Mt. 15: 21 Jesus left Galilee and went to the area of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A woman from Canaan lived near Tyre and Sidon. She came to him and cried out, “Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me! A demon controls my daughter. She is suffering terribly.” 23 Jesus did not say a word. So his disciples came to him. They begged him, “Send her away. She keeps crying out after us.” 24 Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the people of Israel. They are like lost sheep.” 25 Then the woman fell to her knees in front of him. “Lord! Help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she said. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! You will be given what you are asking for.” And her daughter was healed at that very moment.
This is a difficult story. Naturally, the first question that comes to mind whenever we hear it is, Why would Jesus compare anyone to “a dog?” Especially since that was a racial term used sometimes by Jews for Gentiles? Is Jesus setting the wrong example here, especially on the day before we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. day? If so, how is it that Dr. King himself could appeal to the example and teaching of Jesus for his prophetic ministry against racism and bigotry?
But don’t let that question distract us from the other question that this story poses to us, namely: In relation to Jesus, who are we most like in this story? The disciples or the Canaanite woman? If we deal with that second question first, I believe we will be better able to resolve the first one: Why Jesus would put this mother off, even implying that she and her people were “dogs?”
So, are we like the Canaanite woman or the disciples? Let’s look first at the woman, and mother. She’s not Jewish. Yet she prays to Israel’s Lord and Messiah, at least when she meets him on the roadside. Maybe you too can identify with moments when your most urgent prayers seem to have gotten the same cold shoulder that this Canaanite woman got from Jesus at first, in verse 23: “Jesus did not say a word,” times when heaven seems to have left the phone off the hook, and our prayers not only seem unanswered, we wonder if they were even heard.
Not just unheard or unanswered; actually rebuffed. Rejected. Like when Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But her prayers were first rebuffed by the disciples, when they said to Jesus, “Send her away. She keeps crying out after us.” That’s why we heard today from St. Matthew’s telling of the story, even though this year I’m preaching through St. Mark’s Gospel. Because Matthew includes that detail about the disciples’ initial reaction to this desperate woman. Jesus seems to have waited for them to respond to this woman, and they did. “Send her away!” they said.
So let’s look now at the disciples. Just when this woman needs friends and advocates to intercede with her, and for her, she gets the boot. I can identify with them, too. I’m not particularly proud of it. It happens whenever someone in need shows up at an inopportune moment, a very inconvenient time, and upon seeing him, I’m thinking, “Why now?” Or, “Oh; You again.” Not anybody here, of course. But haven’t there been people in all of our lives who have stretched our patience with their persistence? People who don’t seem to understand the proper way of getting things done, which half the time is no way at all? Maybe they are people to whom we really want to say, “Why should your irresponsibility become my responsibility All of a sudden?” Or, “Again? If I help you out, am I really helping you, or am I only reinforcing some learned helplessness?” Or worse?
And whenever the answer to that last question is Yes, then sometimes we do have to say No. When we just don’t have what our neighbor needs, or when we are the one in great need, there’s no shame in that, and no shame in even saying, Can you help me? We can’t give what we don’t have. There’s only one among us who has everything that everyone needs: God, and God alone.
But that wasn’t the case with the disciples in today’s story. They had rebuffed and rejected her, when she needed friends to pray and intercede with her. If they had any justification for such attitudes, I bet it went like this: “What do you gentiles and pagans expect for worshiping idols, engaging in magic, sorcery and divination, and all around dabbling in the occult, but demonic possession? Isn’t that why you are as unclean to us as……DOGS?” Isn’t that why God gave us the Promised Land and turned your people out?
Technically, they may have a point. But…… there’s a child involved. Even if the mother did something to open the door to the dark, demonic depths, this child cannot be held responsible for it. Same as when someone comes to us looking for help, and you see that morning’s hospital discharge papers, or the prescription that needs filling, or their children in tow, and Community Emergency Services is closed until tomorrow, and the only open overnight shelter with any space is in St. Paul. So, you get the prescription, or the bus tickets, or the grocery store coupon as though you were getting it for Jesus himself.
Because, in effect, you are. Especially when it comes to children.
Naturally we don’t want to be taken advantage of. But our even greater fear should be that other occupational hazard of life: hardness of heart and indifference, to the point that we turn even Jesus away “in his most distressing disguise of the poor,” as Mother Teresa used to say.
And I think that’s why Jesus first responded to the Canaanite woman the way he did, putting her off at first. Not because he was afraid of being taken advantage of. Nor because he was a racial bigot who really thought of Gentiles as dogs. I think Jesus was teaching the disciples something about their own hard-heartedness and indifference to the woman, by holding a mirror up to them, in his own words and actions.
