Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
Don’t start with me.
I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
of my child,
the life of
Don’t you tell me no.
Since we last saw Jesus, with the crowds at their kingdom of God feast in the deserted place, where they dined on absurd abundance in the face of the empire’s evil, Jesus has been a few more places, had a few more arguments, walked on some water, and healed a whole lot more people. From there, it says, he went to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
From there he left the places where he was all the rage and went to a place where most self-respecting Jews wouldn’t wander, and probably few locals had the faintest clue who he was and even fewer cared. Jesus went off grid a little ways, to the land of the Gentiles, the home of the others. A respite, maybe? A break from the crowds? A chance to take a breather in place where, hopefully, he’d be a little ignored?
Just then a Cananite woman from that region came out and started shouting, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon!
Now I don’t know about you, but I can barely stomach imagining the anguish of watching your child suffer relentless torment day in and day out, with no relief in sight. The fear and persistence of it, the struggle and the desire for something different, a hope for her, for wholeness, for a future, for something to end this agony.
There are lots of mothers, and wives, and brothers, and fathers, and friends who watch a loved one living in torment day in and day out. So many stand alongside while depression carves a gaping hole in who she once was, or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder keep him locked in a cycle of despair, or addiction sinks in the talons and tightens its grip, so many stand by and wish they could help but feel utterly helpless, wish they could change things for her but feel completely at a loss. What wouldn’t you do to see this one you love set free?
Love and desperation drive this mother, and she has done her research. This one from Galilee may not be of her people, may not come from her storehouse of resources, or her list of approved vendors, but she has heard things, and there is no way on God’s green earth he is passing through her territory without her giving it a shot.
Have mercy on me!
But Jesus didn’t say a thing. He did not answer her at all, it says.
It’s as though she’s not even there. Her cries go unheeded. He keeps on walking.
Then this story gets way uglier.
After a few minutes, his road-weary disciples whine to him, Jesus, she’s bugging us with all that yelling. Tell her to go away.
So Jesus stops, and, I imagine him not even turning his head, staring straight ahead and saying into the air, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In other words, Lady, Your problems are not my problem.
But God bless her, she will not be put off.
Instead she comes and kneels down right in front of him, and looks up into his face, and says, “Lord, help me.”
And here comes the really cringe-worthy part, Jesus looks down at her and answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”
Jesus calls her a dog. And in the process, Jesus also implies that there is only a certain amount of what he has to go around, and he isn’t going to go wasting it, when there are more mouths than he seems able to feed already clamoring at the table.
Now, this is a very strange response, considering the feast he’d just presided over a few days earlier- where the abundant grace of God spilled out all over everyone with more leftover to spare. That meal of strangers made family where sharing actually seemed to increase the gift, and every person shared and every person was filled, and not a soul was excluded.
Now Jesus is standing in a foreign place away from the hometown crowds, with one single person at his feet, begging him for help, and all compassion, not to mention basic decency, seems to have left him.
I will just pause here to say this makes most of us really uncomfortable. We don’t like seeing Jesus like this and we don’t know what to do with it. Some people try to explain away his behavior, to soften his words, to justify what’s happening here. But the woman herself doesn’t bother with any of that. The one standing in the place of suffering on behalf of her beloved daughter doesn’t hesitate to counter back to him,
Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
And with this she grabs hold of her dignity and talks back to God. She does something bold and prophetic and incredibly challenging to Jesus. It’s as though she says, Fine, I’ll take the role of the dog in your scenario. But if a dog, then I am no feral stray, I am the beloved family pet, who sleeps with the children and sits at the master’s side. I am the master’s responsibility to care for, valued and belonging; this “dog” at your feet, sir, has a place in the household.
And with that brave and wickedly witty retort, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
In that moment, he is forced to see her – in that moment her humanity is restored.
She is no longer a hypothetical problem, a distant idea, a burden or a barrier in his path. And she is not a dog at all, but a sister, a child of God who confronts him with her person, and now he cannot turn away.
So Jesus answers- Woman! How great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!
And that instant her daughter is healed.
This Gentile Canaanite woman, the absolute other to the Jewish Messiah, is the only person in the gospels to win an argument with Jesus. And in this moment, she is the prophetic voice of God, the cosmic course correction in Jesus’ unfolding ministry, that who you thought you came for, and what you’re here to do, may not be as simple and clearcut as all that, and a few chapters later, by the end of Matthew, Jesus is sending his disciples out with the mandate to make disciples of all nations.
By answering Jesus as she does, the desperate mother shifts Jesus out of ideological commitments to personal encounter. He is taken from the hypothetical religious ideas – I came for the house of Israel – to the personal and human and personal reality – she is my sister and her daughter is suffering and she is asking for my help and I can help her.
