Posted by: Renee | August 14, 2011

Listening is risky business

by Renee Sappington

The parallel passages of Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:25-30 have come alive to me over the years as I’ve finally stopped ignoring the disturbing way Jesus treats this foreign woman coming to him to heal her daughter.  I could easily acknowledge the disciples’ prejudice and lack of compassion for her – I could relate to their assumptions about who deserves God’s time and energy and love – especially when I’m operating from that all-too-common mindset of scarcity that says there’s not enough to go around so somebody’s got to do without.   But to witness this mentality from Jesus – whoa, wait a minute that just doesn’t fit.  That’s not the Jesus I know, so they must have gotten the story wrong…both times.  But what if they didn’t?  What if what they witnessed that day was so mind-blowing that they just had to include this less-than-glowing portrayal of Jesus in their writings of him?  What would that mean?

It might mean that Jesus was susceptible to the culture around him and actually bought into some of the religious and societal prejudices of his day.  It might mean he was, at least for that moment, operating out of a mindset of scarcity, believing he knew best where to set the boundaries for his ministry.    But what else does it mean?  (This is the good part.)  It means that despite Jesus’ preconceived notions about this person or about his mission, he was willing to engage her.  He was willing not just to speak but to listen.  And when he listened he was willing to learn from her.  He took the risk that we all do when we really listen to someone – the risk to be changed by them or what they say. 

Now here’s the hard part – if this is what the story is telling us, and we’re called to be like Jesus, then we have before us an example of how we are to relate to someone we thought we could write off.   I don’t know about you, but that’s hard to stomach – I mean, how can I ever know where I’m going to stand if I can be so moved by others?  And even though I’m willing to be that vulnerable with those I love, to be so open with folks I may have deemed an outsider, an enemy, a lesser-than, or unsafe – that either takes a lot of stupidity on my part or a lot of courage.

I recently listened to an interview  and read an essay that was part of the Civil Conversation Project – a series of radio shows and on-line resources for starting new conversations in our public life.  While the interview was with a well-known activist in the abortion debate, the real focus was on a new way of listening to the “other” when we disagree.  Let me share a few words from the essay “Sacred Conversations” by David P. Gushee:  “At the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God…I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight.  This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly.  If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.”  (For more from the essay and interview go to

So, back to the story about Jesus and the foreign woman, and how I see all this applying to how we are to engage others, let me add a thought about the woman in the story.  To me, she is the real hero of the story.  She’s a hero because she dared to say “I matter” when everyone else said she didn’t.  She’s a hero because she had the courage and hope to offer another perspective when some would have assumed it to be a waste of time or effort.  She’s a hero because she was willing to risk being treated even more poorly by this person she needed something from.   Thankfully, she didn’t buy into the societal prejudices or social norms of her day, but rather claimed a place at the table and in doing so, helped Jesus open his heart and arms a little wider.



  1. Great insight, Renee. I especially liked that it “teaches us how to relate to people we thought we could write off.” Thanks!

  2. preaached from this yesterday. Spoke of the not so obvious part of the story i.e. that the woman wanted to be seen as a person of worth, a person of dignity, and a person equal to others. Thanks for your sharing!

  3. This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing this insight. To have the faith of that Canaanite woman! To have the simple yet profound love of a dog (I want to want even the crumbles from my Master’s table)!

  4. I preached a similar idea on the lectionary Sunday where the Matthew passage appeared. “You go, girl!”

  5. I was informed by my former preacher, “You will pay for your sins of this change”. I informed him that I did not want this to happen to me, it just happened. I could not control it. He insisted that I was consumed by the devil and there was no hope for me and that I would burn in hell forever.
    This was in 2006. A lot has changed since then including my gender but had “NOT” changed was me. I worshiped God for over 20 years and for the preacher to say something like that, I was in shock and felt decieved. I rebelled and hated God. But, as I came back to God, my views and opinions changed. I see people for what they are and refuse to believe that God hates me. I want my family of God back but these churches will not have me. Where do I go and who do I need to talk to? I guess that is why I am reaching out by typing this. Paula..

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