When I was in seminary, our professors did not hesitate to share their dislikes of certain hymns. Our music professor, Bill Roberts, was outspoken over the fact that “Pass me not, O gentle Savior,” was not a favorite of his.
“Because,” Bill said, “Jesus would never pass anyone by.”
Being passed by is awful and demoralizing. Probably all of us can think of times in our lives when we felt ignored, passed by, or disregarded by others.
But Jesus? Would Jesus EVER pass us by?
So we come to today’s gospel, described on the Zondervan Academic website by Dr Lynn Cohick, Professor in New Testament/Christian Origins at the University of Pennsylvania, as one of the most problematic stories in the New Testament, because Jesus does seem ready to pass the Canaanite woman by when she comes shouting for mercy for her daughter who is tormented by demons.
We can’t be too surprised that the disciples, who are slow learners, want to send the woman away when she shows up, shouting for mercy. But when Jesus doesn’t answer her at all, and then when she throws herself to her knees in front of him, and he says to her that it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, we are shocked!
We’ll never know exactly what was in the mind of Jesus as he spoke with the woman, but if I had to guess, I’d say that since Jesus could see into and understood the hearts of all that he met, he already knew that the woman kneeling in front of him was a woman of faith.
Jesus also knew that his mission was to the world, starting with the lost sheep of the house of Israel. His statement to the disciples is a summary of their current understanding, that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel—and he wants them to see beyond their current understanding and limited expectations.
His conversation with this woman provides an excellent opportunity to help the disciples to see what their mission will become (remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends them out to make disciples of all nations), a mission that includes all people and all nations.
And also, the brief conversation that he has with this woman allows all who witness it to see that this woman is indeed a woman of faith, one who can hold her own, even with a Jesuish rabbi, something that the Pharisees, those learned men of God, could never seem to do when they debated with Jesus, because their hearts had shriveled away into nothing but a devotion to ritual instead of to loving God and one another.
At the end of their exchange, Jesus states for the world to hear what he already knew. “Woman, great is your faith!”
And then he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed instantly.
Now I’d like to go back to the original question because we all struggle with this question at some point in our lives.
“Would Jesus pass any of us by?”
When our passionate prayers are not answered in the way that we had hoped, has Jesus passed us by, not caring about what happens to us?
Today’s gospel assures us, “No, Jesus will not pass any of us by.”
Another benefit of this lesson is what the story of the Canaanite woman can teach us.
The Canaanite woman is a woman of great faith. Do we need to have great faith for God to answer our prayers? You’ve probably all heard someone say, “Well, if that person’s faith had been greater, God would have answered that prayer.”
That isn’t true.
Remember last week’s gospel.
Peter walked on the water, but when he gave more space in his mind to the strong wind than to Jesus, he began to sink. Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But did Jesus let Peter sink because Peter’s faith faltered? No, Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter and took him to the safety of the boat.
When we cry out for help and for mercy from God, God hears us, even if our faith is little. God always hears our prayers and answers them, even if the answer is not what we wanted.
Faith is believing that God will hear us and will answer our prayers. Faith is believing that the answer we get, which is not necessarily what we so fervently prayed for, is God’s best answer for us under the circumstances—the circumstances that we ourselves created through acts of our own free will, or circumstances created by others in which we find ourselves caught. We must face the consequences of the decisions that we and others have already made, because God does not override our free will.
The Canaanite woman also teaches us about humility. She did not try to disguise herself in any way. She was a Canaanite woman in need. She understood that even though she would have done anything to save her daughter, she alone did not have the power to do so. She had to ask for help. And so she humbly knelt before the one person who could do what she so fervently desired, the person she already knew as Lord.
We are all equal in God’s eyes. The Pharisees made the mistake of believing that they were better than others and that God favored them because they kept the law so meticulously. But God looks through our actions into our hearts. When we have humility, we see more clearly see about ourselves what God already sees and knows, that we are all imperfect sinners.
But not only are we all sinners, but we are all also equally subject to God’s mercy. God wants to be merciful to every last one of us. Humility helps us get ourselves and all the barriers that we create to avoid receiving mercy out of the way. Then God can give us the mercy that God wants us to have. The Canaanite woman didn’t let the “dog” comment that Jesus made get her off track. She knew that she was deserving of mercy, and so she responded, not in self-defense, but in what comes across as an almost playful response, not arguing, but focusing on the angle in the comment that allows mercy to become a visible possibility.
In today’s age of bitter division and conversations that lead to more divisions in the public square, the Canaanite woman has much to teach us about taking comments that could be perceived as insults and to bring a different, more merciful perspective into the conversation. What would happen if, instead of taking offense, we simply offered responses that raised a different, more merciful perspective?
When we open our hearts to God in humble faith, we can receive God’s love. God will give us mercies that we cannot even imagine, pressed down and running over.
When we receive God’s undeserved mercy, God transforms us into people of mercy, people who will faithfully and humbly offer God’s love and mercy to those around us, no matter who they are, whether they are deserving or not.
As Richard Rohr says in his book, Great Themes, Old Testament, “The experience of God’s love is an experience of grace, overwhelming beauty, and unbelievable mercy. It is a gift of forgiveness, approval, and acceptance. To live in that love means to live in grace, to be gracious and merciful to others. It means extending to them forgiveness and approval and acceptance. As Jesus said, it even means loving our enemies.”
So today, we can pray, “Pass me not, O gentle Savior,” knowing with great thanksgiving that God has already heard our cries, and will answer our prayers, and that God pours wide and abounding mercy out on us all.