Recently I have noticed an unfortunate trend in on-line neighbourhood forums. These are social media pages on which people often share innocent posts about if they are sharing sour dough starter, having figs for sale, are giving away a child car seat, and that kind of thing. However there is also the less savoury side of these forums that often begin with a leading question such as, “Have you noticed the rise in crime in our neighbourhood?”, “Have you noticed there are more drifters around?”, “Do you no longer feel safe in your own neighbourhood?” These questions are framed as open-ended, but often these are not real questions, but instead accusations. A more honest framing would be, “I think crime is going up, I directly blame the homeless people camping in a park near my house, and they scare me.” I like to call these questions fishing expeditions because they are meant to solicit empathy in the form of likeminded comments. Notice the empathy is not for people experiencing homelessness, but rather for people who feel their private property and personal safety are under threat, whether that is real or perceived. These “good neighbours” do not stop to ask whether people experiencing homelessness feel their property and safety are under threat, living in nothing but a tent or sleeping bag. Not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Not having access to a shower or bathroom.
Sometimes these conversations move to strategizing. Someone says, “We’ve got to do something about this situation.” They realize that long-term solutions like addressing the affordable housing crisis are a lot of work, so they tend to grasp at short-term solutions. One popular solution I’ve heard proposed involves encouraging people inundate the police with complaints. The thought is that if enough people call the police on people experiencing homelessness, then the police will eventually get exasperated, this message will trickle up to city hall, then city will complain to the province, and eventually the “homeless situation” will disappear or at least move to a different neighbourhood further away. Out of sight, out of mind.
What the “good neighbours” fail to consider are the repercussions of their actions on others. If neighbours call the police every time they feel unsafe, someone looks at them the wrong way, a dog dish goes missing from their yard (a real complaint), they are subjecting people experiencing homelessness to further harassment and misusing policing resources better spent elsewhere. —> In some ways they’re only making things worse, but they know they’ll never be held accountable for their actions because of socioeconomic differences. They have more money, they pay rent or property taxes, they vote, and so their voice and their wishes often count for more than people experiencing homelessness.
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew we hear the story of the Canaanite woman. Note the response of the disciples when she arrives to address Jesus. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” If this scene was unfolding today around Victoria, it would be a disciple with cell phone in hand, asking Jesus whether he wants them to call the police to make her go away. The Canaanites are othered as “those people.”
If we listen to the Canaanite woman’s words, she is simply begging Jesus for mercy on behalf of her daughter, who she says is possessed. She wants her daughter to be well. We can empathize with her situation. And yet how often do we react like the disciples, when someone is shouting in public? Around Pandora or tent cities in parks, it is common to hear people shouting. Often it’s people suffering from mental illness left untreated. I realize this can be unsettling and just yesterday had someone walk by my door screaming. Another neighbour and I were outside. He said, “That guy has been around the neighbourhood a long time. He suffers from turrets and other mental illness. It’s just sad.”
It is sad. Do these people not deserve empathy, just like the Canaanite woman?
Commentator Mitzi J. Smith notes that in the genealogy in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, there are three Canaanite women named in Jesus’ family tree: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth. Even though Jesus gives a sassy reply he is at least distantly related to this woman.
This reading is hard for us to wrap our minds around because we’re not surprised when the disciples are clueless and rude. In fact we expect this kind of behaviour from them. But it is a bit of a gut check when Jesus at first is dismissive to this woman. There is the whole exchange about not giving the children’s food to the dogs. It’s hard to reconcile this with the Jesus we think we know. And yet there it is.
What’s interesting is how the conversation turns around. The Canaanite woman, who is not even given a name, is relentless. She doesn’t give up and gets the healing for her daughter in the end. She artfully turns Jesus’ sass on its head. And notice Jesus’ reply, “Great is your faith!” This woman who left her daughter and seek healing from Jesus, who she had heard about from others. Thinking about that kind of faith in today’s secular world is pretty remarkable.
I find myself surprised when non-churchgoers ask me to pray for them or a loved one. Despite the eroded trust in the church as an institution, people are drawn to faith. People desire prayer. People seek out healing just like the Canaanite woman and are willing to go to great lengths for a child or loved one. This is an opportunity as church to consider ways in which we are ministering to people in ways we may not even realize. People who may tune in to the occasional worship livestream without our ever realizing it. What are ways we can be ministering to them and including them more fully in the life of the church in ways that are comfortable for them? Things for us to be thinking about.
Women in the church
Another thing the story about the Canaanite woman reminds me of is all the women in leadership who have persevered in the church. Mitzi J. Smith sums up the story as “Nevertheless she persisted,” an homage to all the women who have persisted despite the odds stacked against them.
I still hear stories from women colleagues who say people react strangely when they are ordering a coffee wearing a clergy shirt. People not even realizing how incredulous they sound asking, “You are a pastor?” I know Lutheran pastors who are harassed on-line by Lutheran men who take issue with their exercising autonomy theologically. Not first asking permission from men to talk about sexuality and the Bible. These men just do not know what to do with smart women, especially in the church. These men are out of their depth and they too are reaching for their phones…to call the bishop, a church council, anybody who will put this unruly woman in her place. Thankfully many women clergy also persist, but they need support from the wider church, from us, in order to succeed.
Wrapping up, let us support women who persist in the church and beyond. Let us be mindful of our own urges to reach for our phone every time we encounter someone experiencing homelessness. Let us remember how the Canaanite woman persisted in faith and was granted mercy from Jesus for her daughter. Let’s consider the ways in which we’re all related, just like the Canaanite woman and Jesus. Ties that bind us together as humans and children of God.
Let us rejoice in faith that trusts in the power of Jesus’ love for each ones of us. Amen.