Yesterday, my husband, friends, and I participated in the march and counter protest against white supremacy in Boston, along with about 40,000 other people. It is interesting that today’s readings focus, one after another, on the inclusiveness of who belongs as God’s people. The First Reading discusses the welcoming of foreigners, the psalm praises the many nations that belong to God, and the Pauline letter states that Jews and Gentiles alike are recipients of God’s grace and mercy.
But the really incisive reading is the Gospel passage, because it is a reading that purposefully seeks to undermine the listener’s sense of what is acceptable. The Canaanite woman in distress calls out to Jesus and is insistent about her needs. She is loud and keeps on speaking. Initially, Jesus ignores her. The disciples want to send her away, because the cries that she makes are annoying to them.
So often this is also true of those in our own world today who ask for justice, who act even in ways that might appear demanding or raise uncomfortable feelings for those who do not share in suffering in the same ways. Especially when most people may feel that they are already trying to do so much to lead good lives, it can be difficult to hear from those on the margins who say: but we are suffering, and we will not be silenced. This is still the case for many in our society: for people discriminated against because of race or ethnicity; because of their immigrant status; because of poverty, gender, or because of social structures that do not allow them to participate fully in social life (e.g., health problems or age). Those who have power may regard the disempowered, but loud and angry person’s cry for justice with disdain, or may seek to minimize it. The reason that minimization happens, however, is that we may at some level know how much work it really would take to address the underlying social problems that are at work. For example, the problem of racism is not just a handful of white supremacists at a rally one day, but much deeper, structural problems of racism and white privilege. When we recognize our participation in a system that supports racism, or acknowledge that not to act at all is a form of acquiescence, it forces us to look more deeply at ourselves. Indeed, it might fundamentally challenge our image of ourselves and who we are.
The encounter between the woman and Jesus, I think, provides us with a better model of how to respond. It is a strange and even uncomfortable moment when Jesus asks if it is right to give food meant for children to dogs. However, some interpreters have posited that Jesus speaks this not with anger, but playfully, or perhaps says it in a way that acknowledges the social reality that exists between his own community and Canaanites. However, as much as we might want to spend time unpacking why Jesus speaks as he does, and what it tells us that God acted in this way, the real center of the story’s power and action here is the woman. She is the model for us to observe. Jesus, I think, stands in for a human tendency to not want to hear, and to not want to respond. Even he, in his humanity, wants to consider her outside the locus of his concerns.
However, the woman is persistent in asking for what she needs, and expecting Jesus to deliver. And Jesus does. As soon as he can recognize that her claim is legitimate, regardless of her social status or manner of speaking, he names this persistence on her part an act of faith. Indeed, we can even venture to say that in his humanity, Jesus learns from the Canaanite woman. And as a result , his sense of his own mission and identity is transformed, for in fact Jesus’ mission does expand beyond only the Jewish people.
We need to learn from both the woman and from Jesus. Where we ourselves are in need, we need to not be afraid to speak up and to ask for healing or for justice. Where others make such demands on us, we need to resist the aspects of ourselves that consider that other too demanding, too noisy, or in general “too much.” What looks like a lot of noise might be a great act of faith. Will we recognize it when we hear it, and how will we respond?