Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 12.23 Matt. 15:21ff
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out… and bowed down before him and said ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs eat the crumbs falling from their Master’s table’.
And this is what she was made for, the canine-ite woman! The word translated by the ESV as “knelt before” is, in the original Greek, προσεκυνει, literally: “to prostrate yourself, fall on your face in obeisance, worship, paying homage as to a god”. It’s a much more weighty and glorious thing going on here than mere… kneeling. Bowing down in worship—that’s what the Canaanite woman’s doing here—worshiping Jesus as LORD, God. And that’s not something you see every day, not even in the bible! Even in holy scriptures, it’s surprisingly… rare.
Fun fact: there are a few homonyms in our text this morning, 3 words that, in Greek, sound alike but have different meanings: προσεκυνει “worship, bow down, pay homage” sounds kinda like what Jesus calls the woman in Greek, a κυναριοις—“dog”, or “domesticated dog” (or “canine-ite” to reproduce the effect in English), and instead of getting all offended, prideful, she just plays right along, falls flat on her face in adoration and I’m (pretty) sure barks out a little “Woof!” as she’s face-planting.
And that’s the other homonym, because (delightfully!) in Greek, Canaanite is χαναναια which sounds kinda like the form of the Greek word the Canaanite woman calls herself—κυναρια, domesticated dog. Fun, huh? God is in the details, kids; and Jesus most definitely has a sense of humor.
And I think it’s only when we get the joke here that we also get the very weighty and serious picture this story’s painting. But, because we usually approach the scriptures all sober and serious—like it’s a book of helpful, holy information, without any real humanity or humor—we fail to see the fun and so utterly miss the point of this, my favorite story (along with Peter and Jesus messing about in boats, from last week 😉
As Jesus messed with Peter, so he messes with the Canaanite woman. Like he lured Peter to get out of the boat and walk on water and go under and nearly drown, so he plays kinda rough with this Canaanite woman. Now, on one level this is not very nice of Jesus. Because this woman is in real distress, is having a very bad day, maybe a pretty tough life?
When she got up that morning to go looking for Jesus, you would not have bet that her day would turn out marvelously. You would have bet instead, a lot, that her day would end in tears of sadness and not tears of joy.
Her daughter was severely demonized. Demons were pretty thick on the ground in the New Testament era. It seems that when the LORD of All took on human flesh, got his “boots on the ground”, the devil responds by unleashing the legion of demons (great name for a rock band) in a massive counter-assault. You couldn’t throw a rock in Galilee, it seems, without hitting some demon possessed person.
But especially sad when the demons possess a young girl; and extremely sad if that girl just happens to be your daughter! Parents live and die for our kids. When they are flourishing and happy, we are beaming. When they are floundering and miserable, we’re more miserable still. It’s just the way God made us, I’m afraid.
Most parents would endure any amount of pain and suffering themselves if it would spare our children misery. There’s no mention here, of a husband (maybe he’s at the library, getting books about trucks?) But strange, back then, for a married woman asking help from another man without her husband. But trouble with the kids puts a lot of stress on a marriage. Perhaps her husband had one too many demon-driven days with his daughter and had lit out for the territories?
Anyway, mom seems to be having to bear the heavy weight of raising a demon possessed daughter by herself. We aren’t told what the symptoms of this particular demon possession were. Foaming at the mouth, throwing herself into the the fire?—like the man’s son who believes but needs help with his unbelief? Maybe she was super strong like the man with the legion of demons? Perhaps her head spun around and she said horrible things like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”? Maybe it was all of that, plus she listened to weird music, wore strange clothes, got mixed up with bad boys, and had all kinds of strange piercings and tats and pretended to not even know her mother when they went out to the marketplace, shopping. I wonder, sometimes, if what we call “adolescence” the ancients more properly labeled demon-possession?
Anyway, the Canaanite woman is at her wit’s end, it seems. But she believes that this Jesus of Nazareth is really God, the promised Christ, the Savior. But if he can’t (or won’t!) help, then that’s it. She’s stuck permanently with a demon-possessed daughter. So everything is riding on this day with Jesus, for her.
I suspect though, that given her chipper disposition and wry sense of humor, that her faith that Jesus is LORD, God, has already lightened the heavy load. I wonder if—like David, whom his brothers criticize for coming out to see the battle with the giant and getting drawn by God into some giant killing, himself—if the woman isn’t secretly a little excited that she has a pretext to go see Jesus? That just seeing him might be remedy enough?
Because when Jesus ignores her, calls her a dog, sub-human, she is not fazed, but just barks and bows down and begs for some crumbs! This is what faith looks like. We’ll be whatever Jesus says we are and love it…(!)
C.S. Lewis says in his wonderful little essay “The Weight of Glory” that chasing glory seems, well… not very humble, not very Christian. But he says we see IT in dogs (and small children), that their great glory is not in doing something great, but in their master, their parent, patting them on the head and saying “Well done! Good girl!”
The glory of heaven is this: God’s pat on your head, being pleased with you at Last, saying “Good girl! Well done!” Seeing that God is pleased with you—the Creator delighted with his creature, will fill you with a joy beyond imagination. This is the weight of glory scriptures promise us!
So, picture her—the Canaanite woman—like this: prostrate in the dirt, the utter self-abnegation of adoration. But what’s this? Is that a hint of a smile on her face, even with a tear in her eye? Well, then picture this, too: see Jesus, the King of Heaven, going down on one knee himself, before her. Bowing down, the King of All, bowing down before a mere creature, his self-abnegation shocking, mirroring hers, foreshadowing his, when he would—a few months later—bow down his own head on the cross, crowned with thorns, bleeding, dying, giving up the ghost, giving up everything, for her!
I can see it. I can see Jesus, bending low, lifting her up in his arms, her body limp, totally spent, raising her, beaming, maybe his eyes glistening, too? But, if there’s a tear there, just in the corner of his eye, well—it must be one of laughter, of joy, as he exclaims: “O, woman! Great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.”
Imagine! The King of Heaven delighted with, fully pleased with this poor creature, this canine-ite woman!!! Ah, the glory of it all isn’t lost on you, the weight of it, is it now? Heavy as a crown of gold; light as a crown of thorns—from his head to hers, making her… what? A daughter of the King. Fully dog, she becomes fully human, reflecting the divine. What she was made for. What we’re all made for. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.