By facing it and not letting guilt or shame cripple him. Today’s text from the lectionary includes Matthew 15: 21-28 (The Canaanite Woman— a.k.a. the woman whom Jesus calls a dog…yup. You did read that correctly). I have always hated this passage. If you are a woman, perhaps you have as well. But after working long and hard with this text, I’ve finally come to love it. Such are the wonders of scripture that never seem to end, at least for me.
If it isn’t enough that the patriarchy of the bible has reinforced the notions of women’s limited humanity, and strengthened the objectification of women over the last 2000 years as it sought to continuously silence our voices, this emotional abuse of a woman-outsider by Jesus and the disciples really takes the cake. Perhaps it’s why I’ve NEVER heard a sermon preached on this scripture before. It makes everyone squirm a little, perhaps—which is a good thing. It’s being outside our comfort zones where we can begin to be transformed—which is the whole purpose of the bible, right?
In most bible studies I’ve been in The United Methodist Church, Jesus is usually pointed out as being a feminist—-caring for the dignity of women as equal to men, whether they are sitting ostracized and alone in the heat of the day at Jacob’s well in Samaria, or kept from religious life because of unceasing bleeding for 12 years, or traumatically judged for adultery when the MALE party involved slips away unnamed and untroubled. We love Jesus when he says to the Jewish men who are looking for an easy loophole to divorce their middle-aged wives for a younger, prettier option: “Do NOT divorce and remarry another, except for unchastity, or else you commit adultery.” Because in that time and place, to do so would condemn a woman to either slavery or prostitution. There was no other way for her to survive in a very patriarchal society. THANK YOU, JESUS! Jesus WAS a feminist, and as the Christ, he pointed to the divinity present in everyone and every thing under the sun.
So then, what is this terrible business of ignoring the Canaanite woman in need in today’s scripture? Of calling her a demeaning name—because she was not only a Gentile, but also a woman? How does this action of Jesus further our understanding of him—AND of the gospel—AND of what it means to be people of the eternal covenant of God? It must serve some purpose here, or it would not have been included. So let’s see what we can find.
First, let’s note that Jesus was carrying his own kind of “privilege” here. We as a society are learning much these days about “white privilege,” and while we must be clear that Jesus was not white, he was a Palestinian-Israeli, a Jew, he identified as part of the chosen people of Israel.
Now, in the language of “chosen-ness” in the bible, it means to understand oneself to be blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Of course, every tribe, organization, company, or sports team wants to be “chosen” to be Number One. But Israel was called out by God in a unique way of being Number One—it wasn’t to serve their egos, it was to know that they were beloved so deeply, so treasured as the apple of God’s eye, that they could offer that same sentiment to others. How cool is that! So this is the team that Jesus was on in the ancient world: the chosen ones of Israel. This was a place of privilege and responsibility.
But Jesus was fully a product of his culture as a human being, as much as we are. As the Christ, we say he was without sin, which just means that he was a door to God-Consciousness and Connection because he didn’t serve his ego (what the bible refers to as “the flesh.”) But Jesus was shaped by the people he lived with, the language they spoke, the rituals and customs of his day. It’s understandable that even as he may have understood himself as somehow anointed as Messiah for his people, his concept of what that fully meant for him probably evolved over time. When you became a parent, did your understanding of that unique role come all at once to you when you held your child for the first time? Or did it grow and take form as you related to your child over the years? Being human like us, I think the same was true for Jesus as he worked out his identity as Messiah, as well.
In verse 23 it says he didn’t respond to this woman’s shouts to get his attention. He ignored her. But in reading this together with everything else I know about Jesus, I can imagine that he’s internally struggling with perhaps some indecision. There was only one other instance where a Gentile had asked him to heal a person not present—-remember the centurion in Matthew 8 who told Jesus about his servant? And when the centurion said he believed in the power of Jesus’ command alone, Jesus said ‘In no one in Israel have I found such faith!”
I wonder…. Was Jesus was replaying that experience he’d had with the centurion around in his head when he started hearing this Gentile woman’s shouts about her demon-possessed daughter? In the former situation, Jesus had been in Galilee, in his own country, even if it was Roman-occupied. It was at least his homeland, and perhaps he had felt more secure taking a risk on his homecourt.
