Courage to challenge God

Pentecost 9 – 2011

Matthew 15:21-28

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us into a relationship that is robust and true. Amen.

Over the past year, I have reflected on the fact that most of us are too timid when it comes to our conversations with God. Timid as to what we ask for, timid as to the way in which we ask, timid as to our expectations. Timidity is not a biblical characteristic. Consider the example of Abraham. Not only did Abraham question whether or not God was able to provide him with an heir (even though God continually re-iterated God’s promise), Abraham also had the nerve to argue with God about God’s decision to destroy Sodom.

The conversation in Genesis is instructive – Abraham basically wears God down. When God tells Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom, Abraham says to God: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” God replies: “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham then asks God: “What if there are 45?” and so on until God agrees not to destroy Sodom if ten righteous people can be found there (Gen 18:17-33).

Moses also, was not afraid to let God know what he thought. Despite the fact that God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the people constantly complained about their lot, failed to trust in God and worst of all, made for themselves an idol to worship instead of God. Over and over again, Moses stood between the Israelites and God – who threatened dire consequences for the Israelite’s bad behaviour. What is more Moses had the effrontery to point out to God that God would loose respect in the face of the nations if God destroyed God’s chosen people and as a result God would relent and either not punish or limit the consequences of Israel’s actions.

For example, when the people complain that it would be better for them to have stayed in Egypt than to die in the wilderness, God threatens: “I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you (Moses) a nation greater and mightier than they.” However, Moses stands in the breach and says to God” “The Egyptians will hear of it, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ And now, therefore, let the power of the LORD be great.” (Numbers 14:1-20). In effect, Moses has the nerve to tell God that God’s reputation as a great God will be nullified if he carries out his threat to destroy Israel!

It seems then, that our forebears did not have a problem with tackling God head-on, being honest about how they felt and challenging God about what God planned to do. As a result, on occasion, God does indeed change his mind.

All of this brings us to today’s gospel and the Canaanite woman. Her daughter is tormented by a demon, so she seeks out Jesus and asks for his help. However, it doesn’t look hopeful – Jesus’ reaction is to ignore the woman and his disciples urge him to send her away. That alone seems cruel and heartless, but what comes next is worse. When Jesus finally responds he says: “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” – the woman and her daughter are simply not his responsibility. The desperate woman falls to her knees and pleads: “Lord, help me.’ Even then Jesus is not moved: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles is firmly fixed, and Jesus can see no reason to break it. The woman does not belong to the people of Israel therefore she is not his concern. Furthermore, if Jesus helps her, he is taking something away from those he came to save.

Many of us would be cowed and put off by Jesus’ harsh reaction. We would loose our confidence and slink off to where we came from. This woman, however, is persistent. She loves and values her daughter and nothing is going to deter her. Even though Jesus bluntly refuses her request and compares her to a dog, she will not be stopped. She challenges Jesus and his world-view, taking his description of outsiders and using it to her advantage: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” In her own eyes, even though she does not belong to the people of Israel, she is worthy of Jesus’ attention. Just as dogs lick up the crumbs that fall from the table, so the outsiders – the Gentiles – may benefit from Jesus’ presence in the world, even if they receive only the crumbs it will be enough.

The woman’s determination and confidence pay off. Jesus is persuaded by her argument and agrees to heal her daughter. Not only is the woman’s request granted, but she has changed Jesus’ mind. According to this account, the whole history of humankind is changed in this transaction, the people of Israel no longer has exclusive hold on God and Jesus’ mission “to the lost sheep of Israel” has been extended to include all people. The outsider has become one of the insiders, the one who was ignored and turned away has made her point to the Saviour of the world, the one who was considered of no account, has proven her worth and received her wish.

I wonder how many of us would have persisted in the face of such resistance. I wonder whether in the face of difficulty or unanswered prayer do we simply think: “It’s too hard”, “God doesn’t want to help.” I wonder whether we too often quietly and meekly put our requests aside and accept silence as rebuke, or as the “will of God.”

I do not know, any more than you, why some prayers seem to be heard and others seem to be lost in the void, but in the light of the stories of Abraham, Moses and the unnamed Canaanite women, I ask myself: Do we really engage with God when we are angry confused or disappointed? Or do we ask too little, set our expectations too low or give up too soon?

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