Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail responded to criticisms of the local clergy who charged that he was an outside agitator who was stirring up trouble away from his home town. He wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The gospel story today features a woman – a Canaanite woman – who persists in asking Jesus for a healing for her daughter. According to the thought at the time, this woman was a foreigner, an outsider, one who did not belong. She’s the first non-Jewish woman that Jesus deals with in the gospels, and, as the story seems to show, there appears to be some reluctance on his part to do so.
I wonder if Jesus was testing the disciples, they begged Jesus to send her away, and perhaps Jesus was testing the woman herself. Perhaps Jesus was trying to make a point about faith, about the barriers that people place in God’s way? Barriers of race, barriers of culture, barriers of sex, barriers of wealth, even barriers of morality and religion. In Isaiah we heard, “is not the House of the Lord of Israel, the House of God, to be called a House of Prayer for All Nations?” Today’s passages show us that the barriers exist between people, and that those barriers can be overcome.
I want to look at the gospel story from this vantage point. There are many kinds of barriers that seek to keep the woman from Jesus:
Her nationality. She is not a Jew. She has no business turning to a Jewish religious leader for help.
Her gender. She is a woman, and despite the record of how many woman came to Jesus for help, woman really had no business approaching a male religious leader uninvited.
His silence. She must overcome the natural reaction that surely welled up within her to simply give up and go away. The master is not responding to her.
The disciples are filled with scorn, frustration, and repugnance towards her.
And then, at last, when she does get close to the master, when she falls on her knees before him to ask for his help, she must deal with what seems to be an insult – she must swallow whatever pride she may have left and allow herself to be compared to a dog.
Think of having a real need in your life, and believing that there is someone who can help you with that need, but that person is totally unrelated to you by blood, culture, religion, or race – and, in fact, comes from a bloodline, culture, religion, and race that is opposed to your own. Think of having not only to face this kind of barrier, but also having to face a group of people who are telling you to get lost, and at the same time having to deal with apparent apathy, indeed even what at first blush seems like hostility from the person whom you are seeking help from, and all because of who you are and where you have come from. Would you put up with it? Would you even bother trying in the first place? And having tried, and being rebuffed, would you not be tempted to give up and to allow the barriers between you and your goal to stand?
This is what the story is really all about: finding life, a good life, overcoming the barriers that prevent others, and ourselves, from being made whole. Every person of good sense knows that wholeness comes from God, and can only come from God. Certainly the woman from Canaan knew this and, because of the stories that she had heard, and perhaps because of what she herself had seen somewhere, she had the faith that Jesus could bestow God’s wholeness on the most important person in her life, her daughter.
At the end of the story, when wholeness has been promised, Jesus says, “woman, great is your faith”. What he means is not great is your persistence, nor great is your pushiness, nor even great is your need. What he means is great is the reason you have for being here when your daughter is sick, great is the hope you have in coming to me, great is the trust that led you here and caused you to be persistent, clever, and even a bit pushy.
The woman from Canaan believed in Jesus, she had faith in him, she believed he could heal, she believed that he was her hope and he alone, and it was this belief, this faith, that overrode all other concerns. It alone gave her the energy to persist in the face of opposition, it alone supplied her with the courage and the audacity that she needed.
Is there anything that you need so desperately from God that you will knock, and keep on knocking, until you get the assurance that heaven has heard your prayer?
This lady is a challenge to our spiritual laziness and lack of passion. She was passionate. She was persistent. She seized the initiative and broke down every barrier. She stayed focused on her main objective. She stayed in pursuit of her objective until the promise was given.
Is there something that you are praying about? Do you seek the inner assurance that God hears? Do you want the promise confirmed?
Take a moment to ask yourself: am I really passionate about this? Am I willing to persist until God confirms his promise in my heart? Am I going to overcome and overlook every thought that tries to disqualify me? Am I going to hang in there until I hear from God?
In our time of silence challenge yourself with this lady’s faith.