Given current trends in North American Christianity, and culture, I can easily imagine a day when a child, seeing a crucifix for the first time and asking her mother what on earth it might be, will receive this answer: “That, my dear, is someone who did not take very good care of himself.”
This will strike you as farfetched only to the extent that you do not read self-help books, watch your local PBS station (insofar as there remains any difference), or spend time hanging out with clergy. To do any of these three even in moderation is almost inevitably to come face-to-face with the notion that a truly good shepherd never lays down his or her life for anybody. One begins to anticipate a new translation of the gospel in which the resurrected Christ will say to Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Simon insists that he does, Christ will reply, “Then feed yourself.”
Having said this, I might surprise you if I also say that convincing people to take care of themselves is one of the greatest pastoral challenges I know. And it remains such a challenge precisely because of the ubiquitous lip service this culture pays to “taking care of ourselves.” Once the sheep have heard the false ring of “a stranger’s voice,” even when there’s some merit in the stranger’s advice they will fly from it. At that point it takes the Good Shepherd himself to bring them back to health and balance.
Fortunately, that is precisely what the Good Shepherd does in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is certainly not one of the sweeter stories about Jesus… That said, it is important to recognize that the Master is only one of two principal characters in this poignant drama. There is also the mother with the sick child. I think of her as a single mother with no status and few material resources. Had she a husband or some other male advocate, would she not have sent him to negotiate with the rabbi? Instead she goes herself…
I’ve met her, of course, and so have you. When my daughter was only three months old we had to take her to the pediatric ward of a large hospital far from home. Mercifully, our stay was short; the physicians’ alarm proved unfounded. For other families, visits there were heartbreakingly routine. I remember in particular one mother and child who shared our room. Her son had an extreme form of cerebral palsy; one evening we were awakened when he nearly choked to death on his own saliva. Nurses and doctors rushed into the room and saved him. I retain the image of his mother in the morning, the face hard with worry, the soothing words tendered in a hoarse voice.
Now I wonder: How did she “take care of herself?” What did she get by way of “centering” beyond a few hurried cigarette breaks? If no one feeds the sheep, you see, then the only people who can truly take care of themselves are those already well taken care of…
If the Canaanite woman could bring about a turning in Jesus himself, what stones we are if she does not convert us too. “O woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims – this after he has characterized her as one of the “dogs.” He might almost have said, O Woman, you are faith. Faith with a steadfast heart, a dead-end job and a sick kid. Maybe the time has come to put stained-glass images of the Canaanite woman in our churches. Then if some child should ever point to a crucifix and ask, “Who is that?” we can point to the window and answer, “Find her, and she will tell you.”
— Garret Keizer, Feed My Dogs (Matt. 15:21-28)
[Christian Century, July 28-August 4, 1999, p. 741; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation]