us now. This is the Spirit that empowers us not simply to be recipients of that unconditional grace, not only the women crying out but also bearers of grace and hope empowered to act in the world. Here we are reminded that we have within our grasped the means by which we can change the lives of others.
We are to use our wealth generously in helping others, to reach out to the suffering ones, to give of our time, to live sustainably, to bring healing and hope. To witness in word and action that the grace we have found is available for all others and even when we are suffering and afflicted by the demons that may beset us in our lives to hold on to the resurrection hope – that death is not the final word.
The good news is that Jesus reaches out and heals a girl, a girl who had not done anything in and of herself to pursue that healing. She receives the gift of a new chance and new life and is restored to her mother and her community.
This is our story, it is my story and it is your story, that Jesus has reached into our lives which just such a grace. So receive this good news and live it so that others might rejoice and share in the hope we have.
Photo Creative commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/saoriweaver/with/2168000754/