I taught religious studies for fifteen years and over that time, although I’m not particularly proud of it, I drove any number of students to tears. Now, many of those I don’t know about—the grades they received were disappointing; the work I assigned too arduous. But there were a half a dozen times that students began to cry during class. Usually, it was because I was doing one of those things I thought faculty in the Humanities ought to do—force students to examine their beliefs and assumptions, to think about why they thought the way they did, to challenge them to examine themselves and their most deeply held values.
One of the first times it happened was when we were discussing the gospel reading we heard today. I offered what I thought was a very straightforward, non-controversial, even obvious interpretation of the text. Jesus and his disciples are walking around in foreign, Gentile territory. A woman comes up to them and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. First, Jesus simply ignores her. His disciples, his security team try to get rid of her, and Jesus adds a putdown: “You’re not my problem.” But she persisted, using language evocative of the language Peter used when he was drowning in last week’s Gospel, “Lord, help me.”
Now, Jesus is really annoyed. He basically calls her a dog, saying that it’s not appropriate for him to share with her what he has. But still she has a retort, and gets the better of him—“Yes, but even dogs get the scraps from the master’s table.”
It’s not a comforting story and I get why the student was disturbed by it. It was probably my summary of his behavior as “Jesus was a jerk” that set her off. Jesus is not portrayed in the best of lights, and in the end a woman, a Gentile woman at that, gets the better of him in a contest of wits. For nearly two millennia, Christians have tried to put a positive spin on this story—Jesus was testing her; his statement at the end, that she had great faith, lets us disregard the difficult elements in the story. But I want to challenge that today. The rather straightforward reading is, I think, the one that opens to us new ways of thinking about Jesus, about the good news of God’s reign, and about our own assumptions and blind spots.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m with Jesus in this encounter. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s hard for me to walk around Capitol Square without being confronted by someone who wants me to help them. Ask our volunteer receptionists. They can tell you how many phone calls we get, or how many people walk into the reception area seeking assistance. And their stories are heartbreaking. They need a bus pass, or money for gas, or to pay their rent, or to buy a prescription. Often, like Jesus, I cut them off before they’re able to tell me their story. If I helped out everyone who asked, I would run out of funds by the end of the week and that would be it for well, who knows how long… And however awful their situation might be, however much they might need help, it’s likely that next week, someone with an even more heartbreaking story would come to me, asking for help.
So I’m with Jesus here. I’ve only got so much time, so much energy, and limited funds, and the need is so great. It’s easier to ignore them to turn them away, to dis them, than to listen and respond. But the thing is, sometimes people are persistent. They won’t be put off; they won’t take no for an answer, and when I tell them to come back next week, they do. Sometimes, they tell me their whole story, and in response I do what I can to help them.
There’s a larger lesson, here, however. It’s not just that Jesus finally responds to the woman’s request; there’s also the whole context to take into account. Jesus and his disciples have travelled outside their comfort zone. So far in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in his home region of Galilee, visiting the towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee. He’s made at least two trips across the Sea of Galilee. We saw one of those trips in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Now he’s gone in the other direction toward the Mediterranean coast. He’s outside of traditional Jewish territory, beyond Herod’s kingdom, into the Roman Province of Syria. It’s Gentile territory, and while it’s likely there were Jewish communities to which they’re headed, it’s a mixed population.
Another thing to point out. Matthew identifies this woman as Canaanite. It’s a rather odd, even anachronistic designation, because it hearkens back centuries to the period of the Judges and the monarchy, even earlier to the conquest. For then, the native population was labeled Canaanite. It’s not a term used for the non-Jewish population in the Roman period. In his telling of the story, Mark labels her Syro-Phoenician. It’s almost as if Matthew wants to emphasize her otherness—her non-Jewishness, the extent to which an encounter with her would be offensive to an observant Jew.
It’s this woman, by gender voiceless and powerless, by ethnicity and religion, totally other, to be avoided, it is this woman who comes to Jesus in search of help for her daughter, and Jesus first ignores her, then refers to her as a dog. I won’t use it, but you know what epithet in contemporary English would fit this situation.
But she persisted. Her need is so great, the love of her child so powerful, that she brushes off Jesus’ lack of concern and his verbal cruelty and offers a retort. “So you think I’m a dog, Jesus. Well, even dogs are given the scraps from the master’s table.”
And with that response, she wins the argument, beating Jesus at his own game. Now, he is shocked out of his complacency, his eyes that were clouded by prejudice, his heart, cold because she wasn’t one of those he understood to be his mission area, opened to her need. Jesus is transformed by her words and her need and he heals her daughter.
There may be no more appropriate gospel for the time in which we live than this little story. We are living in perilous, troubled times. The fabric of our nation seems to be tearing apart. After Charlottesville and the renewed challenge to Confederate monuments across the country, the growing threat of white supremacy and protests against it, we have become aware of the deep pain felt by People of Color in this nation, especially African-Americans. We have been awakened to their fear, the fear of the LGBT community, the fears of all those who value diversity, a multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society.
Many of us want to say in response to those challenges—This is not America, this is not who we are. Many of us want to say, when Christianity is implicated in racism and white supremacy, those people aren’t really Christian, they don’t understand the gospel; they don’t follow Jesus; the Episcopal Church is different.
Not so fast. Are we walking with Jesus on those roads in the region of Tyre and Sidon? Are we the disciples who want to protect Jesus from a truth-telling foreign woman who is making a scene? Are we like Jesus, who sees that truth-telling woman as an annoyance, a distraction from what’s really important?
Can we see her for who she is, a truth-teller, a prophet, a woman who challenges us to see her in a new way? Can we open our hearts to the possibility of transformation; to see in ourselves the racism, misogyny, and privilege that she is calling out? Can we see the possibilities that an ever-expanding notion of the love of Christ might mean in our world and community today? Can our hearts be opened by the cries for justice and mercy that surround us?