Here's the Gospel reading from last Sunday, and my address:
Matthew 15: 21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
This intriguing reading always provokes questions. You may have noticed that I like asking questions, especially when there are multiple possible answers. And (not just to cover myself but because I believe it's true) one of the exciting and liberating things about the Bible is that, time and time again, it asks questions of us which don't necessarily have a single correct answer. As we read the Bible, God opens up possibilities rather than closing them down. Often, we would prefer him to give us the definitive answer, to tell us exactly what to do and how to think. But he has made us free and creative and enquiring beings, and he calls us into a relationship with him in which - as in any genuinely free, genuinely reciprocal relationship - there will be questions which open up possibilities, rather than merely answers which shut down the conversation.
So - what is going on here, in this story? How does Jesus' rude and dismissive response to this woman in her time of need fit with our cherished view of him as the embodiment of God's compassionate love? How does he come to change his mind, and what does it mean that he does? Or does he know all along what he's going to do? Is it all a game, a stance he adopts to bring out the unstoppable force of the woman's desire for what she needs from him? And where does this story fit into the perplexing to and fro of Jesus' attitude towards non-Jews? (I told you - I like questions.)
Sorry, but I'm not even going to try to give clear and definitive answers to all these questions. I like them just being there as questions - they make us think, they make us wrestle with the strange, confounding reality of the man who is God. This is Jesus, who comes to prod, to provoke, to awaken, to turn things upside down - not to provide neat, textbook answers to all life's questions. He comes to do the opposite of what we expect, and nowhere more so than in this encounter. "What? Did he really do that? How can he say that?" These are the reactions Jesus provoked in those who came across him, and he still discombobulates us, if we really listen to him. The bad son gets a party, and the good boy gets nothing. What? He's going to visit the very worst person in town. What? The idlers who turn up at the last minute get paid the same as the guys who've been slaving all day in the hot sun. What? The prostitute is praised for her loving nature. What?
At the very least, we see that this Jesus wants to wake us up, so that we notice something quite new is happening. Something to do with a generosity that is reckless and offensive. Who deserves this love? No one. Who gets it? Everyone. And so we learn to let God be who God is, and we no longer insist that we know best when it comes to the appropriate limits for love.
And here, with this story, can I suggest that the real provocation, the thing which makes us roll our eyes - what's he up to now? - is that Jesus in his humanity engages so fully with the Canaanite woman in hers that she is able to make him think again. In other words, he gives her what is essential for any true, and truly fruitful, relationship - the possibility that we are able to change one another, for good. He does the exact opposite of pulling rank: he lets go of his status, his wisdom, his power, so that this can be a real encounter of equals, for a moment, rather than the imposition of the divine will.
This has astonishing implications for our relationship with God. Could it be that Jesus says to us: stop deferring to me, stop keeping me at arm's length, and instead - come, wrestle with me, argue with me, shout your need at me, like this woman, and I will make you whole? Could it be that what he asks of us is to be bold and true, and fiercely insistent that he meets us on level ground, right where we are? If so, then, beyond all the questions, there is a simple and wonderful invitation from him: be yourself with me.