Did you hear? Did you take in the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman? Did you hear what Jesus said? He called her a dog. Actually, it is even worse than that. He called her daughter a dog. He said, in so many words, that her daughter was beneath and beyond his compassion. That he wasn’t going to waste his time, his healing powers on the likes of her.
Can that be right? Was Jesus that rude? That unfeeling? Is this the Jesus of “Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so”? Or, is this some other Jesus?
The story of the Canaanite woman is arguably the single most confounding and disturbing story in the entire New Testament. It raises questions of prejudice, divine election and, perhaps most disturbingly, it raises the question whether there are limits to God’s mercy.
Are there? Might there be? Limits to God’s mercy?
Biblical scholars have used a lot of ink on this story ... trying to explain it, understand it, even excuse it. I don’t propose to do that this morning. I don’t propose to explain it or understand it. I am not going to excuse it.
What I do propose to do is to point out two circumstances without which this conversation and encounter could not, would not have occurred ... two circumstances without which we would never have heard this mother’s voice and plea ... and without which her daughter would not be healed.
First, it only happened because Jesus had entered the territory of the Canaanites. He had left Jewish territory and had entered pagan territory. In other words, he was in the wrong neighborhood.
And, second, this encounter and conversation could not have occurred indoors. Jesus and the Canaanite woman simply would not have encountered each other indoors. There was no indoors in the ancient Middle East into which they were both permitted.
It’s not for nothing that Jesus spent nearly all of his time out of doors.
He was born in a stable, baptized in a river, and tempted in the wilderness. He called his disciples by the lakeshore, prayed in a garden, preached a sermon on a mount, taught from a boat, retreated to a mountain, lingered in grain fields and olive orchards, healed on the streets of villages, and fished on the sea. He walked the dusty roads of Palestine, slept under the stars, was arrested in a garden and was killed outdoors on a hill, under the sky. He grilled a fish breakfast on the beach for his friends. And, it was out of doors on the long walk to Emmaus that he opened to them the scriptures.
Throughout his years of ministry Jesus spent the vast majority of his time outside in open spaces, rubbing shoulders with the world: the curious, the committed, the needy, the cynical, the distressed the threatened, and the threatening ... the other.
Part of what people loved about Jesus – what was both shocking and compelling about Jesus was how he brought people together: rich and poor, sinners and saints, Jew and Gentile, lost and found, scholars and peasants, princes and paupers, soldiers and slaves, women and men.
Into the highly stratified, rigidly hierarchical, firmly patriarchal and staunchly nationalistic society of the ancient Middle East, Jesus introduced an element of chaos ... social chaos.
There is an element of chaos in this story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus enters her territory, Canaanite territory. He and his disciples are vulnerable here. They don’t belong here.
The disciples are already uneasy. To add to their unease a desperate and crazed woman causes a ruckus, an embarrassing, attention getting ruckus.
I wonder if it isn’t on purpose—for just this sort of purpose—that Jesus spent so much time out of doors.
After all, the great outdoors is messy, chaotic and unruly. Anybody is allowed in to the great outdoors! Out of doors there is no dress code. There are no “best seats”, no reserved areas and no entrance fee. There are no signs indicating members only, men only, whites only, straights only, adults only, ticket holders only, citizens only, English only, Jews only or Canaanites only.
Jesus was unusually willing to subject himself to the chaos of the chance encounter. His years of ministry were all about the chance encounter: the stranger and outsider, the enemy and the distrusted.
It strikes me that the Boston Marathon, is just the sort of happening Jesus would want to be a part of … just the sort of happening to which he would drag his reluctant, uneasy followers: an outdoor, open-air venue where there are no best seats and the whole world has come together with all its energy and variety and chaos.
Here’s what I think: That Boston during the Boston Marathon is made for the chance encounter. The whole world is here, mingling and mixing under the open sky! I think that if you make yourself available to it, vulnerable to it, there is in Boston this week both the possibility and, even probability, of a life-altering encounter ... a little enemy-befriending, grace-extending, tribe-transcending, mercy-commending encounter.
In honor and memory of that desperate mother from Canaan let’s just see if we can’t make Jesus proud by orchestrating a little chaos, a little social chaos ... a little enemy-befriending, grace-extending, tribe-transcending, mercy-commending chaos.