God is immutable. God doesn’t change. Christians have pretty much believed this since Thomas Aquinas, one of our most brilliant theologians, argued this one point in five different ways. (reading from Aquinas?) We can take comfort in God’s changelessness-he is steady, consistent, we know what to expect.
God’s immutability, God’s changelessness is easy to accept. Until, that is, you read the Bible.
See the problem with the idea of God’s immutability, is that theologians like Aquinas were taking a Platonic idea, a Greek idea, and imposing it on the Hebrew God. Most of the time in the Bible, God does seem changeless, but every once in awhile, there is a story in the Bible that makes you wonder about what the changelessness of God really means.
Today’s Gospel lesson of the Caananite woman is one of these stories.
In this story, Jesus is confronted with a woman who is an outsider. So far, Jesus’ ministry had been confined to those of Jewish descent. Our heroine was decidedly NOT Jewish-she was from an outlying region called Syro-Phonecia. Jesus was putting himself in a vulnerable position even being in Tyre and Sidon so it is no wonder he is a little tense when this Caananite woman approaches him. Still, keep in mind that Jesus has been hounded by hundreds of people, and in every story recorded before this, he has responded to people in need incredibly graciously. When this woman starts begging him to help her daughter, however, Jesus is rude. Rude! Jesus!
Now, I’ve read a lot of commentaries about this passage, and many of them think Jesus was toying with the woman, teasing her to test her faith. But he called her a DOG! A DOG! That’s not nice. That’s not a Jesus-y thing to say. If one of you called because your daughter was sick and you wanted Chuck or I to visit you in the hospital, and we called you a dog, you would not say, “Oh, isn’t that sweet. They are testing my faith.” Even if Jesus was “teasing”, he was not teasing in a kind way.
What is so fabulous about this story is that instead of bowing down in respect or shame and running away, the Caananite woman fights back! This woman will not let go. She uses Jesus’ own argument-that he was sent only to the people of Israel, not other “dogs”-and twists the argument in her favor. She is so convinced of Jesus’ ability to heal her daughter, that she does not need him to be gracious, she does not need him to actually come to her daughter, all she wants is crumbs.
Jesus may not know that he is sent to more than just the people of Israel, but this woman sure does. All that she has heard about Jesus convinces her that he is the kind of man who would heal even a Caananite woman’s daughter. She is so driven by love for her child, desperation for her well being, that she will take on GOD, and figuratively arm-wrestle him until he submits.
When Jesus finally realizes what is happening, he is not angry or confused-he is delighted! Something about this woman’s persistence, doggedness, (If you’ll allow me) makes him go “Aha!” Something about this no-good, foreign “dog” makes him realize that part of his God-ness is to love, heal and redeem ALL people, not just the people of Israel. Something about this very human woman’s pain makes Jesus grow.
Sure, you’re thinking, but Jesus was also human, so maybe it was his humanness that grew. . .Well, there are plenty of stories in the Old Testament in which God seems to change his mind, when he seems bent on destroying Israel until some faithful Israelite intercedes.
While there is something comforting about having a God that never changes, I wonder if the concept of God’s immutability is something humans have developed out of our need to define God. God is so massive and abstract and powerful and elusive and we are so. . .orderly. I guarantee you, Thomas Aquinas was an off the charts “J” on the Meyers-Briggs-there is something incredibly satisfying about being able to say, “God is like this.” And, because of the gift of Scripture-of the history of God’s interactions with God’s people-we CAN describe God. What we can’t do is pin God down.
Any of you who have a prayer life know this. As SOON as you think you know what God is doing in your life-BOOM!-suddenly he surprises you with something you never could have imagined. I do not mean that God is tricky or capricious. Clearly, over the course of history, God has shown many consistent traits: God is loving. God is just. God is merciful. What I do mean, is that God is not stagnant.
So, we may not be able to pin God down, but what our passage from Matthew shows us today is that we sure can argue with him. We can demand that God act like God and show our loved ones the mercy and love that we know he is capable of. We can demand that God heal us and those around us. Our prayers do not have to come from a bended knee and a meek heart. We can raise our fists to God and say, “Hey, if you’re God, why don’t you start acting like it!”
We all go through different spiritual stages in our lives and sometimes it really feels like God is snubbing us, like God isn’t interested in even offering us crumbs of hope, crumbs of faith.
But if Jesus is willing to heal the daughter of a pushy outcast, he’s surely willing to heal us. That healing may not look like we expect, but the experience of healing will come out of or even in the midst of this latching onto God, of this deep engagement with the one who created us and redeems us. There is a time to peacefully accept the lot life has given us, and there is a time to furiously object and to beg for justice and healing. The key is to stay in prayer, to take time to listen to your heart and listen to God. When we stay engaged with God, whether meekly or violently, we give God the space to speak to us, to change our hearts, to bring us more in alignment with his vision for our lives.
Remember, if the Caananite woman had just walked away from Jesus, both she and Jesus would have been denied a life-changing encounter.