“Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 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.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” – Matthew 15:21-28
Some of you might not like this… But I’m going to be quite frank…
Jesus is being a real jerk right now!
Now, before you immediately get up and storm out of the sanctuary… try to bare with me for a bit.
You see, in our Gospel this morning, there is this woman who approaches Jesus when he enters the district of Tyre and Sidon, the region where this woman is from. She cries out to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But even though she’s distraught, Jesus just ignores her and says nothing.
You have to admit: that’s kind of a jerky thing to do.
But if you start to think that is not so bad… Jesus is probably just busy and overwhelmed from all the difficult ministry he’s been doing, just wait for what happens next.
After this woman continues to persist and the disciples approach Jesus and urge him to send her away, Jesus finally responds, saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, he’s saying: my good news and mercy is only for some, only for those who are a part of my flock. Since you are an outsider, it is not for you.
But if you think that is still not too terrible… Jesus must have had so much to do that he had to make some priorities in his ministry, just wait for what comes next.
Because when the woman hears this, she drops to her knees before Jesus’ feet and desperately pleads with Jesus: “Lord, help me.” And you know how Jesus replies to her? He says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Yep, you heard that right. Jesus just called this woman a dog… which might as well have been that five-letter word your parents caught you saying as a middle schooler before they washed your mouth out with soap…
Now, our first reaction is probably to defend Jesus. Because… well, he’s Jesus, for heaven sakes! Jesus is our savior, our refuge, the one who came to protect us.
So how on earth could Jesus treat this woman in such a manner?!
And so when we can’t come up with any decent reasons for why Jesus would do such a thing, it seems that the only natural thing to do is to start blaming this woman. She must have deserved this treatment.
And so if we look at our text, we see that she was shouting… And this is actually the reason the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Because: “She keeps shouting at us,” they tell Jesus.
Well, this seems to make a little more sense… This woman must be to blame. She was being too aggressive. She should have kept her tone down. She should have spoken nicer. She shouldn’t have been so angry.
And as a Canaanite – who is considered unclean by the Israelites – she shouldn’t even be around the Israelites. And as a woman, it was absolutely uncalled for for her to have approached a man, let alone a rabbi!
I think that finding reasons to blame this woman for Jesus’ words and actions seems to be our natural response… because this kind of victim blaming happens so often today.
“They wouldn’t be jobless and homeless if they were not so lazy.”
“They wouldn’t have been shot by the police if they just didn’t run the other direction.”
“They shouldn’t have protested so loudly. They shouldn’t be so angry. They should be more kind, more gentle, more calm…”
They should do things the way we would have done them.
But the thing is, if we are honest with ourselves, would we do things differently if we really were in the other person’s shoes? Would we obey all the laws, even if the laws were oppressive to us and to our families? Would we be less angry and would we respond more calmly if we were actually up against systems that dehumanize and harm us and that ignore and blame us when we call out this injustice?
If we are honest with ourselves, wouldn’t we – like the Canaanite woman – start shouting if our daughter was possessed by a demon? Wouldn’t we do everything in our power to find a way to heal her – even if that meant doing some things that broke the socially accepted “norms?” And when the world around us ignores or blames us – because – we are “doubly marginalized” as the Canaanite woman – wouldn’t we raise our voices in order to make sure SOMEONE actually begins to listen to us? Wouldn’t we do whatever we could to protect our child, whose life is being threatened by violence, evil, and injustice?
Wouldn’t we persist and resist?
As jerky as Jesus might have been in this situation, I think Jesus must have understood where the Canaanite woman was coming from. Because despite all the reasons why it was culturally inappropriate for her to be doing what she was doing and despite that she was distracting Jesus and the disciples while they were trying to do their ministry, Jesus doesn’t start victim blaming and shaming her. And he doesn’t even send her away when the disciples urge him to do so.
… So … maybe Jesus is not being a complete jerk.
But that still doesn’t take away from him ignoring her and then calling her a dog. So there must be another reason the woman deserved this treatment.
