August 20, 2017
The Church of The Saviour
The Reverend George C. Wong
“Wide enough for everyone”
In “The Sound of Music”, the Abbess and the nuns of the Nonnberg abbey find themselves deeply troubled by a postulant named Maria. The nuns are beside themselves over her sincere but free-spirited ways. They agonize over whether she would ever fit in and truly be one of them.
Singing, “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria” the nuns express how Maria had unnerved them:
She’s always late for everything except for every meal
From all of which I take it, you very firmly feel.
Maria’s not an asset to the Abbey
Maria challenges the nun’s deepest values, because she behaves outside of the boundaries of what they consider proper decorum for a nun. By being herself, she threatens to undermine their carefully constructed and maintained world of ordered service to God. The song is playful and seemingly good-natured—but when you strip away the lighthearted melody and clever lyrics, there is a powerful and not so hidden desire on the part the nuns to get rid of Maria.
Like the nuns of Nonnberg abbey, Jesus must figure out how to deal with the Canaanite woman who poses a serious challenge to his most deeply held beliefs, in this case his understanding of who deserves God’s mercy.
The Canaanite wasn’t considered an asset to society.
She was a despised foreigner, not one of theirs.
Nonetheless, there she was shouting at Jesus to show mercy upon her and her daughter. How do you solve a problem like the Canaanite woman?
The woman recites one of the most powerful and profound prayers ever spoken, an ancient version of the Kyrie Eleison: “Have Mercy on Me Lord, Son of David.” Not willing to entertain her, Jesus ignores her and likely hopes she will get the message, and leave.
For their part, the disciples know they are insiders, sons of Abraham and members of Jesus's team. So they are appalled by this foreigner who dares to call their master, Lord. “Jesus get rid of her!”
It seems that Jesus agrees with the disciples, because he tells her that he was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, not people like her. Jesus then insults her by telling her that helping her would be like taking food away from children and giving it to the dogs.”
Up to this point, Jesus’ had treated the Canaanite woman with scorn, with no sign of concern or kindness for her or her daughter. Jesus seems interested in guarding the tradition, which clearly says that she is unworthy of his care. She is not a sheep of his flock, so she need not apply for help. This is far from the kind of compassionate response we would expect from Jesus.
Jesus had his human side too—was he just having an off day? As we might expect, there is more to the story of the Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Ironically, the woman is slighted by Jesus when he chooses rules over compassion right after he had read the riot act to Pharisees for their restrictive views on religious codes. Jesus argues that what a person eats does not defile them, or make them unclean. Instead, he suggests that the Pharisees look at what comes out of a person, not what goes inside a person. Food preferences and dietary choices were closely related to one’s ethnic, social, religious and racial background. So, Jesus is really saying that a person is not defiled simply because their ethnic, social, religious, and racial background differs. It is the heart of a person that matters. It is as we say the character and content of a person that mattered then and matters now.
The Canaanite woman knows that people don’t really know anything about her heart but still judge her unworthy. “Is this how you really feel too Jesus?” It is as if the woman is calling upon Jesus to walk the talk: “if you believe what you just said to the Pharisees, do not sacrifice my daughter and me for the sake of following your rules and tradition about who is in and who is out. I do not deserve to be sacrificed on the altar of tradition, I deserve and claim mercy.
Despite her desperation, and impossibly low status, she knows God’s blessing are too big to be held back by tradition or rules or cultural norms.
Jesus recognizes the deep underlying truth of her claim to God’s blessing. Moved by her persistence and by her faithfulness, Jesus says: ‘Woman, great is your faith.’ At that moment, her daughter is healed. This is an incredible moment, because Jesus, the Son of God, has learned from a hurting, outcast, one who was below the mercy radar screen according to tradition. The miracle seems to depend upon a widened understanding of who deserves mercy—only when that happens does the physical healing of the daughter occur.
If Jesus was able to learn and change his understanding of mercy and tradition, we might take that as an important guide for our own learning and be more willing to expand our understanding of faith. The story of the Canaanite woman reminds us of the power of standing firmly on the ground of faith even when others try to shove you out of the picture. It also cautions us about holding too narrow a view of who deserves mercy and who doesn’t deserve mercy.
Mostly, Canaanite woman reminds us that God’s mercy washes over us. The wideness of God’s mercy is big enough for many, even those whom others want to get rid of:
Like Maria who was never accepted in the abbey
Like the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for and received mercy from Jesus for her and her daughter
Like Joseph who was dead man rescued from a pit
Like Joseph’s brothers who are rescued by the brother they had left for dead in a pit.
In the course of life, most of us experience being on both sides of the divide between who is in and who is out. As the highly praised rabbi followed by thousands and as the despised rabble rouser condemned to death, Jesus knew both sides of that divide.
When we feel like we are on the outside and are scorned, we might be well served to remember the truth that the Canaanite woman taught us: that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
When we find ourselves on the inside, we are called to invite those on the margins of society into our circles and to sit side by side with them. Again, we need to remember that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
May we like Jesus did continue to grow in our willingness to be merciful and compassionate. May those we meet around town in Denville, at work and in our neighborhoods say of us: there is a people who know that and live like there is a wideness in God’s mercy.