Every week a large portion of churches in the world organize their worship of God around the same couple of Bible passages, picked by some learned folks to cover most of the Bible over a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I often preach them and always read ’em, I’m going to blog on the weekly passages regularly. If you have any questions about the RCL, this is a helpful resource. This week’s passage is Matthew 15:10-28.
The story of Jesus and the begging Canaanite woman is, for many, one of the most disturbing stories of the Gospel. It’s not because of the demon ravaging the woman’s daughter – we’ve seen plenty of those. It’s not because the disciples so callously ask Jesus to send a distraught beggar away – they basically are constantly messing up.
It is difficult because Jesus himself, Savior of our faith, lover of us all, leader of our people, is pretty…mean. It’s just the only way to describe it. A woman begs him for healing and he ignores and then insults her, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Many have tried to explain this away by saying that he is testing the woman to see what she will do, or demonstrating to the disciples a lesson he recently gave them about hurtful words and unclean hearts. These explanations are available, if we truly cannot abide an imperfect Savior.
But for me, the plain reading of the text is of enormous comfort. The heart of our faith is that Jesus was not only fully God but fully human, and knew what it was to be one of us. He knew what it was to hunger. He knew what it was to weep. He experienced fatigue, and friendship, and puberty, and work, and all the things that make up our rich human existence.
In this story, he shows us that he too knows what it is to make a thoughtless mistake – to be tired (he has traveled much in the last few days), frustrated (every religious brother he meets objects to him and argues with him), and mourning (his close friend John the Baptist was just killed by the government), and let all that malnourishment and exhaustion work itself up inside of him until it’s taken out on someone else. Sound familiar to anyone else?
His anger is taken out in a particularly pernicious way. Scholars have pointed out that “dog” was probably an ethnic slur for the woman’s Canaanite heritage. In his moment of weakness, the racism endemic in Jesus’s society and vocabulary comes out of him, with the potential to harm the woman’s people as well as her soul.
This is how racism often works. It is so much a part of the structures that surround us, the selectivity of who and what we are educated about, the messages in our TV and movies and books, that it sits inside us, an inevitable and twisted source of interpretation and action, no matter how outwardly compassionate or loving or equitable we believe ourselves to be.
This is a week when we have been thinking a lot about racism in the U.S. In the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the latest in a seemingly never ending string of unarmed people of color being killed by officers of the state, the conversation about whether these officers should or should not keep their jobs, are racist or mistaken, are justified or criminals, has been everywhere.
Many focus on whether these officers were or were not “racists,” as if that is a category of evil person easily identifiable by membership in the KKK, or association only with their own people, or dedication to the forces of white supremacy. But for most of us, that’s not how racism does its deadly work. It lives in us even as we are good spouses and parents, as we form friendships with people of other cultures, as we work alongside people who look different from us.
To have the clean heart and clean mouth that Jesus demands in this Scripture requires constant vigilance, questioning ourselves and the ways in which we have allowed old narratives to hijack our minds and subtly influence what we are willing to do, say, and believe. It most of all requires listening to the people around us, to people who seem unfamiliar, and most of all to anyone who tells us that they have been hurt by our actions, to see how we might grow in spiritual health and accountability to our whole God-created community.
This is how Jesus moved forward from his rare, hurtful mistake. After he dismisses the woman, calling her dog, she says, ” “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She does not buy into his painful words but reminds him of what he has been preaching and living all over town – that there is enough for all, that the Table is open to anyone, that there is grace to spare for any and all who ask for it. She holds fast to the truth of abundant grace in the face of difficulty and disappointment, teaching even the teacher about what the truth really is in a broken world.
Jesus responds to this reminder, not denying her or getting defensive or explaining his comments away, but saying that she is of great faith and her daughter will be healed. He re-commits himself to the work he has been at for so long, of preaching God’s grace for all people, no matter what group they come from.
If even Jesus, in weariness and grief, can fall back on the poisonous teachings of his culture, how much more vulnerable are we to the siren song of the world’s easy distinctions and hatreds? Let us in this time follow the example of Jesus and listen carefully, be willing to change our decisions, and commit as Jesus-followers to love all people, certain in God’s promise that there will always be enough room at the Table for everyone.