by Ellen Sims
Matthew 15: 21-28
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The Lesson Jesus Had to Learn
If you heard the Gospel Reading and were not bothered by the way Jesus and the disciples treated the Canaanite woman, you may need to hear it again, this time in a more familiar setting.
Let’s imagine that a doctor in Mobile has received a grant to convert a bus into a free health clinic that travels to various under-served neighborhoods. Stories of this doctor’s compassion spread, and soon large crowds gather whenever he and his 12-person medical team drive into a neighborhood. One day a wild-eyed, dark-haired woman shoves her way to the front of the line. At the open door of the bus, she screams for help. “Ayúdame, Ayúdame!”she shouts up the steps of the mobile clinic. “Mi hija esta muy inferma!” The doctor’s assistants block her entrance and try to quiet the hysterical mother as others press in behind her. While one assistant holds her back, another moves onto the bus and into the examining area where the doctor is lifting a child onto the makeshift examining table. The assistant whispers, “Listen, Doc. There’s a Mexican woman who broke the line outside. Probably an illegal. She’s creating a ruckus, hollering that her sick daughter needs help. What do we do?” The doctor, peering down the throat of the sick child before him, remarks with detachment, “Our mission is to our own citizens.” At that moment the woman breaks free, scrambles aboard, and tumbles at the feet of the doctor. “Señor, por favor. Ayúdame.” Clearly annoyed but returning his gaze to the child on the table, he replies: “Lady, it is not fair to waste my foundation’s resources on your kind. It would be like . . . taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs.” To his surprise, she counters, still on her knees and peering up at the examining table: “Sí, Señor. But even the little dogs get to eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” The doctor and the woman at last lock eyes. And then he laughs. “Lady, I have to hand it to you; you have gumption. OK. OK. As you wish.” And in the next instant the woman’s daughter was being carried inside for treatment.
Look back now at the story from Matthew. What specifically bothers you about that story? At least three things trouble me:
1) I’m troubled because Jesus’s disciples, who are in the helping business, are annoyed by a woman seeking help. Maybe they’ve simply succumbed to what some today call compassion fatigue.[i] People who work on the front lines of charitable organizations can easily give in to this kind of despair and callousness–especially if they’ve signed up primarily to feel good about themselves and end up feeling used. After all, needy people are often not pleasant. I don’t blame the disciples for at times feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated. The Bible doesn’t portray them as perfect and I don’t expect them to be. And I find greater tolerance for the disciples when I admit that I can grow irritated with someone who shows up at church exhibiting annoying behavior—even though I know full well the church’s purpose is to minister to imperfect folks – like me.
2) But I do expect more of Jesus. I’m troubled that he initially refuses to heal a child simply because she’s the wrong religion and race. Over the centuries, commentators have tried to put a better spin on his words. One of the oldest justifications for his rudeness is that Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith to see if she would persist, that he intended to heal her daughter all along. That still doesn’t seem very compassionate. Another theory is that Jesus actually compared the woman and her daughter to “little dogs,” which might have gentler connotations, but in the ancient and current Middle Eastern culture, calling someone a big dog or a little dog is never kindly intended. Besides, other details in the story don’t support these attempts to make Jesus look better in this episode. It seems more likely that the fully human Jesus, a product of his culture, like all of us, had some learning to do. And as often happens, folks different from us often have important lessons for us. So Jesus had to learn from a woman: a woman who broke social conventions by approaching a man in public, a foreigner, a non-Jew, a mother whose child was said to be controlled by a demonic spirit. It was she who perhaps taught Jesus something so earth-shattering about God’s realm that a new religious trajectory began from their interaction. More on that in a moment.
3) I’m also a bit disappointed that Jesus was bested in this battle of wits. He ALWAYS wins the war of words in the Gospels. Try as they might, the learned Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes just can’t trip him up. But an obnoxious foreign woman of an enemy race is the only person the Bible records as ever defeating Jesus verbally and changing his mind. Midway into the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus veering from his original mission to the Jews only and crossing into new ethical, sectarian, and theological terrain even as he had crossed over into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. By the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is no longer ministering solely “to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 15: 24). By the end of his ministry he tells his followers to bring good news into ALL the world and “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). Jesus may owe his increasingly expansive vision of God’s mission to this outsider. For me, Jesus was an extraordinary teacher not because he had all the answers but because he continued learning from others. Jesus was a spiritual giant not because he was perfect and unchangeable but because he grew in his relatedness to others and could humbly change his mind and hear God continue to speak . . . especially in voices accented by difference.
