“The Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter.” Naskh is the caligraphic style for writing in the Arabic alphabet that the biblical text is written in for this manuscript. The artist, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, was most likely a Coptic monk in the late 17th century in Egypt.
SOURCE: Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Whenever I am asked to do math, I simply reply that I am a liberal arts major who had to take remedial math, so I cannot be trusted with the church finances. My degree is in history; my minor and first love, however, was English.
English poet William Blake, born in 1757, died in 1827, wrote enduring works of poetry. Why a work of art lasts in our common psyche is often something of a mystery, but when Blake opened his work Songs of Innocence, he gave us a clue:
“Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again.’
So I piped: he wept to hear.”
Every piece of art from the beginning of human history has tried, ultimately, to do one thing: in the words of preaching scholar Anna Carter Florence, to try and “say something true” (1). When the song that the artist pipes strikes that common, human chord in us, we know that they have said something true; we weep to hear.
What truth we get out of things changes from era to era, but lasting works of art have spoken to the core of human existence so universally that we have continued to keep and preserve them. All of us has some movie, some work of art, some poem, some song, that inspires or touches us so deeply that we weep when we are reminded of it.
When we hear something true, it does not leave us unaffected. It shows us something true about ourselves, our fellow humans, and what binds us together.
In popular culture, some programs tell us quite plainly what truths we are to gain; Criminal Minds, for example, is known for weaving thought-provoking quotes through its nerve-wracking, raw drama about the human psyche. I love the show, but admittedly, some of the quotes are a little on the nose. I prefer to be shown, not told, what true thing I am to gain. When a character intones at the end of an episode, “Nietzsche once said, ‘When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you,’” I admit that I feel more hit over the head than haunted by nihilism.
Scripture, too, is a work of art in its own ancient way; it’s an enduring one at that. What is it that has kept people coming back to this collection of texts, century after century? No doubt a fear of hell has been compelling enough for some, and the Church for its part has too often encouraged that. As with anything, humanity is a messy lot, even and sometimes especially where God is involved. Best case scenario, though, we read the Scriptures together or separately and we hear something true. We hear something beautiful, we hear good news, and we weep to hear. Things like the Isaiah reading, where an embattled, traumatized little nation is told: “‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).
If you don’t like that image because it portrays a vengeful God, consider the plights of those who are consistently violated. People who have been driven out, othered and abused often look to God for justice.
Then, sometimes, the Scriptures outright confound us.
Like this Gospel passage where Jesus calls a woman a dog. And not just any woman: a Syrophoenician woman, a woman of another race and religion than himself, a woman despised by Jesus’ own people.
No wonder this is a common text that preaching teachers like to afflict on their students. This text is the New York City of Gospel passages; if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
So what are we to do with this passage where an oppressed woman with a sick daughter approaches Jesus, and he seems to dismiss her with contempt? This is distinctly not gentle Jesus, meek and mild. This Jesus is rude and dismissive and not nice at all, thank you very much. This Jesus even seems to have his own prejudices.
God? Have prejudices?
This is where we must resist the temptation to either make excuses for Jesus or to reprimand him from our modern, woke point of view. Because quite frankly, if making excuses for Jesus and arguing that he didn’t really mean it or he had some greater purpose for insulting her is a little dumb, then reprimanding the Son of God is very dumb.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think that’s the point of the story. I also think we sure can learn from it simply by throwing up our hands and admitting we don’t know why he was so rude to a hurting woman.
Because people ask me, and probably you too if they know you’re a church person, all the time: why does God allow suffering? Would a loving God really do that?
And which one of us hasn’t felt a little insulted by God from time to time? Who among us hasn’t felt a little forgotten or dismissed by God? I think we’ve all been going through something hard at some point and have wondered if God didn’t hate us or if God even exists or if you’ve been banging on this metaphorical door all your life when there might be nothing at all on the other side.
Or, if you’re the Syrophoenecian woman herself, you might be wondering if this teacher you heard so much about isn’t just a rude jerk of a prejudiced Jewish man. You might worry that you’ve put your hope in him for nothing. She tries just one more time with the tolerance and love and persistence that only a mother with a sick child could have: “Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Look, man. Nothing personal, but my daughter is sick. If you can do anything at all, please do.
Then we get to the actual point of the story: her daughter is made well.
The only true thing I, or you, or the Syrophoenecian woman who doesn’t even have a name in the story can say is that she came home to find that her daughter was healed.
She went to Jesus, and ultimately, though the whole experience must have been confusing, she found healing.
The only true thing that I can say is that I keep coming back here because I find healing here, and love, and grace here. Even when I might feel like God is ignoring me at best or is flat out insulting me at worst. It doesn’t matter. I keep showing up and finding grace. I hope you do too.
Whether you continue to persist or whether you give up and God finds you years from now, the true thing is that every human life deserves hope and life and love and when we find it, we want to give it to other people, too. And we folks happen to find it here in bread and wine and water and words and little kids with backpacks.
At the end of one episode of Criminal Minds, the character Morgan intones, “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.” George Chakiris.
Love and hope are possible as long as the Spirit of God — of art and truth and creativity endure. So let’s continue to find something true, together, no matter how dark the moment or difficult the search. Sometimes God may seem like a jerk, but that’s not the point.
The point is that our perspective is limited, but that God? God is here. And that, my friends, is something true. Amen.
1. Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, 2018.