(Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.21-28)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mercy. It’s a big thing in the Bible.
“GOD be merciful unto us, and bless us” (Psalm 67.1)
“Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them.…” (Isaiah 55.7)
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10.36-37)
Jesus lived out that mercy. You may wonder how that fits with our Gospel passage. It is certainly a passage we have to wrestle with. The Canaanite woman demands mercy and Jesus seemingly rebuffs her, but she wittily replies, persuades him to act, and so her daughter is healed. Recent biblical criticism has even suggested that Jesus was racist, and the Canaanite woman had to teach Jesus how to be more inclusive.
But racism is a sin, and let’s remember first and foremost, Jesus was without sin.
Such idea comes when passages from the Bible are taken out of context. If we look at the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, we will see that prior to this event, Jesus had already been healing Gentiles – the Centurion’s servant (Mt 8.5-13) and the Gadarene demoniacs (Mt 8.28-34) being two examples – and he was constantly moving in and out of Jewish territory, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.
So this is not an event about traversing ethnic boundaries, or an excluding Jesus learning to widen his mission.
Instead Matthew’s telling of this event shows a continuation of two themes – faith and mercy. When Jesus spoke to the Centurion, and they discussed authority, Jesus said of the Gentile, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mt 8.10)
And he taught “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Mt 7.7).
Basically, the Canaanite woman was doing just that – showing persistent faith and receiving mercy. In the encounter, she didn’t deny what Jesus says about salvation, but entered into it. However, she started by shouting, a very aggressive position to take against this holy man.
It’s understandable because she’s distressed, but she’s being demanding, ignoring what Jesus is doing or saying to others, being, frankly, rude. Only later does she calm down, and show Jesus respect and act like someone asking, not demanding, mercy.
This reminds me of the incident with the woman caught in adultery, John Chapter 8. I imagine that as a scene where a group of highly agitated elders dragged a struggling woman into where Jesus was teaching. Against their demanding of answers and shouting questions at Jesus, he said nothing but bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. Only when he is ready does he engage with them, and not at all in the way they expected.
Likewise the Canaanite woman’s attitude changed as she knelt and said “Lord, help me”, then goes on to develop Christ’s metaphor which includes herself and her daughter, and does so with respect for the Jews as God’s chosen people of Israel.
Furthermore in Matthew’s recording of the encounter, it’s clear that the disciples were with Jesus. They even wanted to get rid of her, because she was causing a scene. What is more likely than the woman teaching Jesus about inclusivity, is that through the woman, her faith and that continuation of the theme of mercy, Jesus was teaching the disciples about inclusivity.
Their behaviour was being challenged by his earlier teaching of the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7.12) Basically Jesus has getting the disciples to think about that powerful question – ‘who is my neighbour?’ Surely it couldn’t be this woman?
This person of another religion?
This embarrassing, scene-making, desperate mother?
But who is the one who showed persistent faith? It was the Canaanite woman.
And who is the one who showed mercy? It was Jesus.
In Isaiah, God says “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.” (Isaiah 56.1). God wants us to care for the poor and the afflicted. Not just in fine words, but practically.
We have an empty faith if we stand by looking down at a beaten stranger and said ‘Oh, I’m so sorry for you. I shall stand here and pray for you, that you’ll be looked after, and heal quickly.’
What does mercy look like to the injured of Beirut?
To the refugee in a dingy off the cost of Dover?
To those whose lives have forever altered by Covid-19 with its impact on health, education and employment?
Be faithful. Show mercy. Do to your neighbour as you would have them do to you. That is the discipleship of Christianity.
Go and do likewise.
(Artwork: The Woman of Canaan’ by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 17th century)