Holy Chutzpa

One of my favorite biblical characters is none other than the Canaanite woman described in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:


At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not say a word in answer to her.  His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”  He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”  Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed from that hour.[1]


Besides giving His disciples a public lesson on the universality of the Gospel message, Jesus is testing the Canaanite woman’s resolve.  He is looking for a disciple with a certain amount of chutzpa.  The woman does not disappoint Him. She cleverly transforms His potentially insulting reference to dogs into an argument that works in her favor.  What a woman!  What chutzpa!

As I see it, people with chutzpa share three characteristics:  They are daring, they are creative, and they have an intense desire.

Daring:  One of my former students is so discouraged because every time he goes to apply for a job, he is told by prospective employers that they are looking for persons with experience.  “How am I supposed to get experience,” the exasperated young man asks, “if no one will hire me?”

But get this!  I am told that the experience-required statement is often a ploy firms use to strain out the daring from the cowards.  Thus I advise my former student that he should go into a job interview with banners waving and say: “Why would you want to hire someone with baggage?  Wouldn’t you rather have someone like me, with a clean slate?  Besides, I want to learn from the best.  I want to know how you do things.”  The best employers are looking for people with a certain amount of daring, a willingness to take risks.

Creativity: Before my friend Father Joel Kiefer, F.S.P., entered seminary, he spent six years in the army.  He likes to tell stories from his days at West Point.  My favorite involves an incident which took place at dinner one night.  When it came time for dessert, it was, according to time-honored West Point tradition, the duty of the lowest-ranking man at table to announce the kind of dessert being served, ascertain the number of those partaking, and then divide the said dessert into precisely that number of equal portions.  On the night in question, the cadet at Joel’s table solemnly proclaimed, “Gentlemen, for dessert, we have blueberry pie!”  The young man duly counted out the number of would-be pie eaters and began slicing away.  Unfortunately, the pie had apparently just come out of the oven, and the very idea of dividing it up into neat segments was beyond human possibility.  All eyes were on the cadet holding the knife as, horror stricken, he watched warm, oozing blueberries defy his attempts at imposing order on chaos.  What did he do?  He grabbed a fork and with both utensils began an operation on the pie that rendered it a uniform mass of blueberries and crust.  “Gentlemen,” he announced with great decorum, “for dessert we have…blueberry cobbler!”  All at table sat open-mouthed, but the cadet was given credit for being able to think on his feet and respond with creativity.

Desire:  Finally, here is a well-known story you may have heard before:


A man approaches a Zen Master and asks to be shown the path to enlightenment.  The Master replies, “Okay, follow me,” stands up, and walks the man to a nearby river and into the water.  Without warning, the Master forces the man’s head under the water and holds it there as he struggles violently for his life, until he is nearly dead.  At last the Master pulls the man up, gasping for air, and says, “When you want to be enlightened as badly as you wanted to take your next breath just now, come back and see me.”[2]


The Canaanite woman in our Gospel account certainly had the sort of daring that would win her job opportunities were she alive today.  She had the kind of creativity that characterized the young West Point cadet.  She also had the intense desire requisite of any true seeker.

What about my relationship with Jesus?  Am I, to paraphrase the words of Thomas Paine, a summer member of the Church Militant and a sunshine saint?  Or am I like the Canaanite woman in the Gospel?  Am I daring, willing to risk all for the attainment of heaven?  Am I creative in responding to challenges to my faith?  Do I truly desire holiness and long for God?    In short, do I have holy chutzpa?

[1] Matthew 15:21-28.

[2] Eliezer Sobel, Why I Am Not Enlightened, one of the Reality Sandwich Singles, a series of novella-length e-books, October 25, 2012.