Speaking up on behalf of our neighbor
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman on the border of the regions of Tyre and Sidon found in Matthew 15:21-28 came up as the story to be read in church a couple of weeks ago for those churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary. And it’s had me thinking about advocacy or speaking up, publicly on behalf of another.
In this story the woman, a foreigner to Jesus, cries out to him for mercy, asking that he would free her daughter from the demon that is tormenting her. At first Jesus ignores her. He keeps on walking, not even acknowledging her presence, similar to the way we may act when we encounter a stranger on the street who is asking us if we can spare a little money. Eventually the woman blocks Jesus’ path, kneels at his feet and cries out, “Help me!”
This is when the exchange gets heated. Jesus responds with an insult, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26). But seemingly unfazed, the woman persists. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” (v. 27) And with that, Jesus proclaims, “Woman, great is your faith!” and her daughter is healed immediately.
This story is scandalous for a number of reasons, one of which is that the woman advocates for her daughter persistently enough that Jesus changes his mind. To those of us who’ve learned about an unchanging God, this can be puzzling. But there are many instances throughout the Holy Story in which God changes God’s mind. God changes God’s mind about destroying all the earth in the flood story (Genesis 6). God changes God’s mind, much to Jonah’s dismay, when God decides not to destroy Nineveh after the entire city repents (Jonah 3). Moses convinces God to spare the people in the wilderness after they create the golden calf (Exodus 32). Abraham bargains with God on behalf of the people of Sodom (Genesis 18). God changes how God interacts with humanity many times throughout scripture. Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern: it’s always toward mercy and forgiveness, and it often involves someone advocating or appealing to God on behalf of someone else.
The woman cried out to Jesus for her daughter. Moses pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the people. Being an advocate on behalf of others — giving a voice to the people whose struggles are not often understood and known — is part of the way of life for the children of God. As people of God we are called to listen to our neighbors, to learn about their needs, and to speak up on their behalf when their needs are not getting met. Being advocates for each other helps spread the grace and mercy of God to all of God’s creation.