THE CANAANITE WOMAN
Judgment vs. Mercy - we've all been there
We have all either heard or said the words ourselves, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Maybe your dad said the words when you overheard him using an inappropriate word. Maybe your mom said the words when you caught her being impatient with someone. Maybe you said the words when your own child caught you having a late night treat that you said was off limits to everyone. Do as I say, not as I do. The phrase is our universal way of admitting that even though we know the right things to do, we do not always do them. In essence, we are failures. In this simple phrase we hear echoes of Paul’s words to the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[i] But the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a little bit more than simply admitting failure. The simple phrase is also a phrase full of frustration, exasperation, and impatience – a rueful admitting of defeat, a hint of embarrassment at one’s failure and hypocrisy, and a petulant insistence that your words be heeded anyway.
What is harder than hearing a parent utter these words is hearing Jesus utter words like this today. The beginning of our gospel lesson is a long passage in which Jesus explains how misguided the Pharisees have become. They are so caught up in worrying about rituals that the Pharisees have not noticed that what is coming out of their mouths is much more offensive than what is going in their mouths. Instead of worrying about the legalities of cleaning rituals, Jesus is instead insisting that they need to worry about how their words are defiling them more than their unclean hands are defiling them.
So after this long diatribe about how the Pharisees are essentially being hypocrites, what does Jesus do? He gets caught being a hypocrite himself. He has just given the disciples a lecture about worrying about the words coming out of their mouths when Jesus turns around and basically does the exact same thing. A poor Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, shouting for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter. Normally the gracious healer, Jesus totally ignores the woman. Then, when the disciples beg Jesus to send her away, Jesus makes some snide remark about how he is only here on earth to help the Israelites, not some lowly Canaanite. When the woman throws herself at Jesus feet, Jesus then says the unthinkable – something so awful that even we are embarrassed. Jesus says to the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even to modern ears, Jesus’ words sting. We like the kind, generous, caring version of Jesus – not this version of Jesus who calls people dogs and refuses to help them. But even worse is what happens next. The Canaanite woman calls Jesus to task. “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
We have all been there. We have all been mid-stream in doing what we thought was the right thing, living our lives the best way we know how when someone – a child, a friend, or even a stranger – has called us out and made us see the ugliness in our words and actions. I have been caught several times by my daughter. We have a practice of praying before our meals at home, trying to teach our daughter some easy prayers. One night we were out with friends who I knew were not church-goers. When the meal came, we all began to eat. But my daughter, rather loudly asked, “Why aren’t we saying the blessing, Mommy?” I tried to quickly and quietly shush her, but I am sure whatever stammering I did only made things worse – both for my daughter and our friends.
Most of us are pretty hesitant to talk to people about church, especially why they do not go to church. We are hesitant because at some point in our lives we have had pointed out to us how the church is full of a bunch of hypocrites. And, honestly, few of us have a response to that accusation because we know we do not live the lives we aspire to live. Even Mahatma Gandhi is rumored to have said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”[ii] The sting of that quote or conversations that involve similar accusations usually make us steer clear of even bringing up church with our non-church friends. Or when we try to address their valid concerns, we end up stammering into some explanation that basically ends up sounding like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The problem with these encounters is that none of us likes to admit is that though we go to church, and though we pray to God, and though we raise our children in the faith, we still do not really have this whole faith thing all figured out. We are still unsure about some things, we do not always understand why we do what we do, and most of us are not confident enough in Holy Scripture to feel like we could hold our own in a debate. Though many of us have had powerful experiences with God, most of us still feel like failures in being good Christians. In fact, if you ask most adults in church, the two things they dislike the most are teaching Sunday School and evangelizing. The reason we dislike those two things is because we are afraid – afraid of being asked a question we cannot answer or afraid of being exposed as the hypocrites we fear that we really are.
The good news is that we are not alone. Even Jesus, the same Jesus that Gandhi praises, has been in our shoes. When the Canaanite woman comes back at Jesus with her sharp accusation about even dogs getting crumbs, Jesus has a choice. He can pull the classic parental line, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Surely he is exasperated by the Canaanite woman and all the disciples constantly pushing him and asking questions. A simple, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and then a stomping away in the other direction would not be unforgiveable. Or Jesus can take a moment, check his pride at the door, and admit he is wrong. And that is exactly what Jesus does. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus says, and heals her daughter. Jesus finally hears the Canaanite woman and admits he is wrong. He could have easily stood his ground, stuck to his mission to the Israelites, and followed tradition. But instead, Jesus chooses mercy over pride. Jesus chooses to admit he is wrong over saving his reputation. Jesus chooses change over tradition. As ugly, embarrassing, and unappealing as Jesus seems earlier in this story, Jesus’ willingness to change his mind, change his behavior, and change his entire mission makes him much more appealing, inviting, and energizing.[iii]
Though hard to listen to, Jesus’ transformation in this story is an invitation to us to be open to such transformation in our own lives. There is something wonderfully freeing about Jesus’ simple transformation. All Jesus basically does is say, “You know what, I was wrong.” Instead of stammering through some awkward response to my daughter about why we were not praying with the non-church-going friends, I could have just said, “You know what, you’re right. Let’s say a prayer.” That simple giving of thanks probably would have been way less awkward, hypocritical, and confusing than just thanking God out loud. Or when someone accuses us or our church of being hypocrites, we could just say, “You know what, you’re right.” Once we confess our sinful natures and then explain why church still holds some meaning for us, maybe we could open the door to a more honest, vulnerable conversation about the good stuff of our church.
The invitation today from Jesus is simple. Be open to the fact that we are all going to mess up this whole faith thing. We are all going to preach one thing and do another. And instead of saying a hurried, “Do as I say, not as I do,” we can all start a different conversation. Instead we can all try to say, “You know what, you are right. I am sorry. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make a change.” My guess is that the freedom your confession brings will not only liberate you, but liberate others as well. Amen.
[i] Romans 7.19.
[ii] I say that this quote is rumored to be from Gandhi because I could not find a source for the quote. There seems to be debate about whether Gandhi actually said these words, this quote is legend, or this is a combination of comments he made.