I'm spending several days in a consultation at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research that is connected to St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN. The title of the consultation is "Igniting Biblical Imagination," and the inspiration for the title is a comment made by the abbot about what he hopes the Saint John's Bible will do. One of our assignments to ourselves was to write a letter to someone—a biblical character, the Bible itself, a friend, anyone—that engaged the topic of biblical imagination. I wrote this letter to the Canaanite woman whose story is told in Matthew 15:21-28.
Dear Canaanite Sister,
You go girl! I’ve never seen anyone talk to Jesus like that. And this from someone who so clearly does not belong. No one has called anyone a Canaanite for centuries. You are so out of time and so out of place and so exactly where you and your daughters and sons need you to be.
I heard you first, before I saw you. You were screaming, crying, crying out, wailing in that Emergency Room of yours that doubles as a road through Tyre and Sidon. So foreign it all is. What were you doing there? What was Jesus doing there? You would tell him. "Have mercy on me, Son of David," you said. "My daughter… my daughter is tormented by a demon."
The disciples wondered if the demon didn't have hold of you, too. You kept shouting. They asked Jesus to dismiss you. He ignored them. But he ignored you too, and some of us who know him found his silence even more disturbing than your cries.
Then he spoke, and things got worse. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he said. At that point, I would have gotten angry. "Sent only to Israel, huh? Then what the hell are you doing in Tyre? Need a map, Mister Omniscient Son of God?"
Did you teach the Teacher? "Lord, help me," you said, instead of fussing about who was out of place. To which you heard, "It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs."
You were kneeling when he said this, existing low where it is possible to smell exactly what the Rottweiler had for lunch. You were kneeling in a posture of worship, praying when he said you were a dog.
Was it that place below the action that told you what to say next? "Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." I'm down here looking for just a little. "My daughter…. Have mercy…. Crumbs."
Did you teach the Teacher? Yes, I'm sure you did. Because of you and your fierce need, Jesus himself came to see his life’s work as bigger than before. What he had not thought to look for in anyone like you, he saw: faith. He saw your tenacious conviction that he could help, and amazed, he did.
I have thought that fear makes it impossible to imagine things. "Perfect fear casts out all imagination," I have thought. But you were afraid—you must have been afraid of the demon and of your daughter’s suffering. You could be afraid and see a new thing—healing—at the same time. You saw it and you showed it to Jesus and the rest of us.
What else will you help us see? Will you help us see the work of God going on for us in places where we don’t belong? Will you help us see a stranger on the road, out of place himself, who certainly can help? Will you help us see the loaf that is enough for children and for dogs? Will you help us see these things when we are terrified? You taught the Teacher. What will you teach us?