After what happened in Charlottesville last week, today’s gospel lesson hits us in the head like a 2 X 4. In this story we see Jesus behaving badly. It makes us hope and pray that Jesus didn’t act this way or say these things. But unlike some biblical scholars, I’m not going to try and justify Jesus’ behavior. I’m not going to soften what he said so we can feel better about him. Instead, I’m taking Matthew at his word. I’m assuming this story happened EXACTLY as it’s described.
As we make our way through this uncomfortable text, I believe we’ll learn a lot about how hard it is, to dismantle racism, hate and prejudicial thinking. The good news is that while dismantling these things is hard work, it can be done. And, as the saying goes, you can teach an old dog, new tricks! So let’s get started.
The story begins with a Canaanite woman who lives in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Right away, we know Jesus is in Gentile territory. He’s not where he’s supposed to be. He’s on the “wrong side of the tracks.” This is not the kind of place a good rabbi should be found. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus is there, so I will not try to guess his motives for making this unusual road trip.
While Jesus is in Gentile territory, it shouldn’t surprise us, that a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, is the first to approach him. After all, he is on her turf. You may not be aware of it, but Matthew’s labeling of her as a “Canaanite” is rather odd because there was no land known as Canaan in the first century. In fact, this is the only place in the New Testament where this word is found. In Mark’s version of the story, he says she is of “Syrophoenician origin,” [Mk 7:26] which is a more accurate description of where she is from. So I am assuming Matthew is using the word “Canaanite” as a literary devise. He’s bating the story with negative overtones from the get go. Canaanites are “those people,” who worship the wrong god, who don’t believe the same things we believe.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have Canaanites in our lives. We all have people we are suspicious of the moment we meet them. It may be because of the color of their skin or that fact that they wear a hijab or burka. It may be because they attend that “other church,” or a synagogue, a mosque, or aren’t a part of any faith community at all. It may be because they’re homeless and they’re asking us for money as we walk down the street. Or they’re mentally ill and we get an uncomfortable feeling inside that makes us want to avoid them at all costs. We all have Canaanites in our lives, whether we care to admit it or not. We use derogatory names when talking about them, or at the very least we say these names silently in our hearts.
This Canaanite woman, one of “those people,” began shouting at Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” The first thing Jesus does is ignore her. Yep, that’s what I said he ignores her. [Sarcastically] Perhaps if she had asked him politely he would have granted her request. But here she is, one of “those people,” acting all crazy-like, and shouting at Jesus. Is it any wonder he ignored her?
But if you’re like me, the way Jesus treats her makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem like Jesus at all. Isn’t this the guy who fed over 5,000 people in chapter 14? Isn’t this the guy who, at the end of this same chapter, healed everyone who asked for help in the town of Gennesaret? As a side note, Gennesarret is a town located on the Jewish side of Lake Galilee. Do with that detail what you will! How is it that the guy who did all these things couldn’t handle one foreigner shouting at him, begging for mercy? It just doesn’t seem like Jesus at all.
And yet, this detail uncomfortably reminds us that we’ve done the same thing that Jesus did. We heard the cries of others who asked us for mercy and we ignored them, too: Families fleeing from war in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, whom we refuse to provide sanctuary. Illegal immigrants from Central America, whom we continue to exploit for cheap labor. African Americans who keep telling us good white people that THEIR experience of living in America is vastly different from OUR experience of living in America, but we ignore them. I could continue to name names, but we are all guilty of the crime. The Jesus we see in our gospel lesson, who ignores this desperate woman, is a reflection of the way we sometimes treat others.
To make matters worse, the disciples reinforce Jesus’ bad behavior. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” All of a sudden, it’s their problem, too Technically, she was only shouting at Jesus, but now the disciples adopt a gang mentality and throw her under the bus. This speaks of the tendency we humans have to surround ourselves with those who look like us and think like us, so that our prejudices remain unchallenged, no matter how cruel or vile they may be. Thanks to the internet and cable TV news, it’s easy for us to cut ourselves off from everyone and everything that is different from us. Lord, have mercy!
At this point in the story, Jesus has the perfect opportunity to confront this kind of racist thinking. He could have told a clever parable about the Samaritan, one of “those people,” who was the better neighbor to the injured man at the side of the road than the priest or the rabbi. He could have provided a word of wisdom, such this one from the gospel of John: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [Jn 10:16]
Unfortunately he says two things we wish he wouldn’t have said. Scholars have been arguing about what they mean ever since they appeared in Matthew’s gospel. First of all, Jesus says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Sighs] In other words, this woman is not worthy of my time. Again, this doesn’t seem like Jesus at all. It contradicts many passages in the gospels where Jesus reached out to those who lived on the margins of society and offered them grace upon grace.
But this Canaanite woman, whom I refer to as the sassy woman, in the best sense possible, refuses to back down. She kneels before Jesus and asks for mercy a second time. “Lord, help me” she pleads.
Then Jesus, for whatever reason, let the racial prejudices of his day, get the best of him. And from his mouth we hear the words that many Jewish people in the first century would have said to this woman: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It doesn’t matter how many Greek word studies we throw at this sentence. As far as I’m concerned, it means what it means. Jesus calls this woman a “dog.”
Here, we have a racial slur spoken by a very human Jesus who let the prejudices of his day get the best of him. This reminds us that dismantling racism, hate and prejudice is not an easy thing. Even Jesus and his disciples had to wrestle with the way they were raised, and the racist things they heard while growing up in Galilee.
After witnessing the violent and highly visible white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, we are reminded that we, as a nation, have a lot of work to do in terms of our attitudes toward people of other races as well as other oppressed minorities. While I am gay, and have been on the receiving end of those who referred to me as a “dog” and much worse, I still pass as white and male. These are two aspects of societal privilege I grew up with, along with the attitudes that come with them. I know I’m kidding myself if I think I’m immune to the things I’ve heard all my life. But I am in recovery, and slowly but surely, whatever prejudices and preconceived notions I have about those who are different from me, as being dismantled by the Jesus who looks a lot different than the Jesus we see in our gospel lesson.
In these turbulent times, I encourage us not to be reactionary but, instead, to listen. Listen to the voices of our African-American brothers and sisters who have been on the receiving end of more racist words and actions than we can possibly imagine. Listen, to other oppressed people in our society who are begging us for mercy, and justice.
After a time of listening, don’t ignore them and pretend these problems don’t exist. Instead, let us rise above our raising and live out the words of Abiding Savior’s Welcome Statement: “United in Christ. Welcoming All” where we define “all” as ability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, language, life circumstances, marital status, race, and sexual orientation. I don’t mean to lecture you on these things but on this particular Sunday these things need to be said in pulpits across America.
To remain silent, is to contribute to the problem. And, if you know me well, you know I’m not the kind of person who remains silent in the face of injustice. My faith in the Jesus I know and love, inspires and challenges me to fight racism, hate and prejudice whenever it rears its ugly head.
This is where the sassy woman portion of the story kicks into high gear. After Jesus ignores her, after the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, after Jesus says he was sent to save Jews only, after Jesus calls her a dog, this sassy woman confronts Jesus’ prejudice with a little wit and wisdom of her own: “Yes, Lord, [she starts out politely]; Yes, Lord yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
BAM! This sassy woman confronts the racial and societal prejudices of her day. She reminds Jesus that grace upon grace is offered to all, and all mean all. She reminds Jesus that sometimes people treat their pets better than they treat one another. This kind of thinking has no room in the kingdom of God.
In that moment, Jesus’s attitude is radically changed. He responds to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Friends in Christ, there is only one hero in this story, and Jesus is not it. The fearlessness of this sassy woman, one of “those people,” is here to remind us, that our faith compels us to speak out against racism, white supremacy, and other oppressive attitudes that are a part of our culture. WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS as followers of Christ, as a church, and as a nation. While you may disagree with my interpretation of this story, I hope you will not disagree with our calling to be the sassy women our nation needs right now.
I’ve done it before as we fought for LGBT equality in the ELCA. I will do it again as we fight to dismantle the racist and white supremacist attitudes that are poisoning our nation in these scary and perilous times. I hope you will join me. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck