21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
We are used to hearing that Jesus met with everyone, ate with everyone, included… everyone. But here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has an encounter that challenges our understandings of him. Let’s explore this story a bit deeper. Who was this person he encountered that day? To begin, she was a Canaanite, which made her one of the native inhabitants of the land displaced by Israel’s occupation. And she is a woman. Women in that time and place were property of their fathers and husbands. There were strict rules for behavior in this society. This woman broke all the rules. She comes out into the city streets alone. Why? Women did not venture out into the streets and engage in conversation with men who were strangers to them. Did she not have a man to speak for her? Was she a widow raising her daughter alone? Very possibly she is shunned in her village as the mother of a possessed daughter. And still, she comes out shouting. She names Jesus “Lord.” She knows who he is and what titles he claims. She calls him “Son of David” acknowledging his Kingly lineage back to the first Jewish King.
She shouts out to Jesus, but we read, “he did not answer her at all.” He does not recognize her right to speak to him on that city street. He may ignore her, but he cannot help but hear her voice. He hears that her daughter is possessed. He has already cast out many demons in his travels, but this little girl’s situation does not move him.
Then the men walking with him urge him “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” So, she didn’t shout just once. She kept at it as they all walked. Time and again she calls out, “Lord! Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon. Have mercy on me!” His followers urge him to send her away and he tells them… not her… but says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Now she comes and kneels before him. She is bold and brazen enough to throw herself on the ground before him, effectively stopping him in his place. He must step over or around her to continue his journey. She forces him to see her, to hear her. Now she simply says, “Lord, help me.” A quiet, tearful, exhausted plea for help. Her daughter is tormented. Who can stand to watch their child in torment? She heard he was in the city. She left her daughter, possibly bound or locked in a dark room for her own safety. She runs through the city, accosting others asking of news of the prophet who heals, walking even now just down the street. Does she feel it is an opportunity presented by God? She is in desperate need. Very probably she had gone to other healers in her Canaanite home, looking for a cure for her child. It is so very bold and frightening to accost this powerful, male prophet with all his loyal followers around him. Yet she falls at his feet, “Lord, help me.” And he answers, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s possible that with this statement, Jesus steps around her, intent on continuing his mission as healer and teacher of Israel.
Does she accept his judgement? Does she shy away, crawl away from him, hiding her face in shame? No. She stops him again, possibly now standing a few steps behind him. It is possible that anger has enflamed her mother’s heart. It is possible that she shouts again when she says, “Yes, Lord…” It is possible “lord” is pronounced with a bit of sarcasm. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” That stops him in his tracks. He turns. His friends turn too, opening a space between Jesus and the woman. The air trembles with tension as she stares him down.
This is a hard moment for we who think of Jesus as compassionate and unconditionally loving. What I’m getting at is Jesus had privilege. He was a powerful, able-bodied, educated, recognized Prophet of conquering Jewish nationality. Yes, the Romans were in power in his time, but the tribes of Israel had conquered Canaan long ago. So yes, Israelites were the underdogs to Rome. But that made Canaanites the underdogs of the underdogs! And she was a woman. In her otherness this marginalized woman is so far beneath his notice that he calls her a dog. Jesus knew his Call in life. He was the Son of Man sent to the tribes of Israel.
It was only a few years ago, in seminary, that I started to become aware of my White privilege. I’m a hippie! I’m a Flower Child of the Love Generation! My liberal, musician parents raised me to love all people, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, education or physicality. I was raised to believe that all people are worthy of respect, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I also realized recently that one of my thoughts about Black Lives Matters was that it was silly to post a big sign saying Black Lives Matter. Because, of course, Black Lives Matter! I realized my most basic thought was: Whoever said Black Lives Don’t Matter? That in itself is White privilege. Ignorance of the tremendous, terrifying, violent prejudice that shouts Black Lives Do Not Matter! I am stunned that people could truly believe that about other human beings. I know it’s more than just the color of our skin. It’s culture and heritage and access to opportunities and economics… it’s a huge issue. But it is an insidious issue. It creeps into our loving, liberal, hippie hearts without us even being aware. However, I am blessed with a few Black friends who are willing to explain privilege to the White girl.
