Rob Lee: Nevertheless, She Persisted


I am surrounded by strong and empowered women. My grandmother was president of the North Carolina Garden Club and has mingled with the likes of British royalty. My mom has her doctorate in nursing practice and my wife Stephanie is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. One of my closest friends is a woman named Palmer, who I'm certain be bishop as soon as she's out of seminary. All these women have shown me that while I may not always fully understand the persistence that women have to have in a patriarchal world, I can nonetheless appreciate and learn from it. The persistence of women through the ages in spite of men getting in the way is no surprise to me in today's Gospel text. What is surprising to me is Jesus' initial response to the persistent and empowered Canaanite woman in our narrative today.

Initially, we could just laugh this off as an issue of geography. The Jews have been squabbling with the Canaanites since before anyone can remember, and maybe that is why Jesus doesn't want to stir the pot. But Jesus is the epitome of pot stirring, he loves to get things going in the world, and in this particular situation, Jesus initially gets it wrong. Now, before you call me a heretic and tune me out, perhaps this is Jesus' human side coming out, perhaps Jesus had a rough day and found himself with someone yelling at him. But, nonetheless, this signals a turn for Jesus, a turn for Jesus like we all have, a self-realization that our reality may not be the only reality that is important at this particular moment. Perhaps this persistent Canaanite woman is preparing Jesus for what's ahead and the road that Jesus must take.

What I'm getting at is this: human persistence matters. Just as now God is persistent with us, we must remain persistent with God's life-changing love offered to each of us. We must acknowledge this mess recorded in Matthew's Gospel as a momentary lapse of judgment for Jesus, but also that puts Jesus in solidarity with us. When have we not messed up? When have we gotten it wrong on our first go-round? Jesus stands in solidarity with us because Jesus had rough days, too. He had a rough go with this woman and, if we held Jesus just at this account, he'd be a pretty lame and inconsiderate deity. But luckily, we have the rest of the story for Jesus. Here is the good news for us, too: we have the potential to tell the rest of our stories as well... We can stand in solidarity with the Canaanite woman who persisted, and we can stand in solidarity with Jesus who just plain got it wrong.

Nevertheless, this unnamed woman in the Gospel of Matthew persisted and found herself confronting the Lord of time and space. Not only that, but she persisted to the point where she found God's grace renewed and refreshed. I like to think that she was an exemplar for all women and men who seek justice and don't always get the answer they want. We have every right to question God, but we must be prepared for persistence.

I'm not suggesting that God is testing us to get our faith meter to match that of what God has in mind for us, but sometimes our will and God's will don't always line up. In the same way that Moses, Elijah, and this woman were persistent with their Creator, we must be as well. We must persist and we must hope. Persistence and hope, those qualities are what the resurrection and the Gospel story are built on.

This turn for Jesus is an opportunity for you to turn as well. Your context may look like the dogs eating crumbs from the table on the outside, but perhaps the turn in your life is taking your context and making it beautiful. In your time and place, what is persisting at you? What might be an opportunity for you to turn?

In the end, we could chalk this narrative up as one of mishaps and misunderstandings. But instead, might we view this as an opportunity for persistent turning? After all, that's what Scripture is about. As Abraham and Sarah turned in persistence toward the dream God had for them, so too do we. As Joseph turned toward his brothers in persistent love and forgave them, so too must we. As Ruth turned toward Naomi in persistence of faith in the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, so too must we. As the prophets of old took to God's warning as a sign of God's reign, so too must we. As the Blessed Virgin Mary said yes to the angel in spite of the consequences, so too do we. You see, the entirety of the Biblical narrative is about persistent men and women of faith just like the unnamed Canaanite woman turning toward their destiny. Even Jesus, in this moment, seems to turn in faithful persistence by broadening the scope of his ministry on what seemed like a no-good, very bad day for Jesus.

The beauty in this story is it's like that song, "To everything, turn, turn, turn." We must persist like the Canaanite woman, and we must turn like Jesus. In these two movements, we see the heart of what God was trying to accomplish and ultimately accomplished for us on the cross.

To be honest with you, I'm so thankful my life is full of empowered, strong women like my grandmother, my mom, my wife, and the future bishop who is my friend Palmer. I know they have given me an example of abundant and faithful service to God in spite of what men have told them they can or cannot do. Persistence and turning towards our resurrecting hope are the signs and graces of the Gospel message. Don't lose sight of it or be blinded by your bad day like Jesus might have been. Instead, be open to the persistent Canaanite woman in your midst. For there, we turn to the cross, and we set our faces on Jerusalem. There we see the fulfillment of our destiny and the hope of the resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Won't you pray with me?

God of the persistent Canaanite Woman, may we ever be turning toward you and away from our own selfish desires. May we see more fully and more clearly that you desire for us a turn and not a turning away. May we find afresh the resurrecting power of persistence and the hope that lies therein. Amen.