The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The district of Tyre and Sidon, where today’s Gospel account takes place, is a borderland; it’s a place of transition. On a geographic level, this is a place where the people of Israel give way to a more Canaanite population. It’s a place where there is an interchange of ideas--not necessarily a pleasant interchange, as we shall see--but an exchange of ideas which changes lives--for the better. This is a place of dialogue between two disparate groups--in this case, a Jewish man, Jesus and a Canaanite woman who refuses to take “no” for an answer.
So, here’s to the bold and brash women among us! Consider the situation. This woman is both a Canaanite (a pagan) and a woman. It’s a double whammy for certain. What’s more, she’s not afraid to confront Jesus. He’s in her neighborhood, after all, and she is facing a desperate situation, a daughter who needs to be healed.
The gospel tells us that this woman begins by shouting and is met with silence. Jesus’s disciples cannot help but hear the woman, and, in a manner which sounds suspiciously like whining, go to Our Lord and say: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And Jesus says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It’s a curious statement--almost as if Jesus is wondering what this uncomfortable encounter portends. The woman, meanwhile, is not going away--and she has no intention of being quiet. She kneels before Jesus (the word, “kneel”, by the way, is Matthew’s code-word for worshipped). What we learn is that this woman might be a pagan, but she knows things--she knows things about Judaism, and she knows something about Jesus--and she believes in him. At the very least, she believes he can help her and her daughter. And she is not about to be quiet and go away.
What occurs next is a curious exchange between Jesus and the woman. It looks rude--and perhaps it is. But I like to think that Jesus sees something in this person before him--what her spirit is made of--as he begins this exchange. It could be that her behavior thus far, leads him to wonder how she will respond in a verbal joust. He says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And she responds: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Take that!) And Jesus says: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
This, then, is a story about faith. And I wonder about that. Why is this woman’s faith great? Is it because she is persistent? So, if I am more persistent, will my faith be greater? Is her faith great because she names her plight, because she is honest and clear about what she needs? Is her faith great because she asks for help? Is her faith great because she gets the Messiah to change his mind? Is her faith great because she recognizes who Jesus is? Is her faith great because she thinks Jesus can do something to help her daughter? Is her faith great because she rebuts Jesus’ proposed boundaries? Is faith, perhaps, the willingness to go past boundaries, set either by others or those we place on ourselves? Hers is a story of the complexity of faith. Perhaps faith is not a fixed collection of beliefs, but is instead a state of being. Your faith is great, not because of what you do--but because of who you are.
Here’s a quote from another great woman of faith: “This I do believe above all, especially in my times of greater discouragement, that I must believe--that I must believe in my fellow men--that I must believe in myself--and I must believe in God--if life is to have any meaning.” It was said by Margaret Chase Smith, United States Senator from Maine, who faced tremendous odds and no small amount of social criticism for stepping outside not only the boundaries assigned to her gender, but her political party as well.
On June 1, 1950, as she boarded the Senate subway, Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the house and the senate, encountered the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. “Margaret, you look very serious,” he said. “Are you going to make a speech?” Without hesitation, Smith, who was then a freshman Senator, replied: “Yes, and you will not like it!” That day Smith would deliver in the Senate Chamber a “Declaration of Conscience” against McCarthyism.
Here is some of what she said: “Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition…. The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body…. But recently that deliberative character has … been debased to…a forum of hate and character assassination. … In her 15 minute speech Smith endorsed every American’s right to criticize, to protest and to hold unpopular beliefs. She asked her fellow Republicans not to ride to political victory on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny--Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
Later, Chase said that she had hoped a senior member of the senate would be brave enough to take the lead. She noted: “This great psychological fear…spread to the Senate, where a considerable amount of mental paralysis and muteness set in for fear of offending McCarthy.”
She wasn’t thanked for her words. One reporter wrote: “The little lady…is simply over-reaching herself,” another said She “has stepped out of her class.” Smith’s Declaration of Conscience did not end McCarthy’s reign of power, but she was one of the first senators to take such a stand. And she continued to oppose him, at great personal cost, for the next four years. Finally, in December of 1954, the Senate belatedly concurred with the “lady from Maine” and censured McCarthy for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.”
Faith is far more than a fixed collection of beliefs. The lesson this morning teaches us that there are times when faith is evidenced by the willingness to step outside boundaries to pursue what you know to be right. It might even be worth defying social expectations and cultural norms. In the case of the Canaanite woman, faith took her directly to God in the person of Jesus. What we learn is that Jesus saw and answered: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” This woman, who stepped outside so many boundaries to speak with the Messiah face-to-face, her faith was great because of who she was. May we aspire to the same. In Jesus’ name. Amen.