Several months ago, at work we had an all staff gathering to talk about issues of race. We have a wildly, wonderfully diverse group of staff in the Sterile Processing department at the VA hospital. We needed to give ourselves the opportunity to talk together. We broke into little groups and I sat with two Black co-workers. We were asked to share hopes or wishes we had around the subject of race. I said that I would like to be Black for a day, because I have no idea what it means to be Black in our society today. My statement apparently stuck with one of my friends that day, because a while later she responded by giving me a copy of “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. I was amazed at the experience of that incredibly courageous man. This book is the published journal notes of a White man who turned his skin dark and entered the world of the Negro in the Deep South in 1959. Incredible to read. His experiences opened my eyes to my beliefs around privilege. I’ve always thought of privilege as something queens have. You know. Riches, yachts, the cash to dine in the fanciest restaurants. That’s not privilege. White privilege is being able to make a reservation for a first-class seat on the airline and never even wonder if the stewardess will sneer at me and refuse my drink order. White privilege is being able to walk into any restroom, anywhere, without confrontation. White privilege is being able to visit a beautiful home in a gorgeous neighborhood and not see the realtor’s condescending attitude directed at me as she assumes, I couldn’t afford to live here and wouldn’t be welcome if I did.
Right before this encounter in our Scripture story today, Jesus argues with the Pharisees and scribes about whether it is justifiable to break a commandment of God for the sake of their tradition. He calls the crowd to him and explains, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Explaining his parable to his Disciples, Jesus explains that, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Slander is one of the things he names as preceding from the heart. He. Just. Said. It. And now he turns away from a woman in pain, pleading for the life of her daughter, saying, to her face, that she is no better than a dog. But she, in her righteous anger and deep motherly love, calls him on his prejudice. “Yes, Lord, yet…” Even if it is true that she is no better than a dog in his estimation, she says to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In accepting the place of a dog under the table, in accepting only the crumbs that fall from that table, in accepting that he is her master… she makes him see that she is not asking for very much of his time or his power. She appeals to this privileged man, this powerful, prophetic, male healer and teacher of God to pause in his mission, to grant healing and peace to an ailing child.
Jesus find his eyes opened; his heart opened. For he proclaims, to her, “O woman, great is your faith!” He acknowledges that the faith of this marginalized woman is so great it has turned his heart. And more, he grants her petition, saying, “Let it be done for you as you desire.” And, we read, “her daughter was healed instantly.”
We look to Jesus as an example of love, compassion and peace. I think it is important to remember that he was also a man of anger, violence and snap judgements. Yes, Jesus was the Son of God. He was also human. That was the point of his incarnation, to bring the experience of Man to the heart of God, and in so doing, bring the experience of God to the hearts of Men. And women. And probably dogs, too. We all have souls. We all have breath and Spirit and hope and dreams. And we all, from time to time, do things we come to see as unjust, and downright wrong. Let us look to the example of Jesus and his encounter with a deeply faithful mother. Let us remember that though we may falter, though we may not come up to our own high expectations all the time, even Jesus had his moments of humility. Even Jesus could find his heart moved by the faith of another.
It's scary I know to look and honestly see our prejudices, our snap judgments. But give it a try. Follow, as our Christian faith directs us, follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Be willing to listen, to hear, to turn and see where we fall short… and make a change. If we call ourselves Christian, I suggest we be bold and honest enough with ourselves to ask, “What would Jesus do?” and then try to do that… I’m suggesting that we be kind to ourselves while we do it. Not wishy-washy, let-yourself-off-the-hook kind of kind, but let us look with kind but fiercely determined honesty and clarity into our private hearts and minds. Let us acknowledge what we find there. Let us parse out what needs to be enlightened and changed. And then let us do our very best to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Because, as we have seen in our Scripture story today, when he was confronted with his assumptions and unsavory judgements, even Jesus found himself in a position to ask, “What would… the Son of Man do?” and then he repented and acted in accordance with that divine example. Amen.
An ordained minister in the UCC, Rev. Michael is called as a Traveling Minister of the Arts by Magnolia UCC in Seattle. She has her Master of Divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA and works at the Veteran’s Hospital in Seattle. Rev. Michael has preached, led worship and created Bibliodrama at several UCC churches in the Seattle area. She is currently writing a book to share her creative process.