Rev Dr. David D. M. King
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A
I have always found the story from Matthew today to be one of the most disturbing in the Gospels. The version in Mark is about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Here in Matthew it is the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. I’ve researched the version in Mark quite a lot. I’ve even published an article on it. And yet, I have never fully figured it out. It still gnaws at me. It makes me uneasy.
Jesus is far outside his usual area of operation. According to the gospels, Jesus spends most of his time right around the Sea of Galilee, with occasional trips south to Jerusalem. Galilee, where Jesus came from, was primarily Jewish, though it was considered a backwater by the people to the south in Judea and Jerusalem. There were gentile cities on the lake, though. And even in Galilee, there would have been a mixing of different kinds of peoples.
In the story, though, Jesus is far to the northwest near Tyre and Sidon. Both cities are in modern Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean. This was well outside the Jewish homeland. But, as in any port city in the Roman Empire, there was likely a community of Jews there, also.
Matthew gives us no clue as to why Jesus might be there. He is not visiting anyone in particular. He has no business. He has never, so far as we know, been there on any other occasion. And the transitions at the beginning and ending of this episode are written rather clumsily. There’s no indication of how Jesus got to a place so far afield of his usual area of operation, and at the end, it is as if he never left Galilee at all.
While Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon, he encounters a Canaanite woman. That is a strange detail. There really isn’t such a thing as a Canaanite in Jesus’s time. There is no Canaan. There hasn’t been for a millennium. It would be as if I said I visited Scotland and met a Pictish woman, or that I went to France and met a Gaulish man, or that I went to Austria and met a Gothic woman. It is quite anachronistic. Canaan is the name of the land that would become Israel and Judea, but before the Israelites took it. The Canaanites were the people who lived there before Joshua led the Israelites on a campaign of invasion. They were polytheist, whose main God was Ba’al, In this time period, their descendants would more appropriately be called Phoenicians. In the Hebrew Bible, they are always the enemy, always unclean, always the people who are responsible for leading Israel astray. There is a lot of xenophobic baggage between Israelites and Canaanites. The fact that Matthew uses this anachronistic term indicates that he whats to evoke all of the old prejudices and hatreds.
The woman approaches Jesus. Inexplicably, she knows who he is. Even more inexplicably, she calls him Son of David. Son of David is a Hebrew way of talking about a Judean king or messiah. Why on earth would this “Canaanite” foreigner refer to Jesus as a Jewish messiah, especially since very few of Jesus’s followers even call him that? It makes no sense. Whatever else it may be, though, it is at least a term of respect.
The woman asks Jesus to show her mercy because her daughter is suffering from demon possession. Somehow she knows of his reputation as an exorcist and healer, and she asks him in a very deferential way to consider healing her daughter.
Jesus’s response is shocking. He doesn’t say anything to her at all. He acts as if she doesn’t exist and makes no acknowledgment of her request or even of her presence. He simply ignores her while she continues to plead with him for mercy.
She must have continued begging for quite some time, because the disciples finally get annoyed with her wailing and tell Jesus that he should send her away.
Finally, Jesus responds to her, though indirectly and rather rudely. He says, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Without actually acknowledging her request, Jesus says that she is not worth talking to because she is not an Israelite. She is not a part of the same tribe that he is.
This is both troubling and puzzling. It is troubling because this is not the way we expect Jesus to treat people. He does not ignore or spurn people who sincerely ask him for help. It is puzzling because Jesus also seems to be lying here. He has already helped people who aren’t Israelites. Specifically, back in Matthew 8 Jesus cast demons out of the Gadarene demoniacs, the two men who lived in a graveyard until Jesus cast their demons out, the demons who went into pigs that ran off a cliff. If Jesus would heal them even though they weren’t Israelites, why would he not help this woman? The demoniacs didn’t even ask to be healed, and here this woman is begging Jesus for help. If Jesus really were sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he wouldn’t have healed the two men in the tombs. Inexplicably, Jesus dismisses this woman and her requests.
Nevertheless, she persists. She kneels down in front of him and begs, “Lord, help me.” She submits herself to him, addresses him with respect, and begs for his assistance. But he won’t give it.
Instead, he says something truly horrifying. Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” Jesus says that. The Jesus who said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” the Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan, the Jesus who has pity on the crowds and helps them even when he is trying to get away from them. That Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
There is no way to get around the fact that this is a dehumanizing insult. In a Jewish context, in a Phoenician context, in a Greek context, in a Roman context, it is insulting to compare a person to a dog. They were considered scavengers and unclean. The word Jesus uses here is the diminutive form: it means little dogs. But, of course, that doesn’t help matters. In English, we use the same sort of word to insult women. You know the word; it starts with a ‘B.’ And in English or in Greek, “to call a woman a little [dog] is no less abusive than to call her a [dog] without qualification.”
