Today’s Gospel is a tough one. Jesus spends time with his disciples, telling them more about how God’s law has been misunderstood and misconstrued. He explains to them that if what they do is not rooted in love, but rather in evil or any violation of God’s commandments, it defiles. He’s telling them that so much of what they have learned and have come to understand as good and righteous, is, in fact, bad and sinful. He then goes on to Tyre and Sidon, where he encounters the Caananite woman. This is where it gets really hard.
The Caananite woman is desperate for help. She approaches Jesus crying out for him to cure her daughter. I can only imagine what it must have taken for this woman, by birth considered by the Jews to be impure, to approach this Jewish rabbi for help. My heart breaks when Jesus does not even acknowledge her. It breaks a bit more when he tells her he was not sent to help her people. It crumbles when he calls her a dog. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking there is no way, no way possible, that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, would or could treat anyone this way. Surely there must be some other explanation. Maybe Jesus is using this encounter with the Canaanite woman to teach his disciples a lesson? But would that be any better? Perhaps this story isn’t even real. Surely it can’t be true that Jesus acted this way.
And yet it is. Jesus’ humanity is on full display in this encounter with the Canaanite woman. He seems to have completely forgotten the lesson he’d just taught the disciples. His behavior with the woman suggests he doesn’t remember saying, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart”, which means, essentially, if it is not about God’s love, it defiles. In other words, what is life-giving and pure is what is spoken with a heart full of love, mercy, justice, compassion, and hope. Clearly, this was not Jesus’ best day.
In this story, Jesus is acting in a way that makes so many of us uncomfortable because it is far too imperfect to be consistent with our idea of who Jesus is. We are seeing Jesus the man and product of his culture. We are seeing the Incarnate One born to live and die among us acting far too like us than we want to believe is possible. We are seeing in Jesus, the one who came to save us from ourselves and all the ways we step away from the ongoing invitation to grow more and more into the likeness of God, one of the most terrible ways we turn away from God’s likeness.
When I read this story now, in 2020 with the ongoing protests for racial justice and the reverberations of the #Me,Too movement, I am hear both the voices of those who cry for justice and the push back from those who want to hang onto the culture and ways of being that are comfortable and familiar to them, even at the expense of the dignity – the very humanity- of others. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If Jesus could act this callously, this meanly, what chance do I have? What chance does society have to further the dream of God in which all people are recognized, honored, and celebrated for being created in the image of God?
In the persistent cries of the unnamed woman, one of only two people in Matthew’s Gospel to be characterized as having “great” faith (the other being the centurion in Chapter 8), I hear echoes of our Black and Brown siblings crying to be seen as fully human and deserving of all the same privilege, power, and opportunity we with White skin enjoy. In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of every woman who objects to being sexually objectified or demeaned by labels such as “nasty woman” or held to a different standard of behavior than her male counterparts. In her cries, I hear echoes of the First Nations peoples as they struggle to survive as outcasts in the land they occupied before any White man “discovered” it. In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of our LGBTQ siblings who want nothing more than to be recognized and embraced as beloved children of God created in that same divine image.
In Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s persistence, I see hope. I see the hope for us to listen to the pleas of our siblings to challenge the status quo, to dismantle the cultures and structures that are used to demean, degrade, demoralize, or in any other way say to any person or any peoples that they are somehow less than because we see some difference in them. Certainly we can listen to the pleas of our siblings with hearts full of the love of God and for God and take action to transform this world, even if that means going against the grain and challenging both the culture and the ways we hang onto it? If the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Incarnate God can be changed by the cries of one woman, certainly those of us who follow him can do the same, especially when confronted by the cries of millions?