And when the shift happens, from ideological commitments to personal encounter, instead of exclusion, suddenly there is inclusion. Instead of defining people as other, they are brothers and sisters, instead of seeing what we don’t have to give, we do whatever we can to share. When ideological commitments give way to personal encounter, we are forced to see the person in front of us and be a person ourselves, and in this meeting, God meets us.
The danger of this time for the church is the turn away from the person to the ideological. And in this week we feel that pull especially forcefully. The death of Robin Williams thrust depression and mental illness front and center, and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the fourth unarmed young black man to be killed by police in this nation inside of a month, and the ongoing protests and intermittent violence still happening there brings our utter brokenness and our nation’s deep, underlying racism right to the surface.
This week, when the massacres of whole villages of Christian and Yazidi men, women and children by ISIS militants in the mountains of Iraq and the terrifying spread of Ebola sweeping West Africa are the horrifying if not faint backdrop to these stories of national grief and anger, and the 24 hour news cycle bombards us with nonstop commentary and images, and exposes us to far more than we could ever take in, it is important for us to hear this.
What we are called as a Church to pay attention to and notice, as followers of this Jewish Messiah, what should raise our heads and stop us in our tracks, isn’t terrible disease or lack proper medical help, it isn’t political struggle and corruption, or genocide, and it isn’t depression, or racism, or inequality.
The course correction we are prophetically called by the events of our day to drop whatever is in front of us and turn our whole selves toward is real persons, real persons who suffer and yearn for life so deeply that they will take the crumbs.
We are called to see and embrace real persons, like you and like me, who have value and worth and are loved, and who stand before us as children of God, with their suffering right there in their hands, demanding that we see them as human beings and hold onto them.
Real persons who are relentlessly tormented by depression.
Real persons who are forced to bury their 18 year old boy.
Real persons who fail alarmingly in their duty to serve and protect.
Real persons whose live are sacrificed to senseless war or lost to violent sickness or smothered beneath layers of cold bureaucracy.
Ideologies make us into others from each other, sorting people into friend and enemy and indifferent distraction, and they divide our needs out neatly into categories of “important” and “not my problem.” They give us the power to judge and dismiss, to stand righteous in our cause and let the chips fall where they may. Ideologies let the Savior of the world stroll through enemy territory ignoring the cries of a desperate mother.
There is nothing inherently wrong with believing in a cause. But when the cause becomes the thing, so much so that it allows us to place it above the very human being confronting us, sinner and saint, a holy mess of contradictions and need, hopes and horrors – when a cause allows us to ignore or dismiss or destroy a person, any person, we are in need of a prophetic course correction.
Following Jesus, it turns out, is not about an ideological commitment, and it is not a call to hold to certain principles and beliefs. It is a call to join your life to the One who came for us all, the one who comes for real persons, who comes into our suffering and our brokenness, and especially we who long for life so deeply we will gladly take crumbs.
It is a call to see the real persons before us, in their full personhood, dignity, worth and need, and stand on their behalf, to share what we have, and to welcome them in so deeply it might even change us and the direction of our lives.
I have no theological answers for this week, and there is no ideology that can reason our way out of the heartbreaking events surrounding us this day.
But I do know of one thing.
There is a great and mighty Biblical tradition of lament.
Of crying out to God in distress and anguish and insisting that we be heard. And this is a deeply faithful way to stand alongside real persons.
This is not slapping solutions onto them like they are problems to fix, not rallying a cry around them like they are mascots for a cause, and not psychoanalyzing them like they are issues to be blamed.
It begins with listening deeply to the anguish of real people and refusing to turn away to the ideologies that remove us from the suffering, or the beliefs that keep us safely in our heads. It begins with the persons in front of us and beside us, and around us, bearing great anguish and great joy, and worthy of great love, claiming their place in the household of God, and demanding by their presence that we take them into our hearts and our prayers, messing with our lives in the process.
There is a great Biblical tradition of yelling back at God, the patriarchs argued for God’s character to be honored and faithfulness to be revealed, the prophets told it like it is, human’s hopeless destructive violence, and God’s promise to restore and redeem instead of raining down the judgment we clearly deserve.
Come, Lord Jesus, Maranatha!
Christ, Have mercy! Christe Eleison!
Lord, help me! Don’t you tell me no!
So today, let’s step into that great and faithful Biblical tradition, and stand with the Canaanite woman, and demand crumbs for our tormented daughters and sisters and selves and brothers and fathers, nearby and far away.
Let’s take into ourselves their cries of suffering. Bearing in our very souls the anguish they carry, and holding it up for God to see. Giving voice to the pain of those whose weeping has grown hoarse, wrapping our arms around those who are stumbling, and laying our hands upon those who march fearfully into the fray of another day and telling them with our bodies and our breath that they are not alone.
Let’s not be afraid to talk back to Jesus, to remind God that we are all God’s children and the world needs a hearty helping of God’s abundant grace, that every person might share, and every person might be filled, and not a soul might be excluded from the feast.
Let us pray for each other, sisters and brothers. Let us pray for the life of the world.