Daily Reading for August 17 • The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
This passage from Matthew describes one of those difficult moments in Jesus’ life that we might skip altogether if the lectionary did not direct us to deal with it. What makes it so difficult is how harsh Jesus sounds, how harsh and downright rude. . . .
He does not answer [the Canaanite woman] a word. He draws the line, as surely as if he had leaned down and traced it in the dust at his feet. Enough is enough. He will go no further. . . . But the woman will not stay on her side of the line. Kneeling at his feet, she says, “Lord, help me.” . . .
Her responses to Jesus remind me of that game children play, in which two of them look steadily into each other’s eyes, each trying to make the other blink first. Jesus all but claps his hands in the woman’s face but she does not blink. “Yes, Lord,” she says when he calls her a dog, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” When she says that, something in him is rearranged and changed forever, a change you can hear in his voice. “O woman, great is your faith,” he says to her. “Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter is healed instantly.
The line he had drawn between himself and the woman disappears; the limits he had placed on himself vanish, and you can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do. He is no longer a Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel, but God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and gentiles alike, beginning with this Canaanite woman.
Through her faith he learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around, and in that moment there is no going back to the limits he observed even a moment ago. The old boundaries will not contain his new vision—he must rub them out and draw them bigger, to include this foreign woman today and who knows what tomorrow—it looks like answering God’s call means that he can no longer control his ministry or narrow his mission. There is no more safety or certainty for him, no more guarding against loss or hanging on to his cherished notions about the way things ought to be. Faith works like a lever on him, opening his arms wider and wider until there is room for the whole world in them.
From “Crossing the Line” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons from the Episcopal Series of the Protestant Radio Hour by Barbara Brown Taylor (Forward Movement Publications, 1990).