I have been struggling yet again with scripture in preparation for preaching. I think this may be the toughest scripture yet, though I admit I've thought that in the past at times. I'm been wrestling with the story in Chapter 15 of Matthew's Gospel about Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman. She comes to him for help for her daughter, who's possessed by the demons of mental illness. Jesus at first is silent and then rebuffs her with a racial epithet common at the time before finally responding to her wit. It's a tough story.
The biggest part of the difficulty with this story for me is that the actions of Jesus portrayed by Matthew are simply out of character compared to the rest of the stories about Jesus. This was a man who regularly reached across the boundaries of gender and culture and even religion, and who got in trouble with his faith's religious leaders because of his association with the wrong sorts of people. Wiser minds than mine have also struggled with this story, and from what I have found in my research, there doesn't seem to be any consensus about the reasons for Jesus' uncharacteristic behavior. One commentator suggested Matthew was trying to appease two factions within the church, one of which was opposed to any mission to the Gentiles, and one of which was not. Some suggest Jesus was testing the faith of the woman, or of his disciples or both. Yet others suggest Jesus was being humorous in his interaction, which of course does not translate well on the written page. All of this of course began with writing that probably came from oral tradition and that has since been translated through several languages. Anyone who knows anything about translating from one language to another knows how imprecise that can be.
What is clear is that the Canaanite woman was possessed of deep love for her daughter, a love that made her willing to overcome any barriers, including those of gender, ethnicity and religion, to obtain help for her daughter. She also acted with reverence, responding to God's presence and promise in Jesus. She was persistent in seeking God's mercy and grace. Jesus responded to her love and faith, perhaps against his inclinations, perhaps not. In return her faith had to have been balm to his spirit, wounded by encounters with the religious leaders of his own faith. Matthew's story is a reminder that faith can be found in places and in people where we least expect it. It's also a reminder that the human created boundaries that separate us from one another are no barrier to God's love and grace and mercy.
Grace and Peace,