On Friday I stopped by my local grocery store to get something for a recipe I was making. As you probably already know, the Ontario peaches came out this week. There they were, on sale, so I stopped at the display. I lifted one basket out and looked at the fruit. The peaches weren’t ripe yet, so I replaced that basket and was just lifting another out when a man, who was looking at the same peaches beside me, did something strange.
Up to that moment I hadn’t really noticed him. From the corner of my eye he seemed normal enough – perhaps unshaven and a bit rough, although that could be my memory playing tricks. A man in his mid to late 50s, maybe, a bit older than me. Shorts and a black tee-shirt. Nothing worth remarking. But what he did was noticeable, and it was this: he’d been checking the peaches in another basket and apparently, must have found one he didn’t like. While I was lifting out my basket, he reached over, put the bad peach right on top of MY basket, and then took another.
Very slowly and deliberately, I removed the offending peach from my basket and put it right back where it belonged – in front of him. “There are bruises on it,” he said, when I turned fully around and glared at him. “Fine,” I answered, “that’s your problem. Not my basket.” He looked absolutely undisturbed. “Not your basket,” he repeated, and turned, and chuckled, and walked off.
It’s not everyday we come across such examples of what I would call entitlement. But it’s not exactly rare, either. Entitlement means believing you have a right to something, or to an a action, in a way no one else does. In this case, this man’s desire to get rid of a peach meant he could care less where he put it, even on top of my basket. The guy who throws garbage out the window of his car is falsely entitled, or the former Alberta premier who skims money from the public purse. The police in Ferguson Missouri who feel they don’t even need to explain why an unarmed 18 year old black youth was shot several times when his hands were up in the air are really horrific examples of entitlement, and of an attitude toward oneself and others that has gone badly, badly wrong. Entitlement comes out of, and leads to, injustice.
Our world, however, tells us that in one sense at least we have to be entitled. ‘The only way to get ahead is to believe in yourself’, say the best-selling books. “No one else is going to give you anything – you have to take it.’ Never apologize. Never look back. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. We all know that at least.
The woman we heard about today in Matthew’s story of Jesus, was just doing that. She was the squeaky wheel. She was taking what she had to take, damn the consequences. It must have taken guts. Because there were all kinds of reasons why this person shouldn’t have been approaching Jesus. Number one: she was a woman, and he a man. Number two: she was not Jewish, and Jesus was an observant Jew. Number three: she was a Canaanite, the first-century version of being black, or native, or whatever downtrodden minority you want to mention. You know how annoying beggars downtown can be, or those guys who do squeegee on your car windows? That was her. It’s no wonder the disciples are quoted as saying to Jesus: Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. They were probably embarrassed to have her around. A dirty little Canaanite.
So in point of fact, she WASN’T like the man beside me dumping his bad fruit on my basket. And she really wasn’t acting entitled. You can tell that from what happens next in the story. She comes to Jesus, kneels, and says Lord help me. He responds in a way that, to be honest, sounds a bit entitled himself: It is not fair to take the children’s food – meaning, my healing is intended for Jews – and throw it to the dogs. Meaning, you.
She should have been upset. Enraged, even. At least as frosted as I was about the peach. Instead, she answers Jesus like this: Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.
This is not false entitlement. This is real bravery. She is standing up for what she needs – actually what her daughter needs – and she doesn’t mind the trouble, or ridicule, she will endure to get it.
And the good news is, Jesus calls this faith. Great is your FAITH he says to her. In other words, if this incident is to be believed, having faith is reaching out and grabbing on to our Lord for help even and perhaps especially when we don’t feel we deserve anything. But it does not come out of a sense of defeatism or a lack of self-worth. That Canaanite woman absolutely knew she was worth something, labels or not. Faith is what she did. It is reaching out for help, for what we need, or for what someone else needs, for JUSTICE, for mercy, and for healing, even if no one thinks we, or they, deserve it.
Too often in the church we think there are only two options: either the entitled jerk, or the too-nice, smiley and polite victim. And since we don’t want to be jerks we play the nice guy, the victim, even if we don’t really feel that way. The Canaanite woman was NOT being a victim. Not even playing at it. She was standing up for herself. She was being courageous. AND she was testing the boundaries of what was allowed. But she was doing it honestly, and with an eye to others – to Jesus, but first of all to her daughter.
The other bit of news we’ve been hearing about all week is the suicide of Robin Williams. Those of us who haven’t gone through it can’t pretend to understand severe depression. But what people who have experienced it say, is that it is like living in a prison.
Somehow, in spite of living in that prison, Robin Williams brought a great deal of joy to a great many people. There is a special tragedy in the fact that in the end, he was not able to escape the prison himself, and to have the confidence to reach out for help again. That should never be a cause for judgment, but for mourning. The actor felt, in the end, like he could not reach out to anyone. We can, but it is not easy. It requires a balancing of ego and need, of self-understanding and love. Great is your faith, says Jesus to the Canaanite woman. Rare, but not impossible.
When I arrived at the cashier on Friday, with my peaches in hand, guess who happened to be the person right in front of me in the line? Of course. God must have been having some fun with me Friday.
Okay, I thought. He’s just a weirdo. The world is full of them. Have patience and remember the times you’re a weirdo too. So I stood and waited my turn. There was a young woman at the till, maybe 20, 25 years old, and this fellow was saying something complicated to her about marking his groceries for delivery. I hadn’t been listening. All I heard was the very end of their conversation.
“You’re lucky I didn’t ask you for your telephone number,” he said to her. “Pardon?” she said. “Your telephone number,” he repeated, not looking at her. Then that chuckle again, and he walked off, not looking back.
I could see the young woman stiffen. Her facial expression didn’t change, but there was a bit of colour that came into her cheeks. I looked the other way, and waited. Embarrassed to be a man, and a man my age. There was nobody behind me, so I had lots of time. Finally, a minute later, I heard her say ‘Bonjour,’ to me as if nothing had happened.
The Canaanite woman was not entitled, or rude. Her self-confidence was not selfishness or thoughtlessness, or a delusion that made others around her miserable. She had found that balance, that blessed balance between need, and doubt, and courage, and self-awareness, that Jesus calls faith. There are a hundred times a day when we are tested. May we learn, in this case, not so much from Jesus, as from the under-class woman who showed what dignity and faith, what courage and love look like when they all comes together in the presence of our Lord. And learning that, may we too model justice, and find mercy and healing.