But in today’s scripture from Matthew, Jesus has stepped outside of his own people’s territory. He only did this a few times in the course of his ministry. He is in the land of Canaan in today’s scripture. This land belonged to the indigenous people from whom Israel took their own Promised Land some hundreds of years before. And I wonder if this, too, might have contributed to Jesus’ internal struggle. Jesus now knew personally what it felt like to have foreigners (most recently, the Roman empire) move into and dominate what his people considered their land covenant from God.
Jesus knew the wounds of oppression personally by not just the Romans, but by other groups who had interacted violently with Israel, as well, including the Canaanites. The chosen people of God he had grown up with; the culture and the language and the customs of his tribe Israel had all been shaped by this violent reality, and so wouldn’t it have been also natural for him, in a very human way, to see a Greek Gentile as an outsider he maybe shouldn’t get involved with, especially if he wasn’t even in his own land? Clearly Jesus’ disciples saw the Canaanite woman this way: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” they said to him. “Let’s just keep to ourselves,” they seem to say. “We could really use a break from all the caring we do for OUR people, and we don’t owe his woman anything.”
But then Jesus engaged the encounter. He needed to perhaps work through his internal struggles about Messiah, chosen-ness, what happened with the centurion, and how oppression can become liberation if we connect to the Universal Christ Mystery at the core of every situation. I love this text because it is one of the places where we’re allowed to see Jesus’ true human vulnerability. He is struggling internally. Just as he did when he learned early in his ministry that his cousin John had been beheaded for speaking truth to power. Or when Lazarus died and he was overwhelmed by the grief born of love, and just as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane when he faced his own limits of courage.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said truthfully to the Canaanite woman. In the first 3 gospels (Matt, Mark and Luke) Jesus doesn’t claim to be omniscient at all. All the grand descriptions of Jesus as the Great I AM, the Light of the World, THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and the LIFE—that we hear the Christ proclaim are in the gospel of John. Here in the book of Matthew today, Jesus just calls himself the Son of Man, an ordinary person who was seeking to live by faith as deeply as possible. “I’m not sure I can offer you anything from my table,” he said to her, maybe feeling some genuine confusion about his role, maybe recognizing the antagonism toward Canaanites that he had learned from his own people.
But then the woman did something HERSELF to engage the encounter. She knelt. Perhaps it always takes the inter-relationship of at least two to create a healing that genuinely transforms us. I don’t think it’s EVER just Jesus’ uniquely deep faith that heals people with such transformative power. I think it’s always a combination of Jesus’ openness to God AND the open trusting energy of the other person, as well. Jesus needed HER, a woman on the margins of his society, to open his own divine Consciousness a little wider, I think. And she needed HIM to bring his faith close enough to her so that she could KNEEL in the presence of the Christ Mystery that his life pointed to. She had referred to him as “Son of David” when she initially addressed him repeatedly from a distance. This is a political, Jewish title. But after Jesus finally stopped and honestly shared the internal struggle within his faith, she KNELT. He engaged her with HIS faith in God and this is why, I believe, she called him just “Lord” in the next sentence. Perhaps it was in this critical moment where she actually discovered HER faith—in the encounter with Jesus itself. Maybe she had been a desperate, belligerent, rebuffed woman shouting at Jesus and his disciples as just some more traveling healers she had followed before, not open and trusting in God at all. But then in the encounter with Jesus’ vulnerable and struggling faith she found her own ability to trust in something greater than herself. Today, more than anything, people are hungry for authenticity—especially young people. Real-ness. With whom might you be able to share your own honest struggles with God in order to encourage another?
For even though we’ll never know the tone of voice Jesus used when he called this woman a dog—was it playful and teasing or was it laced with angry prejudice, based on the language he had learned growing up in the culture he did? We’ll never know. What we CAN know is that this scripture is present in our bible because of how it shows us that to relate vulnerably with each other is to find authentic healing that changes us on a deep level—BOTH of us—the giver and the receiver.
We here today also have privilege, just as Jesus did in this encounter with an outsider. We also have been chosen and blessed to be a blessing. AND we are products of our own unique cultures in this vast country that didn’t originally belong to us, with our own prejudices against political and private enemies. I love this scripture. I love it because it challenges me to be a better Christian. I love it because it inspires me to do my own work as a privileged white person in the world today. And I especially love it because it reminds me that I don’t need to be ashamed of my privilege or prejudice—Jesus faced those parts of himself and was transformed by God’s love. And with God’s help, the same can be true for us.