I have never really liked the story we hear from our gospel lesson today. Every time I have heard or read the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, I cringe. I do not like the way Jesus ignores the woman. I do not like the way Jesus then tries to dismiss her – not only because his dismissal is rude, but also because he is being exclusive, saying that his ministry is only for chosen of God. And I especially do not like the way Jesus not only calls her a dog, but also basically treats her like a dog. This is not the Jesus I know. And I am pretty sure that this is not what the slogan designers meant when they asked, “What would Jesus do?”
But the real problem with this story, the problem that I do not like to talk about, is Jesus’ ugly behavior reminds me of all the times I have acted in a similarly ugly way. Most of the time, my ugly behavior is well-intentioned or even justifiable. When I see a homeless person or someone begging for money, and I know that I have nothing to give them that day, I have honed the art of avoiding eye contact. Or, when I am not protected by the rolled-up windows of my car, and a similar person asks me directly for help, I have figured out my patented response, “Sorry I do not have any cash;” which is sometimes true, but is often a lie. I do have cash, but I feel awkward explaining that I give to agencies that make a difference for people like them to protect me from having to have this very same engagement. Or I have had countless conversations with people I have helped through the church’s discretionary fund, only to have to say “no” when they show up two weeks later because, as I clearly communicated, we have a policy of helping people not more than once every six months.
Now I can completely explain all the reasons for the things I do: I am a petite woman, so avoiding engagement with what could be a volatile, unstable person is generally a good practice; I have created a framework for giving which makes a difference, but also makes me feel more comfortable; I have a system for our emergency assistance program because I need to make sure the church’s discretionary fund supports as many people as possible, and as fairly as possible. All of those explanations are good, and they exhibit healthy boundary-drawing. In fact, I have had multiple conversations over the years when each of those decisions has been labeled as smart, intentional, and fair. And yet, when I am in the midst of each of those types of scenarios, the execution of those smart decisions still feels ugly. I feel like I am actually following that slogan, “What would Jesus do,” when I am in the midst of ignoring, explaining why I cannot help, or firmly drawing a boundary with someone who is being too pushy. But instead of following the Jesus we find in our passage today and feeling good about myself, I am left with a sense of discomfort.
So, if I feel uncomfortable with my actions, and I especially feel uncomfortable with this version of Jesus that we find in Holy Scripture, why is this story in scripture at all? And why, of all the texts they could have included, did the designers of our lectionary demand that we hear this particular passage? Let’s start with the first question – why this story is in scripture at all. The good news is that this scripture, despite all its ugliness and discomfort is important. Jesus is sent to the people of God with a very specific mission: to initiate God’s purposes for God’s people. God had promised long ago to send a messiah to save God’s people. Jesus is now enacting that mission. Jesus has been clear all along that God’s mission starts with God’s people. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends out the disciples the first time, Jesus tells the disciples to go only to the house of Israel, not to be distracted by the Gentiles, or non-Jewish peoples. He is not necessarily being exclusive. Jesus knows that the people of Israel are going to be a blessing to all people, including the Gentiles. But the first job is to get the people of Israel on board – to help them understand that the messiah is here and the reign of God is beginning.[i]
The problem for Jesus, and perhaps the reason why we find Jesus the way we find him today, is that the people of God are not listening. They are throwing Jesus out of towns, they are arguing with him about the following of laws instead of seeing the fulfillment of the law, and they are faltering in their faith. Just last week we watched as Peter sunk into the sea. Today, Jesus is moving on to Tyre and Sidon because his people have kicked him out of town. And all of that stuff we heard today about what defiles a person being what comes out of the mouth, not what goes in, is an argument about getting so caught up in the letter of the law that one cannot see how one is violating the spirit of the law. So here Jesus is, beating his head against a wall, with the people of God refusing to understand or listen to him, when a woman from a country his people oppose says very simply, “Lord, Son of David.” The people of God, the leaders of the people of God, even the disciples of God do not get who Jesus is. But this unclean, foreign, woman – so a triple outcast – gets who Jesus is.
