Fred Craddock tells a story about a time when he was a kid. He says, “I was a young boy, no more than 11 or 12. I was at my uncle Jim’s for the summer. We were riding in the wagon—uncle Jim up front, me riding on top of the hay, and my friend Will in back. Will was a black man, about 80 years-old; but Will was my friend. He used to come to my window before the sun came up in the morning and whistle for me. Then we’d go out into the woods, and Will would teach me things—things I never learned in school; like how to tell if a watermelon’s ripe. You can tell if a watermelon’s ripe by taking a fresh piece of straw and setting it on top of a watermelon; if it turns around, the watermelon’s ripe.
“We were riding in the wagon and Will said something to me. I don’t know if it was because I was riding up high on the hay, or because of the creaking wagon wheels, but I couldn’t understand what he said. So, without thinking, I yelled back, ‘Sir?’
“The next thing I remembered was waking up, my head under the wagon wheel, my uncle’s bitter face next to mine. My face felt half paralyzed from the blow he had struck. He looked at me, rage flashing in his eyes, and said, ‘Boy, if I ever hear you call a black man ‘sir,’ I’ll kill you—so help me God.’
Except, of course, he didn’t say “black man.”
Who knew there’d be so many people in 2017 that think those were the “good old days,” the version of America we need to “make great again?”
Today’s text contains a hard story—one of the most difficult in the Gospels. Jesus and the disciples have gone from an earth shattering experience on the lake in last week’s Gospel: Jesus walks on water. They cross the lake and come to the land of Gennesaret. People are flocking to Jesus to be healed.
Then, beginning in chapter 15, the Scribes and the Pharisees come to Jesus with what is obviously a question designed to trap him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
Jesus responds by asking them why they break the commandment of God to preserve tradition. What some had done was to take an oath stipulating that they would no longer support their parents, but give their money to the temple—kind of as a way of getting back at their folks for having to clean their rooms and do their homework.
And, even if they later repented, they couldn’t give money to their parents because they’d taken an oath. Jesus calls them a bunch of hypocrites for upholding their idea of moral purity to the neglect of upholding God’s moral will that we live compassionately. That is to say, of course parents are infinitely more important than oaths. People are more important in God’s scheme of things than maintaining some standard of purity that takes itself more seriously than the well-being of those who are vulnerable—in this case, the elderly parents.
In other words, if you think ideas (or statues, for that matter) are more important than people, then, according to Jesus, you’ve misread God altogether. What God cares about is not some strict adherence to moral purity that lets me feel good about myself—even if that comes at the expense of actual people—but a dogged pursuit of love and mercy of actual people—even if that comes at the expense of my own sense of piety.
Well, Jesus turns away from the religious leaders, ignoring them, and turns toward the crowd to denounce these “blind guides” who teach “human precepts as doctrine.” Jesus is upset with these religious leaders—very upset.
The disciples, seeing that things are starting to deteriorate between Jesus and the religious big shots try to reign him in a bit: “Hey, Jesus, you’re really making these guys mad. Could you tone it down a bit? We’ve got reputations to uphold—families to go home to. You’re kinda making us look like idiots—and not in the lovable-Michael-Scott-kind-of-way, either.”
That being done, Jesus, with the exchange with the religious establishment still ringing in his ears, packs his bags and goes up to the area of Tyre and Sidon.
Let’s pause for a moment to note that Tyre and Sidon was a place where—generally speaking—good Jewish boys and girls did not venture. Very suspicious.
Tyre and Sidon, or Phoenicia—modern day Lebanon—was out of the official boundaries of the nation of Israel, peopled by Gentiles and other suspect characters. And Jesus says, “Hey, let’s take a road trip over to the wrong side of town.”
I’m sure the disciples are really squirming now.
When they finally get there, Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples are approached by a woman (actually, a Canaanite woman), seeking relief for her daughter from a demon. The story takes on a definite edge at this point.
First of all, Jesus is confronted by a real live fertility god-worshipping Gentile—a definite Jewish “no-no.”
Second, this is a woman—and unchaperoned at that. The strict behavioral codes of Near Eastern cultures (both ancient and modern) take a dim view of women and men socializing. One author said, “The brazen approach of this lone woman to Jesus and his disciples makes her character especially questionable.”
Finally, not only is she a Canaanitess, and a woman, she has a daughter who is demon possessed. Now, at first glance this might not strike us the way it would have struck the early readers of Matthew’s Gospel. However, the fact that the woman’s daughter was demon possessed suggests that the woman had done something terribly evil to cause it.
Three strikes. . . Very bad. This would be a hard one to explain away if word ever got out that Jesus and the disciples are pal-ling around with a person of such obviously dubious character.
Shameful, is what it is. This woman is, whatever else might be said about her, without claim to Jesus’ mercy. An outcast—if ever there were one.
Now, this is where things get tricky for us, two thousand years removed.
What happens next?
