Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Porforio was my best friend in first grade. What I remember especially was our coloring together. I would find a picture to color that had two boys, and we would decide which one was him and which was me, and get busy, talking the whole time and making up a story about what we were doing in the picture.
A few years later, after I had changed schools, I found one of those coloring books, and I saw that we had used different colored crayons to color ourselves – his was brown, and mine was more pink. That got me curious, so I looked for a class picture, and I saw that, as is obvious now, he was Hispanic. It as at that moment that I realized that Porforio was other – other than me. I realized that, in years since we had colored together, I had learned that there was a difference – but when I was in first grade I had not seen the difference.
In the light of events of the last 10 days, I am thinking a lot about prejudice, particularly racial prejudice, and about how we as humans seem to have a basic need to identify an “other.” I did some reading about the psychological roots of prejudice, and discovered that it has its roots, at least in our psyches, in our need to categorize the things we encounter. Lisa Cohen, a psychologist writing for Psychology Today, says this:
We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly. If we did not create categories, our entire life would be a buzzing mass of confusion. In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.[i]
It is fascinating to find Jesus in such a place in today’s gospel. And it is so surprising to see that the lesson of today’s gospel comes not from Jesus, but from an unnamed Canaanite woman.
But there is a lot going on here. In this one passage we have:
- A demon possession
- Jesus ignoring the cries of a desperate mother
- Annoyed disciples
- Jesus’ articulation of a seemingly-restricted mission
- AND (last but by no means the least sticky) Jesus insulting a woman by calling her a dog[ii]
As one of my clergy colleagues said: “Jesus is a bit of a jerk in this passage, isn’t he?” Just what is going on with Jesus here?
If we want to understand this passage, it is important first to consider the context of Jesus’ time. One Biblical commentator explain the context this way: “Jesus is in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, where prudent Israelites do not walk alone. Racial stereotypes and bigotry inform all encounters between Israelites and Canaanites. The disciples walk with full attention, informed by the stories of animosity and violence. Then one of them, a resident of this alien territory, shouts at Jesus. These are not the expected shouts of bigotry that characterize the relationship of mutual disdain. Instead, this is the earnest plea of a mother.”[iii]
In this scenario, she almost couldn’t be more other – she differs in ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender. And yet, in the face of these facts – a mother in great desperation, and more than that, a woman who dares to cross the all the divides of this place – she dares to reach out to Jesus. Even though she is a Canaanite, she clearly knows a lot about who Jesus is. She knows he is a healer. And she calls him “Son of David,” a distinctly Messianic term.
And what is she asking for? She asks for mercy for her daughter, suffering in some way. The text says she is possessed by a demon.
Now, right here we could easily veer off here to discuss demon possession – we could take a post-enlightenment approach to consider what might actually have been going on medically, or we might consider the demons that possess us today, or the examples of possession that we see in the news of the last week or – well who knows what else. Let’s leave all of that for another time, shall we?
Because right here is the place in this reading where it really gets difficult. First, Jesus ignores the woman. Ignores her! This is our first real surprise. We expect Jesus to be the one who pays attention when everyone else won’t. We expect him to have extra-sensory compassion. But he doesn’t seem to here. This seems to be the place where the Incarnation of God really hits home: Jesus seems to be showing how he is just like us – subject to the prejudices and cruelties of the world, all the follies of being human.
The woman’s shouts were clearly a social affront. Shouting like that is simply not what people do in polite society, and certainly not across these ethnic divides. So maybe what Jesus is doing is merely being polite – looking the other way in the face of such crass behavior.
But even if we can find a reason for it, this is still jarring behavior on the part of Jesus.
Then the disciples jump in – trying to please the boss, maybe. Perhaps picking up on this reaction from Jesus, they say, “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” I wonder if they were surprised by Jesus’ behavior too? Probably not; they were products of their time, just as we are. They clearly want to get rid of the nuisance – to quell this disturbance, which could escalate into something more.
And then Jesus, justifying his inaction, says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is speaking, of course, to the Old Testament prophecies of his coming as the Savior of the Israelites. As one theologian says, “He is not deterred from his ultimate and redemptive purpose. Saying yes to great things means saying no to good things.”[iv]
But this rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it? This interpretation suggests that God’s mercy is limited. Of course, the opposite is the point of this story. And it seems that the Canaanite woman knows that. She is persistent, even in the face of Jesus’ next surprising action: He equates her status to that of the household dog! “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Biblical scholar Dock Hollingsworth tells us that, “Referring to Canaanites as dogs was a familiar and favorite insult of the Israelites. Calling a woman a female dog had the same tone as if it were shouted today in a high-school hallway.”[v]
But she comes back with the real stinger of this story: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” She does not question the world as Jesus sees it, or his mission. She understands that he is the savior of Israel, but perceives that the mercy of God is for all, not just the chosen. And in that instant, it seems that Jesus realizes it too.
It is as though we can see the light bulb go on over his head. He suddenly gets it. She believes in this mercy of God, she believes in the gift that is Christ – even though every social norm says she shouldn’t. “She grasps the fact that the fundamental basis of election [as God’s chosen] is God’s decision to be a merciful God…. This is the way God has determined to be God—through mercy.”[vi]
Matthew the gospel writer was telling this story of Christ to the church of his day—“an increasing blend of Jew and Gentile, of those who were raised within the strictures of Jewish written and oral tradition and those who were excluded on the basis of the same tradition. Those new Christians who were raised in the Hebrew tradition are sorting through which of those written and oral traditions to carry forward into the church’s life and why.”[vii] Matthew includes this story to help them understand that even though it is natural to see the world in a “we and them” way, but just as Jesus did, they must work to overcome these pre-conceived notions and see things as they really are.
And we must do the same in our time. What are our pre-conceived notions? We have notions of race and class, and make judgments on that basis. The events of these last few weeks were built on these judgments, weren’t they? How do we live a life modeled after this learning of Christ – that God has mercy for all, even if our world does not? We must dare to act, to speak out in the face of such prejudice.
That brings me to the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” that I mentioned in the blurb on today’s announcement sheet. Shortly after its premiere in 1949,
“South Pacific received scrutiny for its commentary regarding relationships between different races and ethnic groups. In particular, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ was subject to widespread criticism, judged by some to be too controversial or downright inappropriate for the musical stage. Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, the song is preceded by a [line of dialogue] saying racism is ‘not born in you! It happens after you’re born…’
“Rodgers and Hammerstein risked the entire South Pacific venture in light of legislative challenges to its decency or supposed Communist agenda. While the show was on a tour of the Southern United States, lawmakers in Georgia introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing ‘an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.’ One legislator said that, ‘a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.’ Rodgers and Hammerstein defended their work strongly. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, ‘The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.’”[viii]
How might we draw a similar line in the sand to stand for the sacred worth of all people here at St. Paul’s? I challenge us all to find the ways that we individually and as a congregation might exhibit the courage of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or of those who stood against hatred in Charlottesville eight days ago, or of that unnamed Canaanite woman – I challenge us all to stand up against injustice right now, right here, in our time.
How are you making the world a better place for all? What are you doing to be Christ for those who need his light and love? If you can’t think of any way you are doing this work, it’s OK—but now is the time to change the answer! Now is the time to put into action the love that you receive week after week at this altar. Now is the time to be the face of Christ for the world. Now is the time to stand for love.
Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i] Cohen, Lisa J., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/handy-psychology-answers/201101/the-psychology-prejudice-and-racism, accessed 08/17/17.
[ii] Hollingsworth, Dock, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 359.
[iv] Ibid, 359, 361.
[v] Ibid, 361.
[vi] Russell-Jones, Iwan, Feasting on the Word, 360.
[vii] Charles, Gary W., Feasting on the Word, 356, 358.
[viii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You’ve_Got_to_Be_Carefully_Taught, accessed August 13, 2011.