Impertinent questions lead into deeper truth

Peter Seal, 17 August 2014

Romans 11: 1–2a, 29–32; Matthew 15: 21–28

Today’s gospel reveals two interesting themes. The first is a reminder that we make God too small. As that wonderful hymn puts it, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Secondly, there’s the theme of what you might call impertinent questions that interrupt us.

Today’s gospel follows closely on those of the previous two weeks. By way of reminder: two weeks ago we explored the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Important for us today is the end of that story, where we are told that all those who ate were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces: 12 basketfuls. And then last week we heard of how Jesus walked on the water; of how Peter stepped out in faith but then wavered and needed rescuing. Jesus seemed to chide him: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

So, two things to have in mind: first, enough crumbs to fill 12 baskets and, second, Peter’s lack of faith.

Today, from beginning to end a woman is in the spotlight. Unbeknown to her, she has a great thing to do. Before this short episode is over, she will have helped Jesus enormously. The woman was a Canaanite – that means a foreigner. She was not a Jew, as Jesus and his disciples were. In the gospels we often hear Jesus criticising the way in which his people – that is, the Jews – have tried to tie God down, to restrict God. And yet he has still seen his calling as within the family of the Jews.

But this Canaanite woman changes all that. What she does is to challenge Jesus to see the full implications of what he has been saying to his own people. She comes with her straightforward, desperate request. ‘Have mercy … my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ Jesus says nothing in reply. He gives no response whatsoever. It’s as though he can’t formulate an answer for the woman at all. But neither can he turn away, because surely she’s right. She’s not asking for the children’s bread, only the leftover crumbs.

Our minds go back to the gospel two weeks ago and the feeding of the 5,000. Today we are about to experience another miraculous event. We saw just how many crumbs were left over when Jesus had finished feeding the children of Israel – 12 basketfuls. We can almost smile at her cleverness. Jesus’ initial lack of response is not enough to discourage her. She continues to hang on the edge of their group and to plead her cause. Eventually his disciples ask him to dismiss her. For them she’s a nuisance, an interruption, nothing more. She is utterly dispensable. A kind of troublesome object, to be got out of the way.

In what looks like an effort to make some sort of response, Jesus explains why he does not feel drawn to help her. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (in other words, to Jews). It would appear that she is outside a line drawn by tradition, and geography, and religion. The woman simply refuses to be a prisoner of such exclusions. Her gentle agenda is a universal agenda. She is a human being who is asking for the help of another human being.

There can be no lines drawn, however ancient or sacred. She approaches and kneels. We need to picture this desperate woman whose daughter is tormented by a demon, kneeling in the dust and the heat at the feet of our Lord as she says, ‘Lord, help me’.

She has pierced his Jewish defences. This time his reply is more tentative, almost questioning in its tone. It is not fair to take the children’s food (again, the sound of lines being drawn and exclusions) and throw it to the dogs. (To call someone a dog was a derogatory description of all non-Jews).

There is silence.

Then into the silence come words that will make this nameless woman live, wherever the name of Jesus of Nazareth is spoken. Quietly, with great dignity, without anger (which she was justified in feeling), she replies, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs (in other words people like me, non-Jews) eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’.

Jesus is utterly disarmed into acting. But even as he offers her healing, something far larger is happening. This simple Canaanite woman is forcing this Jew to grow, to become more than he yet knows himself to be. In a deep and wonderful sense she is calling Jesus towards what he must become: someone beyond all lines, and exclusions, and limitations; someone for everyone, someone for the whole world.

She is calling Jesus towards what he must become: someone beyond all lines, and exclusions, and limitations; someone for everyone, someone for the whole world.

At this moment you could say she is being his angel, perhaps; even, almost, his saviour.

In this quite extraordinary Bible story the woman gets more than she wants. Her daughter is healed; she herself receives mercy, and on top of this she receives public praise for her great demonstration of faith. Jesus says to her: ‘Woman, great is your faith’.

Here we reconnect with Peter’s lack of faith last week on the lake, as he begins to sink into the waters. So let’s link back to our two themes.

First, the reminder that we have an inbuilt tendency to make God too small. This is natural, and it comes easily; and sometimes it’s born out of fear and lack of imagination; and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it. But God simply cannot be limited. We must resist making Christianity small and anxious.

God is untameable. It’s as though he’s a wild animal who cannot be restrained or constrained. God will go on being God, and we will go on being surprised … by just how wide his love and mercy are.

Just one example of this is prayer. I guess it’s our experience that some of the most profound answers to our prayers have a life-changing effect, far beyond the actual request that we originally made. God has a habit of working his purpose out, in ways we cannot even begin to ask or imagine.

And so, secondly, the place of impertinent questions. The Canaanite woman was both desperate and full of faith. This emboldened her to come and ask Jesus some impertinent questions. These questions could be seen as an interruption, and like the first disciples our tendency is to resent interruptions. We don’t like impertinent questions. We also want, as it were, to send this annoying woman away.

I guess anything that interrupts our plans can feel impertinent. We work so hard at being in control of our lives. The unexpected can be a real nuisance; it can at times cause us great pain. Illness and untimely death … and broken relationships … and disappointments in our career paths … and even unexpected financial expenditure that limits what we’d hope to do … all these and much, much more besides, come at us, impertinently interrupting the way we thought things were going to be.

In conclusion, what we learn from today’s Canaanite woman is that the impertinent and the unexpected, though at first both unwelcome and disturbing, can lead us into deeper truth. There are always new vistas of the wideness of God’s love and mercy.