The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 has always disturbed me . It’s tough to put a positive spin on Jesus seeming to reject a mother’s plea for her sick child (and not very politely at that) because she belongs to the wrong race. Lately I’ve been wondering if he was testing her, to see whether she responded to prejudice with humble and unshaken faith rather than returning hostilities. A variant of his question to the man at the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?”
Garret Keizer, who really ought to be the most famous Christian writer in America, offers a unique perspective in this Christian Century article from 1999:
What the gospel tells us, first of all, is that even Jesus sets limits. Even Jesus does not expect to help everybody. He is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He can refuse to answer a ringing telephone. “He did not answer her a word.”(Read the full article here.)
But even Jesus, who presumably has divine authorization for his limits (“I was sent …”), allows those limits to be stretched by another’s necessity. In other words, the rule here is that there is no rule, only a creative tension between our finite capacities and the world’s infinite need. And we shall perhaps have more energy for meeting the latter if we stop believing that the presence of tension in our lives argues for some deficiency in our faith. The servant is not above his master.
I think Keizer’s realistic humility is a compelling alternative to the rich liberal guilt trap. As Americans, we feel ashamed of the wealth gap between ourselves and the rest of the world, but the potentially infinite demands on our generosity cause such burnout that we then feel entitled to pamper ourselves. This is why so many liberal sermons on the “ethics of Jesus” depress me, with their simplistic emphasis on wealth redistribution rather than wealth creation, as if the only reason children were starving in Africa was that you (yes, you in the third pew, I can see you) had to have a new Treo 750. But I believe that everyone, no matter how strong, needs help and spiritual nourishment; everyone, no matter how weak, has a role to play as an active participant in her own healing.
Today in church, in the space of 90 seconds, our minister said, “Resist consumerism this Christmas – make donations in your friends’ names to Episcopal Relief and Development” and “Crafts from last week’s Christmas Fair are on sale in the parish hall at coffee hour”.