When my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I had a few choice words for God. On a long evening walk under the stars, I railed at the unfairness of it all. At God’s unfairness. “Honestly, the kid’s barely out of preschool and she’s already undergone open heart surgery. Now this? Really? Would it have killed you to give us a break?”
You might be thinking that this is no way to talk to God. God has a plan. Faith is all about trusting God’s plan and rolling with it. You know, let go and let God. And while the whole God has a plan thing isn’t quite so simple, I’ve spilled more than my share of ink stressing the importance of letting go. Still, there’s more to our relationship with God than passive acceptance.
Sometimes we argue with God. Not because we’re being rebellious or petulant. Instead, when we get real with God, we can learn who God is and who we are. Take for instance the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Jesus and his disciples were walking through Tyre and Sidon, cities that Jesus would have rightly perceived as largely unreceptive to his ministry. A woman started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Jesus initially ignores her. The disciples grew annoyed and urged him to send her away. He says that Israel is his target audience. She’s a Canaanite. Then, the woman fell to her knees and begged. “Help me!” Jesus doubles down. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Undeterred, the woman quips, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus acknowledges the woman’s faith, and the child is healed instantly.
If you find this story hard to digest, you’re not alone. Jesus is not sounding especially Jesus-y here. His lack of compassion toward a desperate mother and a sick child contrast sharply with what we’ve come to expect of him.
Interpretations of the passage abound. Jesus is learning about his own human prejudices, discovering that his ministry extends to the Gentiles, or teaching us all to be inclusive. The woman models perseverance and tenacity.
These are all avenues worth pursuing. By contrast, I’m going to take a look at what the story tells us about faith. But before I do, let me say this. Faith is not a transaction. The woman didn’t purchase a healing for her daughter by forking out the right amount of belief. Instead, she demonstrates that faith is about getting real with God, even when getting real takes the form of a confrontation.
As it turns out, the Canaanite woman’s story takes up a motif that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham argues with God about the fate of Sodom. God announces that he’ll destroy the city because of its wickedness. Abraham haggles with God. If there are 50, then 45, then 30, then 20, then ten virtuous people there, wouldn’t God be willing to spare the city? God agrees. (Genesis 18:16-33)
Similarly, while Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people back at camp fashion a golden calf by melting their jewelry and start worshipping the thing. God blows a fuse, decides to eradicate the lot of them, and to start all over with Moses. The prophet persuades God to spare them.
Both Abraham and Moses win their arguments with God. But note that what they’re asking for is mercy. In other words, they seem to be reminding God to be God. To be the essentially merciful Creator of all things.
And so this question occurs to me: Who is really changing whose mind here? As Richard Rohr likes to say, Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. He came to change our minds about God.
The question before us as followers of Jesus is this: who do we really believe God is? And there’s one reliable place to get the answer to that question. Our own behavior. If we really believe that God is merciful, we will be merciful. We will give compassion because that’s just who we are, not because we’ve reckoned that somebody has earned it.
Mercy aims to relieve misery. It seems to me that we genuinely come to believe that God is merciful when we’ve needed that mercy for ourselves. When we realize that we need it continually.
When the psychologist diagnosed our daughter as neurodivergent, I discovered my own powerlessness. I could not fix this girl that I love so much. Nor could I guarantee her future. I still can’t. And what I say next may sound unbelievable to you, but I’ll tell you anyway.
As I walked beneath the stars that night, I heard God respond to my rage and my complaints. It was a sort of mild Job-in-the-whirlwind moment. (Job 38:1-7) God said, “You just make sure that she knows that you love her every day. That’s what you can do.” And it’s what I’ve done, with God’s help.
Her life is not perfect. She contends with struggles and faces uncertainty. Who doesn’t? But just so you know, she just got a promotion in the career of her choice.
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 15:21-28 from Proper 15, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up August 20, 2023). As usual, I’m posting one week in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.