Proper 15, Year A Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Maybe it is that the church celebrated St. Mary the mother of Jesus yesterday. A young woman who’s deep heart of justice brought us the words of the Magnificat, the canticle we said just a few moments ago. Or perhaps, this story of this persistent Canaanite woman. A woman who would not allow her difference to be a barrier to her right for salvation. Whatever the reason, this week, I have been thinking a lot about Claudette Colvin. In 1955 she was a fifteen year old black girl attending Booker T. Washington High and a member of the Montgomery NAACP youth council.
It was Claudette who was the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She had been learning about Civil Rights in school and on her way home one day, nine months before Rosa Parks, she found herself being told to give up her seat in the black portion of the bus. There was a white woman who wanted to sit and there was no more white seating available. She refused, was arrested, and charged with a litany of crimes that did not exactly match her action steeped in demanding that her rights as a human being be honored.
Yet, in all of the fallout of the event, she still found the courage to not just report it to the NAACP, where Rosa Parks worked as the secretary to the chapter, she was one of five plaintiffs that filed the first federal court case against bus segregation in Alabama. You may recall it was that particular court case that led judges to rule bus segregation was a violation of constitutional rights. God bless Claudette Colvin for her persistent voice that demanded her rights, and the rights of all, be honored.
The world has been gifted with many “demanding” women who have all been important to the progress that society has made and continues to make. The unnamed Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is indeed one of those women. A woman who confronts Jesus and in doing so changes his heart. Invites him to extend healing and love beyond what even he had imagined.
So, how does she do all of that? First, I think it’s important to note a bit of context. Even naming this woman as a Canaanite calls back on the complex history of the Hebrews and the people who originally inhabited the promised land. Noting that traditionally they have been enemies. This name is also touching on the history of other Canaanite women who were a gift to the Isreaelites… Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. And it is not just their difference in being Hebrew or Canaanite that is important. Her behavior, especially as a socially marginalized woman, and the way she confronts Jesus would have been deemed an “unacceptable”. And still, here we have this exchange. An exchange some say is the only time in the Gospel someone is able to verbally best Jesus.
This moment is a reversal of the usual roles we see in encounters with Jesus. Here he is held accountable for his own prejudice, and the persistent voice is of the other demanding that her own humanity, and faith be honored. We have this bit of irony here where Jesus is finding himself stuck in this barrier of difference and in the way he reacts. And we know he has just finished speaking on the issue of purity in our first section of the scripture. Naming that what defiles a person is what comes out of their mouth. Inviting folks to move beyond the previous understanding under Hebrew Law that it was what went into your body that defiles. To move beyond what had been.
Jesus tries at first to pretend the Canaanite woman does not even exist. Then, he finds what comes out of his own mouth is harsh and crude. Jesus calls her a dog… a standard slang name to call a Canaanite woman. He doesn’t stop there. Jesus then tells her he is only there to serve people like him. And instead of meeting him with fury, the woman persists, “even the dogs get crumbs”. In her faithful response she invites Jesus to move beyond what had been by way of extending healing to her daughter. I can almost see her now, like the statue of the little girl in front of the Wall Street Bull. Or, like a lioness in one of the many National Geographic specials our family has watched lately.
Jesus accepts this invitation to shift from the individual to communal. To shift to a deeper sense of community that includes more than the folks that are like him. We find ourselves witnessing a move beyond theology of chosen-ness to a universal salvation. Jesus does not insist that she become a Jew, but extends healing all the same as he shifts his own perspective.
We also are seeing a bit of foreshadowing of the Great Commission. To go and make disciples in all the nations. And… perhaps one of the aspects I am most grateful to notice today, like Jesus we too will slip up. And like Jesus there will be voices that bring us to change our hearts to bring about more of God’s kin-dom in the world. As one writer put it, “Faith crosses boundaries, even Jesus’ boundaries, and leads to the manifestation of God’s liberating power”.
Like St. Mary, like Caludette Colvin, like the nameless Canaanite woman…. may we all be called to faithful persistence steeped in love and justice. And like Jesus… may we all open our hearts to being changed by the persistent voice of the other moving us all beyond what had been.
References: Feasting on the Word, Theological Bible Commentary, Women’s Bible Commentary