So, we can imagine that Jesus is feeling a little raw – in a sea of rejection, the affirmation of this lowly outsider may not have been enough to draw him out of his funk.[ii] Fair enough. But the woman persists. Jesus lets down his guard a little bit, and instead of ignoring her explains he is not trying to be rude, but he has been sent on a mission that entails him proceeding in a particular manner – Jews first, Gentiles later. But the woman persists again. And frazzled, rejected Jesus, who has tried to politely ignore, then perhaps politely explain, snaps and asserts his boundary. “The good news is just not ready for Gentiles, okay?” But the woman persists again. She takes Jesus’ nasty words and she transforms them. She takes that belittling label “dog,” and puts the label right in front of Jesus. She does not want to wait for Easter.[iii] She does not want to wait for the people of God to wake up. She wants her blessing, the blessing that God eventually intends anyway, to start. Right now.
And Jesus does that beautiful, awful thing we all hate to do. Jesus admits he is wrong. He heals her daughter, seeing in the persistence of this woman that he has gotten so caught up in the proper process and the appropriate boundaries that he has limited the power of the gospel and the reach of the good news.
The last two weeks I have been working on a request for financial assistance. The person needed rental assistance, and the case had been fully vetted. I knew Hickory Neck could not cover the full rental payment, so I offered to collaborate with some other churches. Now any of you who have ever tried to collaborate know that although collaboration is good, collaboration is never simple nor fast. So this week, the case came back around because the deadline is rapidly approaching. I explained where we were and how I needed to get back to the churches I had invited to help. The person I had been working with finally snapped and said, “You guys are all wrapped up in all these protests over something that happened hundreds of years ago. But when the effects of racism are staring you in the face, and you can actually do something about it, you can’t seem to move!” I felt like I had been slapped in the face. Here I was following my process, staying with in the reasoned boundaries I have created, working creatively to solve the problem, while also being quite passionate about and wanting to work on correcting the sin of racism that our whole country is addressing since Charlottesville last weekend. And here was a Canaanite woman, a Gentile calling me out – pushing me out of the theoretical, or the master plan, and asking me to look her in the face and explain why the fulfillment of God’s promise cannot happen today.
We do not like this story today because Jesus is dismissive, rude, and mean. But mostly we do not like this story because Jesus’ story reminds us of the times we have been dismissive, rude, or mean. We can claim that we do not like how Jesus behaves in this story, but really we do not like how Jesus is a mirror of our own behavior in this story. And for that reason, I am grateful for the discomfort today. I am grateful for the ways in which I am squirming today because something tremendous happens when Jesus gets uncomfortable today. When Jesus gets slapped in the face by the Canaanite woman, he wakes up. He stops, sees, and hears her. And he changes course. This lowly triple-outcast changes the ministry of Christ forever. No longer is Jesus doggedly sticking to the plan of the redemption of Jews followed by the redemption of Gentiles. Jesus mercy and mission get wider, right in this very moment.[iv] Jesus’ wide arms of mercy, love, and grace spread just a bit wider, eventually being spread so wide that they fit onto the cross.
Our invitation today is to let our arms start moving to the same position. I do not know who the Canaanite women are in your lives. I do not know if your heart needs softening on racism, on sexism, or on some other -ism. I do not know if you heart needs softening on some other person or group you have deemed beyond redemption. I do not know if your heart needs softening by the person whose eyes you are avoiding. But our invitation today is to recognize that our dismissiveness, our exclusion, our boundary-drawing is already in line with what Jesus would do. Now Jesus is inviting us to keep doing what Jesus would do and to change our minds – to do better, to behave better, to be better. Stretching our arms that far wide will be hard. But the promise of transformation is much more powerful than anything we have imagined.
[i] N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 199-200.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 62.
[iii] Wright, 201.
[iv] Brown Taylor, 64-65.