She was – after all – a Canaanite woman. And Canaanites were not only considered unclean to Jews, but they were also considered enemies.
In fact, it was actually quite common for Jews to call Canaanites dogs.
And so, while this was a misogynistic and racial slur, it would not have been a shock for the disciples or even for the Canaanite woman to hear Jesus say it.
So I guess that Jesus must not have been trying to be a jerk. Jesus was just a product of his culture, using language that was common and normal for his time.
But… that still just does not sit too well with me. To me, it feels like Jesus is still being… kind of a jerk. (Just unintentionally.)
However – this – I believe – is where the good news comes in.
Because honestly, I can be kind of a jerk sometimes, too… And – not always – but most of the time my jerkiness is unintentional.
Because – like Jesus – I am a product of my culture.
I still unintentionally think, say, and do things that are racist or homophobic or transphobic or ablest. Or anti-Semitic or Islamophobic or classist or ethnocentric… and the list goes on. Not because I’m a terrible person. Not because I wish to be these things. It’s actually quite the opposite. I don’t want to be this way. But I do these things because I live in a country where these isms and phobias have been deeply engrained in our culture and in our systems for hundreds of years. And while we have made a lot of progress over those several hundred years, we still have a very long way to go. Because those isms and phobias don’t just go away at the drop of a hat.
And as a white, cis-gender, able bodied, middle class, Christian, who is in an other-gender marriage and who is a citizen of this country, I have so much privilege that enables me to benefit from our country’s systems… systems that actually marginalize, harm, and oppress people without these privileges. And my privilege often blinds me from seeing this reality and often keeps me from fully understanding and even at times believing the experiences of those who don’t have these privileges. Because it’s hard to be aware of and understand experiences of others that are very different from our own. To do so takes a lot of intentionality and a lot of hard work. And it is a life-long process that we must work at every day. Because even when I do this hard anti-racism and anti-hate work, I still live with privilege and still look at the world through a privileged lens.
But this is where Jesus being kind of a jerk in our Gospel today is good news. It is through Jesus’ jerkiness where we see a part of Jesus’ humanity. Because yes, we proclaim that Jesus was fully divine. But we also proclaim that he was fully human. And aren’t humans products of our culture? And isn’t it human to say and do things that are racist, misogynist and ethnocentric without meaning to be? Especially when our culture and systems shape us this way?
This does not – by any means – mean it’s okay and excusable to think, say and do these things.
But it does mean that if Jesus – our Lord and Savior – the Son of the Living God – was a product of his culture and unintentionally said and did things that are kind of jerky: racist, misogynistic and ethnocentric, then it means that maybe I can recognize, admit, and confess that as a human – particularly one with a lot of privilege – I still do these things, too, even when I try so hard not to.
And this is good news because recognizing and confessing this about ourselves is our first step in being able to free ourselves from the bondage that privilege and all the isms and phobias have on us. And it is also the first step we need to take in order to dismantle hate. We have to first look at ourselves and recognize and confess how we are participating in and contributing to oppressive systems or how we are enabling any form of hate.
Because dismantling racism and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and nationalism does not only involve calling out extremist groups that march in the streets with tiki torches chanting hateful chants.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We absolutely do need to call out that kind of hate for what it is and denounce it. What happened in Charlottesville last weekend (which quite honestly happens much more often than we’d like to admit in our country) is – in fact – evil. There absolutely were two sides in Charlottesville last weekend. There was the side of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists who were chanting “blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other horrific anti-LGBTQIA chants that I won’t repeat. And then there was the side of those who were resisting that hate. It’s very clear which side is demonic, hateful, and wrong.
But our work of dismantling hate cannot just end after we call out these extremists and denounce their actions. Because another danger that comes with this territory is when we just point our fingers at “those racists” and “those anti-Semites” and those “homophobics” and say that those extremist “fringe” groups are wrong… and then at the same time say “but I’m not like them so I’m not racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or fill-in-the-blank.”