Some people say that this encounter, with this woman, is when Jesus first learned to see Gentiles as something other than subhuman, or “dogs.” But that doesn’t make sense. By this time in his ministry, Jesus had already demonstrated amazing care and compassion for Gentiles. He had already shown a scandalizing disregard for the customs that kept Jews and Gentiles apart from each other. He waited a moment to see if the disciples got the lesson, and obviously, they did not.
Besides, if Jesus really meant to put her down, to put her in her place at the time, as a woman and a Gentile, why didn’t she just wither and slink away at his rebuke? If Jesus is the human face of deity, and if, as the Psalm says, at God’s rebuke the mountains quake and the waters flee, how much more might a mere mortal stand up under the rebuke of him who terrified demons? The Saducees and the Pharisees did not, whenever they tried to argue with Jesus. So, where did this woman find the courage and the wit to come right back at the Messiah with this amazing comeback?
I think its because she realized pretty quickly that this was a test, that Jesus was mirroring to the disciples their own callous indifference and hardness of heart, so that they might see it in full view, in all its sordid, ugly detail. Musicians among us know what that’s like. Don’t you just hate it when you’re taking lessons and your teacher says, “Here, listen while I play back what I just heard from you?” Or if you’re in any kind of class at all, or a business meeting, and the teacher, or your boss, repeats what you just said, and then asks everyone else, “So, what do the rest of you think about that?” Don’t you just want to crawl under the nearest table?
If that’s the case, then Jesus is teaching the disciples something, by answering their prayers quite literally, in such a way as to show them what they’re really made of. That had to be embarrassing. The embarrassment of having your blind spots revealed. The embarrassment of suddenly seeing how steep the learning curve before you is, and how far you are from the end.
I can’t prove one hundred percent that that is why Jesus first said what he did to the woman. But it best explains why the woman is so emboldened to come back at Jesus. Why else does she earn Jesus’ words of praise and honor for her comeback, for her faith, unless some spur-of-the-moment conspiracy took shape between Jesus and the woman? And why else would there be such a conspiracy around the word, “dog” but to give the disciples a taste of their own medicine? If I were writing a screen play of this, I would have Jesus winking at her when he first puts her off. And she would be smiling when she comes back at him. Then the disciples would be shocked, and then cut to the heart when their indifference and hardness of heart are exposed.
And that, to me, is what this story is most about: Who are we most like? The woman with her Won’t-take-no-for-an-answer kind of faith, or the disciples with their indifference and hardness of heart? In the Bible, according to Jesus, the worst that can happen to us is indifference and hardness of heart, whether its indifference toward God or indifference toward people. That is also precisely the most common occupational hazard of Christian discipleship. For we are often like those disciples up in Tyre and Sidon, modern-day Lebanon, wanting to get away from it all, and finding that, no, we can never quite get away from it all. Its so easy to get cynical, tired out and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and persistence of human need.
But I don’t think that fatigue was the only reason why these disciples first put the Canaanite woman off. Between Jesus and the disciples they had what her daughter needed. It didn’t take but a moment. Their indifference and resistance were most likely born out of fear, the fear of someone so different from themselves. And the fear of losing control in this situation to someone so strong, straightforward and pushy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had something to say about that kind of fear-based indifference. In 1963, while sitting alone in solitary confinement in a Birmingham, Alabama, prison cell, he had long hours to think about the civil rights campaign in that city. But someone smuggled into him a newspaper. In that paper he read an essay by some white clergymen, saying that they agreed with Dr. King’s aims, but they disagreed with his means, and the speed with which he wanted change to happen. “Justice and equality will happen eventually,” they said, “but not if you keep making demands, pushing the matter and upsetting the politicians, the business owners and the police. Be patient; your day will come.” They sound like the disciples, asking Jesus to just send this pushy woman away. She doesn’t know her place.
Dr. King wrote in the margins of that newspaper his brilliant response to those fellow clergymen, his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And this is what he said about the indifference of those clergymen: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
As for the faith of that Won’t-take-No-for-an-answer woman, here is what Dr. King also had to say in that same Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Whenever people, like the Canaanite woman, create tension by their persistent claims for their share at the table of community, they also force us to ask ourselves, Who are we most like? If we see them and their needs as just another tragic interruption to what could have been a nice outing in the park, or just as another likely scam, then indifference has hardened our hearts.
But if we see them as breakthrough opportunities for the kingdom of God, then we share the great faith of the Canaanite woman, and the compassion of Jesus. Every such inconvenience and interruption is a question that heaven puts to us, asking Who are we most like? and What are we made of? Warm, loving faith, or cold, hard indifference?