By the Rev. Darren Miner
If you have been watching the news reports of late, you will have heard about racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri; ethnic warfare in Gaza; and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Sensitized to racial and ethnic tensions in the world today, we find that today’s Gospel reading grates on our ears. There is a temptation for preachers to gloss over the story, since Jesus’ behavior is an embarrassment. But it would be foolish to do so, for, believe it or not, this story is a turning point in the course of the history of salvation!
Jesus heads to Gentile territory, to the coast of what today is Lebanon. According to Saint Mark’s account, Jesus intends to hide out there and stay out of the public eye. He certainly does not intend to make himself known by public healings.
But Jesus’ intentions are thwarted when he is confronted by a woman with a sick daughter. The woman is identified by Matthew as a Canaanite. Now this identification is unusual. For the term “Canaanite” was archaic. It would be like referring to an Irishman as a “Hibernian.” In Saint Mark’s version of the story, she is called a “Syrophoenician,” the more usual term. So why does Saint Matthew used the old-fashioned word “Canaanite”? Well, the answer is that he wants to bring to mind the ancestral hatred between the Israelites and the Canaanites. For Matthew, the point is not just that she is a pagan, but that she is the enemy! (Imagine, if you will, a Jewish rabbi today confronted by a Palestinian woman in Gaza.)
Despite the historical enmity between her people and the Jews and despite the cultural norms that forbade a woman from addressing a strange man, this desperate woman seeks out the help of this foreign healer. Somehow, she has come to know about him and about the fact that he is reputed to be the Messiah of the Jews; it is for that reason that she uses the messianic term of address “Son of David.” She begs Jesus to help her sick daughter. But Jesus’s initial response is stony silence.
Yet the woman persists, and her persistence is such an annoyance that the disciples ask Jesus to send her packing. He tries to convince her to give up and leave by explaining that his healing mission is reserved for the children of Israel—and only the children of Israel. Still, the woman persists. She proceeds to prostrate herself at Jesus’ feet, crying, “Lord, help me!” Seemingly unmoved, Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” The upshot of Jesus’ graphic metaphor is that his ministry (and God’s grace!) are not intended for Gentile dogs. In particular, Jesus is flatly refusing to heal the “little dog” who happens to be this woman’s sick daughter!
Now, I don’t have to tell you how awful Jesus’ words sound to our American ears. But, in point of fact, what Jesus says to this poor woman is even worse in a middle-eastern context. In the Bible, the term “dog” was used to describe idolaters, prostitutes, and greedy oppressors of the poor. In the modern-day Middle East, the term is used as an epithet to describe scum of the earth of every sort.
By way of example, let me digress a moment and tell you a story about our very own music director, Mathew. Many years ago, Mathew came home from work and announced that he was tendering his resignation because his boss had shamed him at work. I asked him what on earth had happened. And it seems that Mathew had accomplished some task in an unexpectedly clever way, and his boss had congratulated him by calling him a “sly dog.” Now, Mathew, who grew up in Kuwait, took this as a shameful insult that required his resignation. Needless to say, I explained that “sly dog” was not a deadly insult in American vernacular, and Mathew judiciously decided to keep his job after all. I hope this digression gives you a sense of the impact of the epithet “dog” in a middle-eastern context.
Now, back to the Gospel story! Imagine, if you will, this poor, desperate woman kneeling on the ground at Jesus’ feet and hearing Jesus insultingly refer to her sick daughter as a “little dog,” as some sort of subhuman. If she had been a terribly proud woman, she might have told Jesus where to get off and let her daughter suffer as a consequence. But instead, she swallows her pride, accepts Jesus’ racial epithet, and then wittily argues that even dogs, such as she and her daughter, should be allowed to eat the bread crumbs that fall from their owners’ table. In other words, she and her daughter would settle for even a scrap of God’s grace. With a wit fueled by desperation, this pagan woman turns Jesus’ own words back on him, and Jesus stands defeated. Admitting his defeat, Jesus praises the woman’s faith in God, or perhaps her faithfulness to her daughter—the Greek is ambiguous. He declares the sick girl healed, and it was so.
Now, what are we to make of this difficult story? Well, first, let me be clear—I think that Jesus was in the wrong, at least at first! He may not have been guilty of the sin of racism, but he came awfully close. And he was undoubtedly guilty of abominable rudeness and insensitivity towards this woman in emotional distress. (In the words of several modern commentators on the Bible, Jesus is “caught with his compassion down.”) One wonders then why the Evangelists Mark and Matthew preserved this story. It was, after all, an embarrassment to the early Church (not only because Jesus’ behavior toward the Canaanite woman was thought to be harsh, but because Jesus was bested by a mere woman!)
This embarrassing story was preserved, I think, because it marks a critical turning point in the ministry of Jesus and in the history of salvation. Jesus starts out with the perspective that his ministry should be limited to God’s chosen people, namely, the Jews, but he is forced into a new realization by his confrontation with this Canaanite woman. Jesus starts out with the perspective that God’s grace is somehow limited, as if there were only enough to minister to the children of Israel, but he is forced into the realization that there is enough grace to minister to both Jew and Gentile. This episode is not only a story about a Gentile woman’s faith, but a story about Jesus’ attainment of a fuller knowledge of his own ministry and of his Father’s unbounded grace and mercy.
And what convinces me that Jesus learned and grew from his confrontation with this woman is that he continues to perform healings as he travels throughout the Gentile lands. As a result, these pagan Gentiles are said to have glorified the God of Israel. Moreover, by the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ attitude toward Gentiles has changed to such an extent, that he orders his followers to make disciples of all the Gentile nations, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments.
Now, just about everyone in this parish is a Gentile. And in large measure, we owe our membership in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to the actions of a single desperate Canaanite mother who loved her daughter beyond the bounds of propriety. Her faith in God and her faithfulness to her daughter sparked the opening up of Jesus’ ministry, so that Gentiles like us might be welcomed into the household of God and receive grace upon grace.
We should be grateful to this nameless Canaanite woman, and we would do well to learn from her example. We might learn to value love of other above self-pride, for God will reward the humble of heart. We might learn to be persistent in prayer—even when the response would seem to be no, no, and no—for God’s heart is moved by the cries of our heart. And finally, we might learn to trust in God’s boundless mercy, for God has shown that he loves everyone without exception—even people like us!
So in this time of strife in Missouri, in Gaza, and in Iraq, let all God’s people humbly kneel, as did the Canaanite woman, and pray without ceasing: “Kyrie, eleison! Lord, have mercy!”
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The Bible readings can be found here (Track 1).