And here is the crux of the problem. Who is this Jesus who uses abusive language with someone who speaks respectfully with him? Who is this Jesus who seems entrenched in racial hatred? Who is this Jesus who refuses to help someone who humbly asks? I do not recognize him. He bares almost no resemblance to the Jesus I know. It is one thing for me or you to hold prejudice. It is quite another thing for Jesus the Christ.
We everyday humans always hold prejudice, whether we try to or not. Even in a society that espouses freedom and justice for all, there are still those who actively hate people who are not like them. There are those among us who’s conception of America is of a white, Christian nation and who see no place for people who are not white, except possibly as servants. They stoke fear of the other. The Jew who is trying to swindle me. The immigrant who wants to take my job. The illegal who takes from the system and gives nothing back. The black man who wants to hurt me. The Muslim who wants to kill me.
These are, of course, all lies and distortions. But facts make little difference in such arguments. It is enough simply to suggest that the other is out to harm me, to take what is rightfully mine. And then any misfortune I suffer can be blamed on someone else. And once I am distracted by fear of the other, I can be convinced to give over my power to the people who stoke that fear. I can be convinced to act against my own morals, to act even against my own interest, if it means that some harm will come to the person I have been conditioned to fear.
There are some who preach such hatred openly, who will stand up in defense of hate. But we do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us. Some of it comes with the innocence of fearing something we have little experience with; we seem programmed to fear things that we do not know or understand. Some of it comes to us unacknowledged in our culture. I have had the experience several times of going to share with my kids a television show or movie that I enjoyed as a child, only to find as I watched again that it was filled with negative stereotypes and shaming of women and minorities that I had no awareness of at the time. And yet they are operative on me, below the level of consciousness, in the unexamined, shadowy corners of my mind. We do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us.
And we do not have to acknowledge our privilege in order to benefit from it. Part of the reason it is so easy for someone to stoke racial resentment in a person of privilege like me is that I have no direct experience of what it is like to live in this world without my privilege. I haven’t had the experience of being followed by security in a department store. I haven’t had the experience of being cat-called while walking down the street. I haven’t had the experience of having a stranger touch my hair without permission. I haven’t had the experience of being abused because my immigration status means that I cannot report a crime that is committed against me. And I have rarely seen any evidence of such behavior against others, because such things are done only when there are not bystanders like me to witness them. A woman walking with me will not receive cat calls precisely because I am there. And because I cannot witness the things that happen when I am not present, I have no reason to know and believe that such crass and demeaning things are possible.
I may not even be aware when the things I do and say myself are hurtful or harmful to others. I think that I am only joking. I assume that if no one calls me out on my bad behavior that I have not done anything wrong. And then when someone does finally call me out, I become defensive because this is something I do or say all the time and no one has called me out before. I do not need to be aware that my actions are hurtful in order for them to actually cause harm to others. I do not have to be intentionally prejudiced in order for prejudice to act in me.
Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” These words dehumanize a desperate mother and the child for whom she asks for help. Nevertheless, she persists.
She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” She does not stand up and point out Jesus’s cruelty. She does not insult him in return. She does not argue her equal worth as a person. She does not spit at his feet and turn away.
Instead, she does what she hopes will heal her daughter. She bends Jesus’s words in such a way that he can grant her request without losing face. She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She chooses to quietly accept the crumbs. But we should not be content with offering only crumbs.
This very strange story of Jesus, a Jesus we can hardly recognize, tells us something important about ourselves. Because there are times when my words and actions, if I could see them from another perspective, would shock me. There are times when, if I could see myself through another’s eyes, hear myself through another’s ears, I would not recognize myself.
Matthew is not clear about what happens to Jesus once his mind is changed? Does he recognize that he was being cruel, that his ideas of who is in and who is out were insufficient, that he was not drawing the circle wide enough to include all of God’s people. We don’t know, exactly.
What we do know is that this story opens the door. This is what convinces those early Jesus-followers that Jesus’s message is not just for the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. This is what convinces them to tear down the walls of exclusion. This is what convinces them to open the doors of the church to people of all ages, nations, and races. Through this, and through the continued movement of the Holy Spirit, Christ does indeed break down the walls that we put up to divide ourselves from one another
I still don’t understand this story. It still leaves me uneasy. But it also leaves me hopeful. It makes me hopeful that if there could be transformation in Jesus, there can certainly be transformation in me; that if I am able to listen to others and accept that I may have blind spots in my moral thinking, that God is able to change me for the better; that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it does indeed bend toward justice. And I pray that when I find myself living contrary to the values I espouse, that God would grant me the grace to listen, to confess, and to be changed by the transforming power of Christ, which leads to ever greater love for God and for all God’s people, the people Christ came to save.