Mothers in Pain: Susan Bro and the Canaanite Woman
If you pay close attention to biblical stories, you’ll quickly notice that many women go unnamed and that preachers will often refer to these women according to their proximity to the men in their lives: Lot’s wife, Noah’s wife, Mrs. Job. Yet, the Canaanite woman is referred to not by her relationship to a man or men, but to her community of origin, a people often positioned in the biblical text as diametrically opposed to Jesus’ ancestors, which explains Jesus’ rudeness to the woman, lending credence to the hypothesis that Jesus wasn’t a polite southerner.
He didn’t offer her a nod of the head or wave of the hand. “He did not answer her at all,” the narrator says. And this is after she pleads with him to deliver her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Embarrassed by the woman’s social impropriety - of speaking to a man publicly, no less - the disciples say, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her?” Is that not the posture of many devout people, Christians even? One of being fed up with people who don’t come from the right place, live in the right neighborhood, love the right gender, speak the right language, act the right way. For the disciples - and Jesus - the woman is more of an ain’t than a saint, more of a nuisance than an asset .
“Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her?” Would you please take care of these people who make me uncomfortable, who don’t fit my vision of how I think the church, the city, or the world should be? “Would you please take care of her?” has been the exasperated cry of powerful people invested in maintaining a strangle hold on power and control, an impulse when society is facing unrest through demonstrations and protests. “They’re bothering us. Would someone please take care of them?” On some level, the disciples were more concerned with their personal comfort than the Canaanite woman’s plea for her daughter’s wholeness, demonstrating that our common liberation is often wrapped up in that thing we feel others are bothering us with. The thing that bothered the disciples motivated the Canaanite woman. A parent confronting overly-reassuringdoctors while their child suffers in a hospital bed. A spouse sitting their significant other down to address that ongoing marital issue.
When Jesus finally acknowledges the unnamed Canaanite woman, it is dismissive, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” displaying the biases he inherited from the deep well of culture. Then, the unnamed Canaanite woman asserts her humanity and advocates for the humanity of her daughter, and confronts Jesus with biting rhetoric that would make even the most experienced debater shutter: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
In the canon of Scripture, people closest to the margins are often God’s fiercest warriors for compassion and empathy. One need only look as far as the midwives in the first chapter of Exodus, women who - instead of carrying out Pharaoh’s order to murder newborn Hebrew boys - lied to keep a generation of children alive. Or Rahab, a woman of ill-repute who harbored Israelite spies in her home in order to keep them safe from the authorities. She went on to become one of the only women listed in Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel according to Matthew.
Can you sense the dignity at home in the Canaanite woman? The deep sense of meaning and love tied to her advocacy for her daughter? The fierceness with which she confronts Jesus, defying every cultural and social norm for the sake of the peace of her loved one? The Canaanite woman’s confrontation of Jesus is a form of prayer - a jarring form of prayer - but a form of prayer. It is the fist-pounding shouting match many of us have had with God at the dimmest points of our lives: in a hospital room or at a grave side. It is the abandonment of every bit of formality and propriety we’ve been socialized with in church. Because, for the Canaanite woman, her daughter’s wholeness is most important than her own propriety. In short, the Canaanite woman is doing theology from the underside, at the margins, and subsequently expands Jesus’ own definition of who is in and who is out. She becomes a theological alchemist, spinning herself into a narrative not originally meant for her.
The Canaanite woman is not much different from Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. In remarks delivered to a grief-stricken community at Heather’s memorial service, she had this to say: “I think the reason that what happened to Heather has struck a chord is because we know that what she did is achievable. They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her.”
This is a mother driven and motivated, like the Canaanite woman, by life, not death. A woman who, though unnamed to us, knows her own name. It is safe to say that God is more like the Canaanite woman than anyone else in this story, a mother with a fierce and piercing love for her children, a parent willing to do anything to make sure her children are safe and whole. “The mother in pain has long been a prophetic voice,” wrote Esther Wang. “In other words, a...figure whose jeremiads help shame a nation into action.” God is a mother in pain who weeps sighs advocates for the well-being of her children in distress and checks her propriety at the door; who will not rest until her daughter is healed.
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church