Well-behaved women seldom make history.
Perhaps you’ve heard this quote from Laurel Ulrich before, or seen it on a button or t-shirt. Even if you haven’t heard it before today, maybe you know exactly what she is talking about. It has become a slogan – even a battle-cry – for anyone who chooses to act in a way that prioritizes speaking out over the status quo standard of “sitting and looking pretty.” It calls to all of us who have been told that we CAN’T : who have learned from a young age that as women we can’t be assertive; that as children we can’t be heard, only seen; that as men we can’t be passionate or emotional: this simple phrase reminds us not only that we CAN bend the standard expectations of society, but that in fact, great things might happen if we do.
The Caananite woman probably never heard this idea phrased in this particular way, but it seems she didn’t need the words. This woman had so little power in this world that her particular identity – even her name- has been removed from the history books. As a woman, she should not have approached a man in such a bold and public way. As a Caananite, she was an unwelcome stranger among the Hebrew people. And as a person in any kind of society – well, we just don’t like it when people stand there shouting at us and won’t go way, and certainly not in front of an important person like the Rabbi!
The Caananite woman is one of those women who do make history, tossing out the standards of culture and decency in order to seek help from Jesus. She seems to be a poster-child for those who long to use their voice, for the strength of a mother’s devotion and a woman’s fierce determinationon behalf of her tormented daughter.
Yet, the temptation to reduce the Caananite woman’s strength and boldness to that of a desperate mother, can too easily shield us from the other great force at work in her story. Because at the end of the story, Jesus does not commend the woman for her great devotion to her child, or even her great boldness in seeking out help. Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your FAITH.”
Only deep and solid faith in God’s love could bring this woman to the feet of a Rabbi, and keep her there through silence, irritation and rejection. Her great faith in the mercy of God allowed her to bring her whole self: her desperation, her need, her wit, her flat-out stubbornness to her encounter with the Lord. On that day, and in that region, she alone believed that God’s grace was big enough to hold both her vulnerability and her boldness.
Great faith is not the absence of questions or struggle: rather, it is trusting that God is big enough to hold our struggles and our vulnerabilities as well as our joys and strengths.
Great faith is knowing that God does not need to be protected from our emotions, our questions, or even our demands for healing and justice. Great faith allows us to know God in such a way that we free to be known by God.
The challenge of the Caananite woman to me is wrapped up in the traditional hymn, There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy:
Theres a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea
Theres a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good
There is mercy with the Savior, there is healing in his blood…
If our love were but more faithful… we should take God at her word
And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
Do we who proclaim the good news of God’s love for the outcast, believe that grace extends to all our being? The wideness of God’s mercy held the pain and the strength of the Caananite woman, the irritation and embarrassment of the disciples, and even the hesitation of Jesus. Will we allow ourselves enough faith to reveal our irritation, our determination, our hopes and gifts to God – and will we allow others to do the same, even if it shakes our notions of being “well-behaved” Christians?
Some days, our faith will not be so great. We will forget that God can take whatever it is we have to offer, we will wish that others would simply behave and not bother us or God with all of their questions. But on those days and in those moments when we allow others, and even ourselves, to live entirely embraced in the depths of God’s kindness and mercy, we will be living in the reality we call the kingdom of God, we will hear Jesus say to us, “Child of God, great is your faith,” and our lives will be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.