Jesus ignores her, just like he should have done, according to the prevailing religious and social mores of his day. He simply ignores her.
Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it?
The disciples, determined not to make public fools of themselves again, quickly urge Jesus to send her packing. They don’t care as much about what happens to the woman and her daughter as they do that they’re once again becoming a public spectacle. Whether or not he heals her is not the point in their eyes, they just want to maintain their attachment to their own principles of purity, making sure Jesus gets her out of their hair.
Jesus then utters something in line with his upbringing, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I can’t help you because your you. If you were more like me, I could do something.
The disciples breathe a sigh of relief, “Maybe he’s finally coming to his senses.”
But nevertheless . . . she persisted, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus’ response to this latest entreaty is one of the hardest in Scripture to square with our understanding of who Jesus is. He says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I mean, what do we make of this? Is Jesus just testing her to see if she will persist?
That doesn’t sound like Jesus anywhere else, testing those in pain to see if they pass some test of purity before he agrees to help them.
Does he want her to grovel?
I doubt it. Jesus never makes anyone grovel. What else could it be?
Could he be using some sort of proverb, in which the dog is a family pet, and is therefore not derogatory?
Probably not, because the language that Jesus spoke in didn’t make fine distinctions between unruly animals and domesticated pets.
What’s he doing then? Is he throwing out a racial slur? Is he doing the same thing for which he earlier called the religious leaders hypocrites—that is, putting some standard of moral purity over God’s moral will, ideas over people?
Is he about to turn this woman away, just because he was brought up to think of people like her as someone else’s responsibility?
I honestly don’t know. Awful tough to say. Whatever way you go with this, you run into grammatical or theological difficulties.
Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus was just responding the way he’d been raised to respond to situations like this. He’s a Jew, part of the chosen people of God, and everyone else is, at best, not Jewish, and at worst, untouchable.
Jesus, the man, does what comes naturally to every Jewish man, he tries to extricate himself from the situation. He knows the social consequences of such an exchange. “Sorry, madam, but I’ve got other fish to fry.”
But, undaunted, she persists, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.”
Ouch! And in her words he hears his own words, both to her and to the religious leaders with whom he’s just had a run-in. On the one hand, he tells them that they’re hypocrites for regarding purity more highly than their duty to human beings.
On the other hand, he tells her that, due to appearances sake and to his own religious and social tradition, he has no bread of mercy to give to her.
But he stops himself, realizing that she has said to him what he has just finished saying to the religious leaders—people are more important than purity. Immediately, Jesus does an about face, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, the text says, “her daughter was healed instantly.
In that moment, in that healing, Jesus does appreciably more than exorcise a demon from a little girl. Indeed, a woman with no claim to Jesus’ mercy comes to him, and instead of sending her away he gives her more than she wants—he gives her what she needs. Because, you see, it wasn’t only the little girl that was healed, the Canaanite woman was also healed, made whole—spiritually and socially.
In a world in which the Syro-Phoenician woman was one of the expendables, the forgotten, the outcasts, Jesus takes her seriously. Her pain is heard, and appearances be cursed, she receives mercy. She too is restored to life and community, no longer an untouchable. Just like that unruly people so long ago in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, she’s given the bread of mercy.
It’s a tough world we live in. People, because of the color of their skin, because of their poverty, because of their religion, because of the fact that they come from some other country, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because they’re old or disabled and can’t properly take care of themselves—people in our world are shuffled off to the margins of polite society.
We learn whom we’re supposed to avoid at an early age, whom it is permissible to hate. By the time we’re in middle school, we we’ve been taught whom we can safely ignore. Don’t bother us; we don’t have to take people like you into account. Our world was built for people like us. We have monuments and statues, just so we don’t forget who’s supposed to be in charge.
And it all works quite nicely, doesn’t it? We stay where we’re supposed to stay, and they—the vast, countless sea of “they”—stay where they’re supposed to stay. And this whole arrangement seems to have the endorsement of the cosmos—the finality of the inevitable about it—this is just the way the universe is ordered. I was born to this status and you were born to that.
But then we stumble into church on a Sunday morning, the world still structured the way it is—and somebody stands up in front and says, “There’s no ‘they’ or ‘them’; there’s only ‘we’ and ‘us.’ And we’ve got this meal up here. It’s not much—a little wine, a scrap of bread. But everyone’s invited. Come. You’re welcome here.”
And once you eat this meal, no one can ever again be expendable. Once you sit at this table, there are no more untouchables.
No more hating people, just because society tells us it’s ok to hate them. No more ignoring people different from us, just because we have laws that allow us to do that. No more being silent when the voices of hatred and fear are raised against our friends and neighbors. No more looking the other way because we’re not affected . . . because we are affected, just as long as any of our human family are affected.
No. You’ve eaten the meal. You can never be the same. You can never be silent again.
In a world of hate and oppression, we’re called together each week to taste the bread of mercy. And having tasted it ourselves, how can we withhold it from anyone else ever again?