This past week, like many parents here, was my daughter’s first week of school. And, more so, it was her first week of kindergarten. Lexi has had “mixed feelings” you might say about starting school and wasn’t a huge fan of pre-school, so my wife and I have been doing our best to get her excited about this new adventure in the hopes of installing an appreciation for education and a desire for life-long learning. In thinking so much about exciting her, my wife and I have also been feeling the anxiety of wanting so much to get her off on the right foot, so she has a smooth transition into kindergarten. My own anxiety was going through the roof this past Thursday as some unforeseen challenges arose.
After running some church errands last Thursday morning, I decided to park under the shade of the big pine trees on the north side of the parking lot, where the orange donation bins used to be. It was going to be a warm day, and with a black paint job, my car can heat up pretty quick. What I didn’t realize was that there was still several bits of glass shards remaining on the ground. As I started backing out on my way to pick up Lexi from school, I noticed the tire pressure gauge alerting me that my front right tire was at 22 psi. At first, I assumed it was an error, but after driving north on Oakland a-ways, I quickly realized there was a problem.
As the numbers quickly went lower and lower, I was faced with a serious decision. Do I pull over, call AAA, and force Lexi to wait for me long after school has ended? Or do I race home as quick as I can, ignoring the obvious problems and repercussions of driving on a flat. I chose the latter. With it being only Lexi’s second day of school, and me wanting her to not have any bad experiences so early in the school year, I couldn’t bear the thought of her having to wait by herself outside or sit in the school office with strangers, wondering where her dad was. In short, I didn’t want school to become a traumatizing experience!
If you’re a parent, whether your kids are still living at home with you or whether they have kids of their own, you probably have felt that same desperate desire to do whatever you could to protect and provide for your child. And maybe there’s some here who have never have had biological children yet have felt that same parental love and concern for a child in your care. Regardless, a mother or father’s love is a powerful thing, love that will go to any length, overcome any obstacle, and fight off any danger. Today in our reading from Matthew, we see a mother’s desperate desire to take care of her child beautifully displayed.
The story goes something like this. Jesus and his disciples were traveling outside their normal territory, to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a place mostly inhabited by non-Jews, otherwise known as Gentiles. Jesus is walking along when all of a sudden, a woman starts shouting at him; “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Now, this was unexpected for two reasons. First, it would be a bit jarring to be walking along and suddenly hearing someone scream out your name. It’s like when you’re driving along down the road and all of a sudden, you hear a long, sustained horn blast. Immediately, you tense up, check the mirrors, and look in every direction to see what you might have done and who you have offended. But this wasn’t even the most shocking part of it.
In the time of Jesus, the woman’s behavior was culturally unacceptable. Her culture expected women to be reserved in public. By shouting her demand at Jesus, she violated social norms. It’s like the old saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” Women, in the time of Jesus, had no business speaking to a man who was not her husband—and even worse—she was a Canaanite woman, a woman of a different religion and ethnicity, which made her desperate shouting all the more inappropriate. It’s no wonder that Jesus ignored her the first time and his disciples urged him to shoo her away. Her actions were out of place, and Jesus responding to her would have been all the more culturally unacceptable.
But she was relentless. Not only does it seem like she kept shouting for Jesus’ attention, but she was so desperate that she came in front of Jesus, knelt before him, and begged him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Yet Jesus is still unconvinced. He tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! Commentators disagree as to whether Jesus was trying to insult her or just make an illustration, but best-case scenario, Jesus was implying that his only purpose was helping his own people, and spending any time and energy on her would be a waste. Yet, again, this is a desperate mom; she is willing to do whatever it takes to give her child a better life. We understand her desperation, right? It’s that mama bear mentality which will stop at nothing, absolutely nothing, to care for her child. And we understand that, right? Because most—if not all of us—have felt that surge of emotion when we felt someone or something was threat to our child. We will do whatever it takes. So, she says, fine, call me a dog, call me whatever, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps of food that fall in the floor. She was willing to completely and utterly humiliate herself if it meant getting her child the attention and care she needed. I’d bet most—if not all of us—can think of a time we have done the same for our child.
Jesus was apparently impressed by this woman’s actions. “Great is your faith,” he said, “let it be done as you wish.” Now, I’ve heard different thoughts on why Jesus was initially so unresponsive. Some have suggested he was testing her faith, some have suggested he was trying to work within the confines of the culture, and some have even suggested that Jesus had a change of heart and was compelled to help this woman he initially disregarded. It’s that last one that seems so jarring to us. Jesus, needing to have a change of heart? Could it really be?
Let me ask you to suppose, even if it’s just for these next few minutes, that Jesus really did have a change of heart, that because of this woman’s boldness, he was “forced to encounter his own prejudice” and change his perspective. What might that mean for you and for me? Please, think about that for a moment. It’s so easy for us to sit back and think we’re good people, especially after the events that took place in Charlottesville. It’s easy for us to say, “hey, I’m not marching with the KKK or waving a Nazi flag, I’m the good guy here.” Yet, so often, when mothers in our own time, like this Canaanite mother, cry out for mercy, their cries often go unheard.
The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of undocumented immigrant children from countries south of the border. Mothers who send their children away, likely never to see them again, because the poverty and violence in their own country is so inescapable.
The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of transgender children who simply want their children to feel safe and protected while they are at school.
And, we hear the cries of the Canaanite mother echoed today in the mother of Heather Hayer, the woman killed by a domestic terrorist in Charlottesville, angrily denouncing a national leader who could equate he daughter with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of African-American boys who have to worry about their child’s safety if they encounter a police officer, lest their child become the next Tamir Rice or Philando Castile.
The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of the several police officers who were injured or killed in the line of duty, in Charlottesville, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
It’s so easy to say, like the disciples said to the woman, “this isn’t the right way to do it.” In the same way, it’s so easy for us to say, “you’re disrespecting law enforcement,” or “apply for legal entry into our country,” or “stop politicizing our schools.” Yet moms are screaming out, “Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, please help me.”
There is no shortage of God’s mercy. There’s enough mercy to share with African-American mothers AND with families of police officers. Thinking we have to pick a side is a false choice.
This was a woman who was willing to break through external differences to claim God’s mercy. This was a woman who violates boundaries of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession—even perhaps Jesus’ own reluctance, to find mercy for her daughter.
Jesus was a big enough person not to be ashamed to learn something from a Gentile Canaanite woman. How about us?
When people come to us, jarring us out of our peaceful existence, screaming for our attention, begging for our help. How will we respond? Can we like Jesus, overcome our initial hesitancy, recognize their pleas for mercy, and show them grace?
Yes, the cries may not come in ways we might appreciate or prefer—Jesus hardly preferred being yelled at by some stranger. But when push came to shove, he was willing to let go of his own reluctance, and show her mercy.
As I mentioned, there are many voices crying out for mercy. Will we respond in grace and love to their pleas? Or will we simply ignore them and keep walking?
What would Jesus do?
 Jae Won Lee, 359.
 Iwan Russell-Jones, 358.
 Jae Wom Lee, 357.
 Jae Won Lee, 361.
 Jae Won Lee, 361.