Nevertheless We Persist
I am not interested in picking up the crumbs of compassion from the table
from someone who considers himself my master.
I want the full menu of rights.
I love this Gospel story plain and simple because it features both a bold and persistent woman and a Jesus who sometimes doesn’t get it right away but is able to change. I have come to love this difficult story of protest and reclamation in which a displaced woman reclaims her place at the table. I love the fact that Jesus starts out not looking so good but gets saved by love, the unconditional and relentless love of a mother for her sick daughter. He was saved because he heard the injustice of his rebuke in her willingness to accept even the crumbs. His hearing restored him, which allowed for mutual healing to occur.
Before Elizabeth Warren made popular the phrase “Nevertheless she persisted” there were and have always been women like the Syrophonecian or Cannanite woman, women who have demanded to be heard or who have spoken up on behalf of their children. Our modern day examples include the mothers during the Civil War who called on mothers on both sides to end the war, the killing of each other’s children.
Their proclamation led to the first Mother’s Day. Then there are the Mothers of La Plaza de Mayo who carried pictures of their disappeared children around their necks in daily protests and then more recently, last fall there were women in Palestine and Israel who marched together to wage peace instead of hatred and violence. Nasty women have always been around, have always had to fight to be heard, to have their rights recognized.
Like the Hebrew midwives Shiphah and Puah and later Mother Mary, there have always been women who served life. So let us explore together this particular story of persistent resistance in more depth. The story unfolds in the region of Tyre and Sidon, the heart of pagan territory, which is now in Lebanon. Jesus goes to this Gentile land not as a prophet with a message about love or salvation but to rest, to escape the crowds and the constant demands on his time. He had also just had a confrontation with the Pharisees in Galilee and so is probably not feeling like his ministry is going very well with his own people, the children of Israel. He is tired and frustrated. Then this foreign woman comes making demands, a Syrophoenician in Mark’s Gospel, a Canaanite in Mathew’s gospel. She is desperate about her daughter’s illness and begs Jesus to heal her.
It is important to know that in the Jewish tradition, non-Jews were considered unclean and outside of God’s care and redemption. This woman is a religious outsider. She is also a woman and thus forbidden to talk to men in public including backwater healers like Jesus from Galilee. Yet love and concern for her daughter, coupled with her faith that Jesus could cure her drives her to approach this man. She does so humbly, kneeling at his feet.
Jesus does not offer her his usual pastoral kindness but rather a harsh rebuke, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is saying that what he has, the food of the soul, is for the children of Israel only. Furthermore, it would be absurd to waste it on foreign dogs like her and her child. She can have the crumbs later. There are priorities and protocols, rules and regulations. Jesus sounds like one of the Pharisees. How ironic. Perhaps he just has compassion fatigue. Perhaps he is product of his own time full of racial prejudices and sexism.
The woman, this desperate single-minded mother, doesn’t take no for an answer though. She does not allow her own hurt feelings to stand in her way. She doesn’t stomp off in a snit or start yelling or anything else I could imagine doing myself if I were in her shoes. Instead she frames an intelligent, I dare say, witty response that neither contradicts him nor cedes her own point. She meets his dismissal with honor and respect, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
She demands he help her. Now, on one hand, she says that even the crumbs are holy and that this will be enough. What faith! She speaks truth to power and risks everything for the love of her daughter. Her truth telling, her humility, her risk taking, her faith in crumbs opens the door to Jesus’ heart.
“For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus, the man the son of God, who was caught with “his compassion down” now has a change of heart. This woman’s intercessory ministry moves Jesus past his tiredness, his bad mood, his racism, and his sexism. She calls him back to his humanity by reminding him of hers. Jesus was suddenly able to see and “let the dogs out of his consciousness” and regain his mission, which is both human and divine. He was taught by this brave woman how to reclaim his identity as the Christ whose Beloved Community is for all, not only the Jews. “He was cured of the bigotry of his time and society. This persistent woman restores Jesus to himself so that he can become our redeemer.
Jesus changed because he listened to the extent that love would go. He changed because he didn’t like the kind of man he saw in the mirror she was holding up for him to see. Jesus changed because He listened to someone he didn’t want to listen to, to someone he considered less than human, no better than a dog. He changed because he knew that the crumbs are connected to the bread, to his body broken for others to be made whole. He changed because he knew in his heart, if not his head, even if it will be hard to convince others that his mission of salvation was for everyone. He knew, like we do, that the table must be open to all regardless of class, race, sexual orientation, legal status, or even beliefs.
“For Saying That” was my second choice for sermon title because it is the woman’s sharp retort that changes everything including how the mission will now include even those pagan dogs, the Gentiles. It is her gift to him. There is a mutuality of gift giving here that implies that God needs our engagement, even our retorts, for all that God can be. I find this a radical notion that God needs us, each one of us for God to accomplish the mission of salvation.
Jesus was saved by love, the unconditional and relentless love of a mother for her sick daughter. He was saved because he heard the injustice in his own response; he was saved by her willingness to accept even the crumbs.
Women were the first non-Jews to become members of the Jesus Movement. They helped the Movement become inclusive and open to all. These persistent “nasty women” are the foremothers of all Gentile Christians.
I invite you today to celebrate these women in our sacred texts and in our lives who demand the full menu of rights, who will not stay silent when their sisters are publically maligned or marginalized, groped or raped. I invite you to join them. So put on your pink hats, raise your voices and say No to all the injustices you come in contact with and Yes to equality and unconditional love.
Loren McGrail serves with the YWCA of Palestine. She helps identify international partners, and relevant sources of funding. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.