Like the earlier disciples, we may want to protect Jesus from the Canaanite woman and ignore her demands. But she is shouting at us, absolutely shouting. And she deserves to be heard today just as she deserved to be heard by Jesus back then, just as others today deserve to be heard when the church or the larger culture refuse them healing and wholeness and full access to the Table. If Jesus can hear her, or an undocumented Mexican mother in Mobile, or other modern-day counterparts, so can we. Think of other folks who are shouting to be heard by religious leaders today. Think of other people on the margins who have the temerity to claim that the Church include and respect them. Their ways may be different, but their words may liberate us all.
Think of the families we recently hosted through our participation in a fine organization that serves homeless families. A few weeks ago eleven volunteers from Open Table gathered at another partnering church to serve a meal to three homeless families. We were anticipating another heart-warming chance to make new friends with those can teach us with the wisdom from life’s margins, and who might appreciate the encouragement we offer as we enjoy an evening meal together. But unexpectedly someone arrived to conduct a parenting class that, we felt, demeaned and stereotyped the families we were there to support. The good this gentleman intended to do was not done—perhaps because he did not listen to the people he was trying to help. He asked not a single question, spoke not a word to the families before launching into his lecture. He did not hear what the three single mothers were saying with their eyes as they dodged the speaker’s gaze and focused instead on their hungry children clamoring for their attention. He did not listen to the embarrassed faces of the older children that shouted to him to stop shaming their parents with a lecture that implied they knew nothing about parenting. He was deaf to the crying toddlers that told all of us a lecture on parenting was not meeting the real needs of families who had no place to call their own and little time just to be a family together. Even with the best of intentions, religious leaders and groups can aim to heal and end up doing harm . . . when we don’t listen. It’s a lesson for me and for us to bear in mind.
Think about the way the Church has for so long resisted listening to—really listening to– gay and lesbian Christians, to women, to people with disabilities, to racial minorities. Think about the soul-crushing silencing the Church has enforced against certain persons. There are subtle ways even an Open and Affirming church like ours can fail to hear all voices. It is the responsibility of all of us to speak our truth and hear another’s truth. One way we do that is with gentleness so that we don’t declare by our vehemence that we will be upset by another point of view, and by bearing in mind there are ALWAYS other points of view. Our diversity at Open Table (theologically, culturally) is a gift, not an annoyance.
We’ve been speaking about the Canaanite woman—but it’s her child who needs healing. Her child, never even seen in the story, is even more marginalized than her mother. And the daughter has one more strike against her: she is said to suffer from demonic control. Some scholars explain the New Testament belief in demonic powers as a 1st century experience that evil can be collective, not just individual, and often generated by system-wide oppression. Persons living under the control of the Roman Empire became so psychologically and economically abused that many fell victim to physical ailments. Certainly we understand the toll that stress can take on our physical health, and we can appreciate that sometimes cumulative stress is not the fault of one individual but rather of our whole invisible cultural milieu. Jesus may have performed much of his healing by simply naming Rome’s demonic domination system for what it was and thus freeing the oppressed spiritually if not physically from the grip of that system. The fact that Jesus and the unnamed Canaanite woman speak metaphorically about bread when she begs for her daughter’s healing suggest that her daughter’s condition might be poverty or poverty-related—and that poverty is a sign of that oppressive system that leads to economic, psychological, and spiritual disease. At any rate, it’s interesting that Jesus associates healing with bread when he says healing the child would be like giving the children’s bread to the dogs. At the end of his ministry, of course, he will break bread with his followers and tell them while breaking a loaf of bread that his body might be physically broken, but his spirit would endure in them.
However, in this moment Jesus himself had to hear and see the humanity in this foreign woman before her demon-possessed/system-oppressed daughter could be healed. The healer had to be healed of his prejudice and converted to a broader understanding of God’s intentions. His willingness to change shows us our own potential for growth.
At Open Table, we are hoping to cultivate a practice of holy and humble listening because we believe everyone has a unique perspective that only she or he can contribute. Often the person most different from us has the perspective we most need to hear. If the early Gospel writers weren’t afraid to show Jesus changing his mind, if Jesus himself was willing to be taught by the least of the least, then you and I can rest assured that someone who seems very different from us just might lead us to deeper faith. May we, too, hear these words: “Great is your faith!” That’s Gospel good news. Jesus changed. So can we. Thanks be to God!
Healer of our Lives, we pray that we may listen to you speaking to us through others. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen