Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Read the whole passage)
The early church had a problem. It didn’t know what to do with the gentiles. Within a just a few decades of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension the small but growing communities of followers of Jesus the Messiah, didn’t know if or how they could include gentiles or non-Jewish people among their ranks. This question of inclusion vs exclusion caused a lot of struggle and conflict for those early faith congregations.
Today, we continue in this long season of ordinary time to hear the stories and episodes of Jesus’ ministry. And while it may seem like the gospel stories have been conveniently arranged in way that allows us to tell the story of Jesus throughout our liturgical year… that is not the case today.
The purpose behind the story of Jesus’ and the Canaanite woman’s encounter was about addressing the gentile problem of the early church more so than our need for a collection of vignettes of Jesus’ ministry to read throughout our summer church services.
And while it isn’t all that often that the stories of gospels have distinct and significant purpose other than telling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, today we encounter one of the few texts that is included in the gospels for a particular reason.
As Jesus and the disciples are travelling about the countryside, they enter the district of Tyre and Sidon – Gentile territory near what we know today and Syria and Lebanon. As Jesus and the disciples a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begins to shout,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”
Now it is important to know that 1st century Galilee and the surrounding gentile regions were not pluralistic and multicultural in the way Canada is today. While there were people of different ethnicities, religions, and class, their world was no a tolerant place. Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, were careful not to mix with the gentiles. They did not speak to, eat with, or even touch gentiles unless absolutely necessary. If they did, they would become ritually unclean and need to become ritually clean again.
This practice of avoidance of gentiles led to enthno-centric attitudes… what we would call racist today. Gentiles were often perceived to be less than human. In fact, to call someone a “Canannite” was not a description of their ancestry but derogatory term that Matthew, the gospel writer, uses for the woman (Mark identifies her as Syrophoenician or Syrian). In the OT, God was believed to had commanded the genocide of the Canaanites, and so Canaanite became the slur used for all gentiles, with the connotation that Canaanites weren’t even worthy of being alive.
The Canaanite woman’s problems were of course worsened by the fact that she was a woman… a person not even permitted to be alone in public, let alone speak to a man, let alone a Jewish man. And to top if off, the Canaanite woman had a demon-possessed daughter… and by association would be completely and totally unclean.
And so when Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman who comes to him asking for mercy… his response of calling her a dog, while sounding pretty bad to our ears, would be nearly the maximum amount of compassion that someone could show such an undesirable person under Jewish law.
The Canaanite woman and Jesus are constrained and limited by the cultural systems that existed around them. The woman lived in world where she couldn’t even be considered human by Jesus… and Jesus’ world didn’t allow him to consider this woman, seeking mercy for her sick daughter, as a human being.
And while we would like to have a smug feeling about how backward the world was with their complicated efforts to excludes and dehumanize each other 2000 years ago… we have been witnesses this week to examples of the ways in which not much has changed.
As the events of Charlottesville played out last weekend over the news, we saw the incredible and terrible lengths that human beings can go to just to exclude, denigrate and dehumanize anyone who looks different. As White Nationalists – or really White Supremacists – marched in the streets with weapons and violent intentions for the sake of a statue glorifying the racist history of African American slavery… we saw what a racist culture looks like in action. A culture very similar to what we read about in the gospel today.
Just as the Canaanite woman and Jesus were trapped and constrained by the cultural systems around them… we see how the extraordinary lengths that people go to in order segregation, excludes and dehumanize fellow human beings, trap and constrain them too. Traps them in their hatred, traps them in their intolerance… traps them in cycles of conflict and violence that never seem to end.
As the Canaanite woman comes seeking mercy from Jesus she persists. Even as Jesus insists that she is not one of the ones he has come for, not one of the children of Israel, she continues to ask for mercy.
And in what could have been a White Nationalist quoted in the news this week, Jesus says,
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”
And with that the woman should have got the message, she should have realized that she wasn’t one of the chosen, she was simply not the right colour, or religion, or gender, or clean enough or human enough to receive mercy…
But she persists still…
She persists with Jesus.
Because she has heard that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God, the one who is God’s mercy in flesh, walking the streets of her town.
And if Jesus is the Messiah, than the woman’s identity doesn’t matter. This isn’t about whether or not she is included or excluded, it isn’t about whether she is the right race, wether she worships God in the right way, whether she is the right gender, wether she is clean…
It is about Jesus and what it means for him to be the Messiah.
Because God’s mercy is not based in human cultural systems. God’s mercy isn’t given based on arbitrary categories like skin colour or gender or ritual cleanliness.
God’s mercy is given outside of the systems we live by. God’s mercy transcends race, gender, class and all other divisions of human invention.
The woman persists, asking Jesus for mercy for her daughter, because encountering God’s mercy in flesh has already transformed the Canaanite woman. God’s mercy personified in Christ transforms the world simply by being recognized and known.
And so the woman reminds Jesus that there are enough table scraps for even the dogs. That in Christ, God’s mercy in flesh, there is more than enough. More mercy than the children of Israel need, and enough mercy for even the dogs.
Yet by encountering God’s mercy in flesh, by seeking out the God of Mercy, the Lord, Son of David… the Canaanite woman is no longer less than human. Or rather, Jesus and the woman come into a relationship beyond what the cultural ethnocentric rules say. Jesus and the woman are no longer defined by human categories, but by God’s categories.
As Jesus acknowledges her and finally giving her the mercy and healing she seeks for her daughter, Jesus gives this woman a place in the Kingdom. Jesus acknowledges that this untouchable woman is, indeed, worthy of God’s mercy. Because God has declared her so.
And even though her world says she is less than human, God’s mercy given for her declares that she is, in fact, a child of God.
Just as God’s mercy comes and changes the world from the outside of racist cultural systems for Jesus and the Canaanite woman, this is the same place where God is at work among us. At work in Charlottesville, in Barcelona, at work in the all the places where we try to exclude rather than include. At work in the early church who eventually included gentiles in God’s kingdom.
As White Nationalists waked the streets of Charlottesville, as religious extremists committed acts of violence rooted in the division of race… Christ comes to us. Not proposing alternate systems, not telling us that we can solve this problems of division and hatred simply by “doing better.”
Instead, as the daughter of the Canaanite woman is healed and as the woman is humanized by Jesus’ turn towards compassion… we are reminded that the solution to our problems of race and religion can only be solved the One who comes to us from the outside.
We can only experience true mercy when God’s mercy in flesh walks our streets and frees us from systems and categories and idea that tell us some are more important, more human than others.
God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, comes to Charlottesville, comes to Barcelona, comes to all the places where we would try to call others less than human…
And God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, declares that God’s mercy is given, for us and for all.