Because we will never be able to dismantle hate if we deny our own part in it.
Another danger that comes with this territory is when we point our fingers at these extremists and then just ignore our uncle’s racist jokes or our friend’s transphobic facebook posts because our uncle and our friend are “not like those extremists” and their jokes and posts seem to be “harmless.” Because the truth is: no racist or transphobic post or stereotype is harmless – no matter one’s intensions. It is those unchecked jokes and stereotypes and unintentionally harmful things we say, think, and do that lead to the kind of “othering” that hurts our siblings and that enables and normalizes extremist acts and other forms of systemic injustice.
So let us choose to not be silent. Let us choose to call out all forms of isms and phobias – including those within ourselves. Let us choose to not allow our own isms and phobias to hold us captive and dominate who we are.
And so this is where I would like us to look back at Jesus in our Gospel text for today. For I think if we continue to look at what happens in our story and throughout the rest of Matthew, we will see Jesus modeling for us how we might go about doing this anti-hate work.
You see, even though Jesus starts off this morning being a bit of a jerk, we can learn a lot from what happens next. When Jesus tells the Canaanite woman: “it’s not fair to take food from the children’s table and feed it to the dogs,” she responds strongly:
“Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
In other words, this Canaanite woman is saying to Jesus that there is room at the table for her, too.
In other words, nevertheless, she persisted and is reclaiming her time.
And in doing so, as she demands that Jesus’ good news and mercy is not just for some, but is for all, guess how Jesus responds…
He doesn’t victim blame her or shun her for breaking the cultural and religious rules and norms. He doesn’t just send her away as the disciples urged him to do or continue to ignore her as he had once done. He doesn’t get defensive and try to explain how he wasn’t being exclusive or racist or misogynist.
Instead, he listens to her. He learns from her. And he changes because of her.
He allows her to open his eyes to his own privilege in that space and to his own participation in oppressive and exclusive systems. He praises her great faith for her holy persistence and resistance. And then he joins her in it: first by healing this Canaanite woman’s daughter and then – as we see throughout the rest of Matthew – by proclaiming a more inclusive Kingdom. One that is not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but that is also for the Canaanites, the Gentiles, the women, the outsiders, the marginalized… A Kingdom that is full of good news and mercy for not just some, but for ALL.
Yes, Jesus was being a bit of a jerk this morning. But he also shows us what it is like to be human. And that – as humans – we don’t have to be bound by our own jerkiness and allow it to keep us from dismantling hate.
We have so much to learn from this event in Matthew. So may we learn from Jesus, his jerkiness, and his conversion. May we learn from the Canaanite woman and her bold persistence and resistance. And may we learn from all those who are persisting and resisting around us as we join them in this holy work.
There is a voice I think we can learn from that I’d like to leave you this morning with the words spoken this week by the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was murdered in Charlottesville last weekend for resisting hate.
“Here’s what I want to happen,” she says during her speech at Heather’s funeral. “You ask me what can I do? So many caring people, pages of pages of pages of stuff I’m going through… how [Heather’s] touching the world. I want this to spread. I don’t want this to die. This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy. This is not the end of Heather’s legacy. You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place? What injustice do I see? I don’t want you to turn away [and say]: “I don’t really want to get involved in that. I don’t really want to speak up, they’ll be annoyed with me. My boss might think less of me….” I don’t care. You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world…
Let’s have the uncomfortable dialog. It ain’t easy sitting down and saying “why are you upset?” It ain’t easy sitting down and going: yeah, well I think this way and I don’t agree with you but I’m going to respectfully listen to what you have to say. We’re not all going to sit around shaking hands and singing kumbaya. I’m sorry, it’s not all about forgiveness, I know that is not a popular trend. But the truth is we are going to have our differences, we are going to be angry with each other. But let’s channel that anger not into hate. Not into violence, not into fear.
But let’s channel that anger into righteous action…. Remember in your heart (as Heather liked to say): if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. You make a point to look at it and say to yourself: what can I do to make a difference? And that is how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile.”