The answer might surprise us. Perhaps we should also ask what could one woman teach us about love or racial identity or segregation or discrimination? The story of the Canaanite Woman is powerful. It demonstrates the depth of her faith and serves as an example to us of how we should be living today.
Text: Matthew 15: 21-28
Earlier this summer the news reported about a woman who was living in Mississauga, who happened to visit a Walk-In Doctor’s Clinic. In video that was captured of the incident the woman can be heard requesting a doctor who “speaks English.” One of the terrible aspects of that incident is that most of the doctors present that day probably spoke better English than her, but they had an accent that was foreign. The woman’s implied comment is that she didn’t want a doctor who spoke English, but a doctor who looked like her. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, we need to recognize that the comment reeked of racist overtones.
As we are all painfully aware the ugly beast which is racism is rearing its ugly head. We are fools to think that the events in the United States don’t affect us or that they do not occur in Canada. Racism exist and along with it come a host of other problematic issues such as segregation and discrimination.
Issues of segregation and discrimination are not unique to race. They occur on religious grounds as well. I can recall my grandfather telling stories about his time growing up in Glasgow. He would be walking down the street minding your own business and a group of thugs would come up to you and ask, “Are you a P or a C?” Protestant or Catholic.
The problem was you didn’t know what they were and so religious discrimination was used to enforce and inflict violence indiscriminately.
Who is in and who is out? A question that divides us along religious, ethnic and national lines. Regrettably, it has historically been the church which has made this distinction. Much to our shame. Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims versus Christians in the Crusades, White European settlers versus the Indigenous peoples of North America. I could go on, but I think you get the point I am trying to make.
We draw lines in the sand, then we build walls and in doing so we forget that the primary thing Jesus came to teach us about God and ourselves is rooted in love. Love doesn’t have space for lines or walls.
The issue of who is in and who is out, of lines, of walls and the inclusive message of love which Jesus brings present us with a problem when we look at todays passage from Matthew. In our passage, we find Jesus doing the very opposite of being inclusive and welcoming. Indeed, Jesus is down right rude to the Canaanite woman. Now perhaps we might excuse this behaviour based on racial tensions, but then who do we deal with story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman?
It’s a problem, Jesus calls her a dog. Clearly a derogatory term, it is meant as an insult and yet the Canaanite woman persisted. She wanted healing for her daughter and she had been following Jesus and the disciples around. For their part the disciples were done with her, get rid of her they said. Yet, she hounded after Jesus.
Jesus then says a curious thing, “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” In this line Jesus states his mission, the reason why he came. Remember that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, through them God’s character would be understood. Except that they kept screwing it up. When we read the prophets we find example after example of the Israelites just making a mess of things. Go back further in time and Solomon and David weren’t much better. The time of the Judges is a similar disaster. Everyone thinks Samson is great, but that guy was a mess sleeping with prostitutes and ignoring all the purity laws.
So God does something new in the person of Jesus Christ. God sends his son who will come to teach and heal. We see over and over again in the gospels how Jesus corrects the law and provides proper understanding. This is the mission that Jesus is on, to bring the lost sheep of Israel back in line, back to the pasture so that the rest of the world will see and understand God’s character.
Of course, that mission by its nature cannot just include the Israelites. By showing God’s character to the world, God expresses his interest in all of creation. The mission to the Gentiles was always coming. In this encounter the Canaanite woman breaks through from the future to influence the present.
The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is. She understands his mission, but she believes it extends to all of creation and so she asks for help. Here Jesus responds rudely, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s response demonstrates the depth of her faith and her understanding of what she believed Jesus’ mission to be.
“Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.”
Some commentators believe Jesus learned something new that day. Others believe it is a rhetorical device employed by Matthew to tell the story of how wide and inclusive God’s love is.
What is the legacy of the Canaanite woman? Preaching truth, grasping the crumbs, turning bare morsels into full meals.
Too often we cannot or refuse to empathize with people whose experience is different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not happening in our house and neighborhood or does not impact our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we dismiss it as unwelcome, unjustified noise. Jesus’ response to the apostles’ urging to send the Canaanite woman away seems to affirm their desire to dismiss her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Working Preacher).
Her persistence is a reminder of how deep, wide and far the love of God extends. A reminder that no one is excluded, there is a place for everyone at the table.
What the Canaanite woman does is remind us that proclamation can come from many places. That there are displaced and disaffected voices which are preaching truth. However, we do not hear their voices because they are not like us. They are the proverbial other and so long as our comfortable existence stays comfortable stays comfortable we are unlikely to do anything about it. But friends, that isn’t answering the call of the gospel. The call of the gospel, following in the way of Jesus Christ isn’t about sitting complacent giving thanks to God for our comfortable life.
The call of the gospel places demands on us and as predominately white Christians we’ve been sitting comfortable for far too long. We’ve given thanks for our health and our wealth and we’ve helped out where we can. We’ve done our part, we support important ministries but for the most part none of what we have done has made us uncomfortable or impacted our way of life in any substantial way.
Following Jesus should be hard, it should make you squirm, it should make you uncomfortable. Yes, it comes with an amazing promise of life in the new creation, but the obligation of a disciple of Christ is to go out into the world and work. We are called to love the meek, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We are called to see past issues of races and ethnicity.
The Canaanite woman made Jesus and the disciples uncomfortable because she preached an important truth to them. She reached through to the heart of the issue and proclaimed that God’s love was for everyone and if the only thing she could get was scraps, then so be it, scraps are what she would take.
But she deserves so much more than scraps and this is evidenced by the healing her daughter receives. A reminder that God’s love is for all people. So get uncomfortable, get used to being uncomfortable because people who preach hate think it’s acceptable to do so and whether you like it or not, whether you are comfortable with it or not it is the job of the Christian to demonstrate another path. A path of love, following in the Way of Jesus Christ. Amen.