All of us have had the experience of being annoyed by other people. But, have you ever had days when it seems like no matter which way you turn, everyone is annoying?
Jesus was having one of those days. In the verses leading up to today’s reading he was in a tussle with the Pharisees. No one was more annoying to Jesus than people who paid too much attention to rules, and the Pharisees were all about following the letter of the Law. He called them hypocrites, and in today’s reading he calls them “blind guides.”
It’s not surprising that Jesus would be annoyed with Pharisees. But then his disciples say to him, Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said? So now his own followers seem to be on the Pharisees’ side. Jesus must have been really annoyed. We know he was because when Peter, his closest friend, doesn’t understand what he’s saying to them, Jesus compares him to a Pharisee. Are you also still without understanding? he asks Peter. That’s a pretty tame translation. In the original language it’s something closer to the translation in The Message, where Jesus says to Peter: “Are you being willfully stupid?”
Jesus is annoyed with the Pharisees; we expect that. He’s also annoyed with his own friends. That’s not so surprising, either. But what comes next is very surprising. Along comes a non-Jewish woman who is the mother of a daughter who has some serious problem: “tormented by a demon.” She’s heard about his healing powers and she shouts to him for help. But, Matthew writes, he did not answer her at all. Not only does he ignore her request, when he finally does speak he insults her: It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Here is a man who earlier had done countless acts of healing and who had had great compassion on those whom society had ignored or cast aside; here he stoops to calling just such a person what many of his own people called her–a dog!
This is a passage that shows Jesus’ humanity. We find in his interactions with other people hints of how we ourselves might respond to our fellow human beings. Insults, name-calling–not always a pretty sight!
So what are we to make of this story? Jesus is just being his holy, perfect self while everyone else is just being annoying? No. In terms of his treatment of his fellow human beings—if any of us responded in this way no one would call us perfect!
Just yesterday I was in my office when one of my neighbors walked by. It was around 12:30, just before the end of our recycling event. He said to me, Why didn’t you tell me about this? You need to work on publicity! I was annoyed. I said, Look, we have flyers at the library and other public places. It’s been on our website. And, I’ve had it in my Kairos newsletter which you unsubscribed from. He replied, You could’ve e-mailed me. Now I was really annoyed! Seriously? I’m supposed to take responsibility for every individual person who won’t take responsibility for themselves?
Now, I didn’t resort to insults and name-calling but I think I was annoyed in the same way Jesus was. Would you call me perfect? I should hope not!
Back to the story of the Canaanite woman: Having just been insulted by this great teacher and healer, the Canaanite woman sasses back. Instead of getting angry or feeling sorry for herself she is completely focused on the health and welfare of her troubled daughter. Having just been called a dog she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get scraps from the master’s table.”
And in her reply Jesus hears the voice of God. After being irritated by people all day—everyone from his enemies to his friends—after all that he remembers who he is. He remembers his purpose and mission. He remembers who God created him to be. And he says to the woman, with wonder and gratitude and humility, Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.
It’s in this response—not in his irritation with other people–that we find Jesus’ example for us all.
Have you had that experience before? It’s too easy to get into a certain frame of mind and nurse feelings of hurt and resentment or just simple impatience with others. It’s too easy to miss the voice of God. Maybe you’re having a bad day and everyone seems to be a source of irritation. But then something happens, or somebody says something that is a word of grace, that helps you remember who God created you to be. Like Jesus himself you are called to be light, and bread, and yeast, and Living Water. Like Joseph toward his brothers, or like St. Paul in today’s second reading, you—we—are called to be merciful toward one another. We are called to practice love, which means to practice patience and compassion and forgiveness toward one another—even, to learn from one another.
In the conversation with my neighbor yesterday I realized how annoyed I was getting. I said to him, If I sound defensive it’s because Frances, who put this event together, worked her tail off to get the word out. In that conversation I was reminded that in the midst of the ordinary irritations of life we are called to do more than simply be annoyed, no matter how justified we may feel. We are to listen for the voice of God, which will remind us of who God created us to be.
And when we fail, which we are bound to do some of the time, at least, we practice patience and compassion for ourselves. And we try again.
Reflecting the love of his Father, Jesus practiced mercy and love toward the Canaanite woman. It was an important step along the way toward the day when, hanging on a cross, he was able to extend mercy, love and compassion…to all people. May we learn from his example and make his example our goal.