Sitting recently with colleagues who work as spiritual directors at a local women’s prison, we talked about the tenacity of drug addiction, how we as a society haven’t found the key to a program that would provide long-term healing for people.
“The problem is, we don’t bring people with addictions to the table for these conversations,” one said.
“We talk about them,” said another. “We don’t talk to them.”
Jesus and his disciples, as Jews living near Canaanite communities, probably had spent plenty of time with people who talked about Canaanites, their enemies since the times of the Hebrew Scriptures. In today’s Gospel, we get their first recorded encounter with “the enemy,” a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter.
When the story starts, Jesus and his disciples are fine with simply talking about this woman, even as she is directly in front of them. Even when Jesus first talks to her, it is to dismiss her and dehumanize her. But she is undeterred. (The Canaanite woman is the original “nevertheless, she persisted.”)
Through her tenacity and her creative responses to the obstacles thrown in her way, this nameless woman plays one of the most important and challenging roles in all of the Gospels: She compels Jesus to change his mind, to expand his understanding of his calling. Because she speaks, and Jesus listens, the wall between ancient enemies begins to crumble, just a little.
Especially in our climate of racial tension, a responsibility must necessarily fall on white people to listen to the stories of people of color who have been grouped as “them” rather than as individuals with individual histories. Our country’s original sin of white supremacy means that we too often still treat people of color as if they were, in the painfully vivid words of the Canaanite woman, “dogs…at the master’s table*,” picking up the scraps of the rights white people are willing to toss their way. This is not God’s desire. This is sinful.
But our God is a God of infinite creativity, using many guises to rouse us from our complacency. Can we see the Spirit in the Canaanite women of our day? What might she teach us, if we hold our tongues from our insults, work past our resistance, and choose instead to listen?
Katie Lacz is a mother, an M.Div., and a spiritual director living outside Boulder, CO. She currently works as Program Associate for the Women’s Ordination Conference. A former Jesuit Volunteer (Raleigh ’06-’07), she continues to seek the magis while living in the messy and beautiful work of raising her two small children.