If you joined us last Sunday, or saw the archived video of church, you know we talked about how Elijah spent a lot of time talking at God instead of listening to God. In the cave, wind, earthquake, and fire passed by, but only in the sound of sheer silence could Elijah hear God. What’s funny is today’s Gospel seems to say the complete opposite. Instead of the Canaanite woman needing to be silent to hear God, her persistent talking to Jesus is what seems to be the instruction of the gospel. So, either Holy Scripture has completely lost her mind, your preacher is highly confused (or did not look ahead), or something else is going on here.
Taking a closer look at the texts might help. You see, when Elijah keeps talking and talking, Elijah has turned in on himself, is wallowing in fear, and cannot see out of his desperation. And instead of looking to God for relief, he gets caught up in blaming others, self-pity, and an inflated sense of ego. The Canaanite woman is completely different. She is an outsider on every level – she’s from Tyre and Sidon – regions who are oppressing the Israelites; historically, she a Canaanite, the land Joshua conquered with the Israelites; she is a Gentile, who does not worship God and is not a part of God’s redemptive plan; she is not only a woman, but also an unnamed woman, with lower social status, whose daughter is unclean and tormented by a demon; and she is not just talking to a man in public, but shouting and making a scene. Despite all the things that societally should keep her from pursuing Jesus, and despite the ways Jesus ignores her and insults her, she will not stop talking until she gets a blessing. And in this instance, Jesus rewards her persistent talking.
So what is happening? Why is Elijah’s persistence shut down, and the Canaanite woman’s persistence encouraged? Here is the real difference between Elijah and the Canaanite woman. Elijah looks at his life and sees scarcity. The Canaanite woman looks at her life and sees abundance. Now, we would need about an hour to talk about the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, because I have a lot to say about Jesus’ behavior. But since we are limited today, I want to shift our focus on the woman. You see, despite the fact Jesus ignores her, and despite the fact Jesus seems to think Israelite election means Gentiles are excluded from his attention, this woman sees abundance in Israel’s election for all. “While mercy may begin with Israel, she knows [that mercy] cannot end there, because of the very nature of Israel’s God. [That mercy] overflows to others in the house – even to the ‘the dogs’.”[i] And so she keeps talking, violates boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession.[ii] Unlike last week when Jesus says Peter is of little faith, this woman’s persistence leads Jesus to say, “Great is your faith!” Elijah and the Canaanite woman both are looking at a bleak situation. But whereas Elijah sees scarcity, the Canaanite sees abundance – and she is willing to talk, to verbally engage God until God allows justice and unrestrained abundance.
So, which is the way? Are we to be silent and humble before our God, or are we to keep coming at God until God’s mercy overflows? The answer is, “it’s complicated.” Truthfully, the differences between Elijah and the Canaanite woman say more about the individuals than they say about God. What happens to each character is the same: when Elijah is able to stand in the sheer silence of God, Elijah slowly sees the abundance God has already provided for Elijah; when the Canaanite woman persists with Jesus, the abundance she identifies is provided for her. Either way, the answer is the same – God’s love and mercy is overflowing, obliterates manmade boundaries of ethnicity, faith, gender, and power, and can transform the world.
Our invitation this week is to ponder our own place in God’s story. Maybe we are Elijahs who are going to need some TLC and some humbled silence to experience God’s abundance. Maybe we are Canaanite women who need to shout from the mountaintop for justice and grace to experience God’s abundance. Or maybe we will experience God’s abundance another way – through the stranger, the innocence of a child, or an intentional relationship with someone many may see as an enemy. But the invitation is not just to consider where you are in God’s story. The invitation is to acknowledge where you are in God’s story, and consider what you will do when you finally come to terms with God’s abundant mercy and love all around you. That is where your story begins. Amen.
[i] Iwan Russell-Jones, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 360.
[ii] Jae Won Lee, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 361.