St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester on 7th March 2012
Ruth 1:8–18; Matthew 15:21–28
Stubborn women have always caused problems for religion. Inside religious systems they provoke endless debates about how they should be ‘managed’: whether they have a right to speak, preach, act or enter religious buildings with their heads uncovered. Women of faith also raise problems in the secular world; causing social havoc in the earliest decades of Christianity by sticking obstinately to their Christian truth despite persuasion, threats, torture and death at the hands of their families or authorities. Today we remember the life of Saint Perpetua, a 3rd century mother and Christian martyr, who together with her pregnant slave Felicity was martyred in a Roman amphitheatre in Carthage when she refused to renounce her faith.
My PhD thesis is all about stubborn women. I’m looking at the fallout of the domestic arguments that occur between medieval representations of Mary and Joseph (as she tries to convince him her pregnancy is legitimate) and Noah and his wife (when she refuses to abandon her friends to the Flood for a ride in her husband’s old-age-crisis carpentry project). I myself am also a stubborn woman, and not always for good causes. Anyone encountering me since the operation will know that it has been a real pain to get me to embrace the concept of ‘resting.’ But thankfully God uses stubbornness and determination for his own ends. Stubbornness, tenacity and a refusal to be silent are exactly the qualities it takes to make a difference in our world.
Today’s readings show two women at different ends of the Bible demonstrating stubbornness and courage. First, we heard about Ruth, who gave up her chance of finding a husband among her own people because of her loyalty towards her bereaved mother-in-law. Through her faith, she not only restored the family but provided Naomi with a grandchild, becoming to her mother-in-law ‘better than seven sons.’ We also heard of the Canaanite woman, who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. ‘Send her away’, the disciples said, ‘she keeps shouting after us.’
I have always found this little exchange little troubling. Why would Jesus refuse to help when he says ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ Had I been that woman, I might have given up at that point. But this was a witty woman. A Greek woman with a disabled child in an alien community, she had learned to hold her own. She takes Jesus’ apparent refusal and turns it around: ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ We talked about this reply in our Lent course last week, and it was said that this woman’s response changes Jesus’ mind, even admonishes him. She actually debates with Jesus! In fact, she is the only follower to successfully debate with him; something the disciples never achieve. And in doing so, she becomes the first gentile the gospel reaches out to. Because of her, we can celebrate the message of Galatians 3.28; ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
Both Ruth and the Caananite women were outsiders. They were among an unfamiliar people and religion, and, as such, would have been considered unimportant. But they refused to be silent. During the celebrations around International Women’s Day tomorrow, we remember women who have made a difference through their refusal to give up. We remember Ruth, who, even though she had lost her husband, showed a love for her mother-in-law and the God of her husband’s people that turned bitterness into hope, family and new life. We remember the Canaanite woman, whose statement of faith opened up Christ’s teaching to everyone. And we remember Jesus’ own mother Mary, who put aside her fear of public contempt at a pregnancy out of wedlock and bravely said ‘I am the Lord’s servant’.
How easy it would have been for these women not to be stubborn. How easy it would have been for them to be submissive, socially obedient and silent. And thank God they weren’t.