A Canaanite woman came and knelt before Jesus, saying:
Lord. Help me.
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.
Like many of you, maybe like almost all of you, I watched the events in Charlottesville last week with a sense of horror and helplessness.
Here in America, where we celebrate the triumph of what is sometimes called the Greatest Generation over the Nazis, we saw swastikas and Nazi salutes and slogans borrowed directly from the Third Reich. Here in America, where we keep Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we saw unapologetic and unvarnished white supremacy; any veneer or pretense that what we were looking at was actually about states rights or free speech or preserving history or whatever was gone: this march was about how white folks – and white men, in particular – are superior to everybody else and about how violence is justified in maintaining that superiority. Here in America, where we celebrate democracy and opportunity, we saw street fighters (again, notice the echoes of the Nazi thugs out in streets of Germany in the twenties and thirties) ready to club anyone who sees the world differently and, in the case of at least one young man behind the wheel of a car, ready to kill anyone who sees the world differently.
What do you do when you see something like this? What do you do as a citizen? What do you do as a Christian?
Part of me is nervous about venturing any kind of answer to those questions. I am an absurdly privileged white guy who lives on the other side of the country from Virginia. What can I say that is anything other than clueless and out of touch? But another part of me, a bigger part – the part that is trying hard to the listen to the still small voice that Elijah heard on the mountaintop – says that I am not allowed to remain silent on this one, that I need to risk the possibility of saying something foolish or something offensive because saying nothing represents my quiet approval of those guys in the street with their torches and their Nazi salutes and their shouting about blood and soil.
So, here is the best that I can do. We are in a church. And so I want to encounter what happened in Charlottesville – and, in turn, what is happening across our country and across the world – by listening with you to a story from the Gospel. Thanks to the gift that is the lectionary – thanks to the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next – the story that will guide us this morning sees Jesus speaking about and with a bunch of religious officials followed by Jesus speaking about and with a woman of another culture.
The religious authorities come to Jesus, and they ask him a question. (This meeting takes place at the start of Chapter 15 of Matthew, ten verses before where we started reading this morning.) They demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. To be clear, the authorities’ question is not about hygiene in the 21st-Century sense of that word: modern germ theory is not going to show up until Louis Pasteur and friends demonstrate it in the 1880’s. The authorities, in other words, are not worried that Jesus and friends are going to get E. coli at the church picnic. Rather, their question is about tradition or piety.
The longstanding, inherited practice, the practice of Jesus’ elders and ancestors, is to wash their hands before eating. Washing your hands before eating – like dressing in a certain way, like going to the temple, like observing dietary rules – is an act of reverence, it is a way of honouring your ancestors, honouring the past, honouring God. And therefore, not washing your hands before eating is to risk defiling your ancestors, defiling the past, defiling God.
But far from being contrite, far from telling his disciples that they had better get out the soap and the body wash, Jesus responds to the authorities’ question in an abrupt way, maybe even in an angry or an accusatory way.
This is where we pick up the story this morning:
Listen and understand,
Jesus tells the authorities,
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
The disciples are flabbergasted, they are scandalised, by this response. It is as though they are in Grade Three and watching a classmate lip off at teacher. They come up to Jesus and, glancing over their shoulders, they whisper:
Jesus! They can hear you!
For the disciples, in other words, Jesus’ response is shocking. And it’s a pretty good bet that for the audience that first heard Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus’ response was shocking as well.
That shock is worth remembering as we consider this tale this morning. Because most of us who go to church in 2017 are pretty used to seeing Jesus tear a strip off of the Pharisees, we’re pretty used to scripture casting them as Jesus’ adversaries. It doesn’t shock us at all. By contrast, a lot of us are thoroughly shocked by the harshness with which Jesus – whom we know to be merciful and kind, especially to those in need – will talk to the woman in just a moment:
It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.
But for this story’s original audience, the surprise or shock was likely the other way around: dumping on people of high status from your own culture was bizarre and dangerous; dumping on a person of low status from another culture was normative and to be expected.
Let’s turn our attention to that woman from another culture now.
She walks onto the stage of our tale and Matthew introduces her as a Canaanite.
Now, if you read the Bible closely, you’ve likely noticed that the Gospel Mark also tells this story. Most scholars figure that Mark is the oldest Gospel, and that Matthew and Luke read and drew from Mark in writing their own books about Jesus. Matthew’s telling of the story is almost identical to Mark’s, except that Mark refers to the woman as a Syrophoenician.
Why does Matthew change things up and call her a Canaanite?
We don’t know for certain: when our ancestors gave us the Bible, they didn’t include footnotes. Any answer, therefore, is going to contain an element of speculation. Here is the speculation that I find most persuasive. It is drawn heavily from the work of Paul Nuechterlein and Brian McLaren.
By the time that Jesus lived, the term Canaanite was an anachronism, it had not been in regular use for several centuries; calling someone a Canaanite in the First Century would be a bit like meeting someone from Norway today and calling them a Viking. That suggests that Matthew’s goal in using this term is to make us think about the past, the stories of the Old Testament, and in particular the stories from the Book of Joshua, in which Israel invades the land of Cana and defeats the people who live there.
The Book of Joshua, not to put too fine a point on it, is a story of genocide. It is a story of coming to understand other people as so radically subhuman that murdering them is not merely morally acceptable but might even be reasonable and necessary. As such, like many of the hardest passages in the Bible, it is a story about the darkest parts of humanity, about what happens when we spectacularly misunderstand who God is and who God is calling us to be.
One of the things that magnifies the connection between this passage in the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Joshua is that “Joshua” and “Jesus” are actually the very same name. The name “Jesus” comes to us via a Greek text, whereas the name “Joshua” comes directly from the Hebrew. But odds are good that if you hopped into your time machine and met Joshua and then met Jesus, the two of them would say their names more or less identically, something like: Yeshuah.
What we have before us in Matthew, therefore, is the contrast between two Joshuas or two Jeshuas or two Jesuses. One who understands people from Cana to be subhuman and beneath respect. And another…
…who understands people from Cana to be subhuman and beneath respect.
At least, that’s how the story begins.
Look how Jesus starts the encounter. He first ignores the woman – the way that you might ignore an insect in a room or a homeless person on the street – and then, when she keeps on asking for his help, he responds with a brutal slur: he calls her and her people dogs.
Jesus, in other words, is behaving just as his culture has taught him to behave, as tradition has taught him to behave. He reaches for the slur in the same automatic and untroubled way that a slave owner reaches for his whip.
But then something extraordinary happens. The woman gives Jesus the gift of pushing back. Her response is both amazingly clever and amazingly humble and amazingly subversive. And as a consequence, her response is able to penetrate Jesus’ armour.
Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.
Jesus stands there with his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide. And in that instant he realises that the very thing that he said to the religious authorities a minute ago – the thing that he said about the stuff that comes out of ours mouths being what defiles – applies to him. He has been acting in a way that defiles. He has been speaking in a way that defiles.
And so Jesus repents. He allows himself to be transformed.
Here is the final contrast between Joshua and Jesus: Joshua defeats the Canaanites; Jesus permits himself to be defeated by the Canaanite woman.
With the Canaanite woman’s help, Jesus recognises that he has inherited something that is broken and wrong. To be clear, that isn’t to say that everything that Jesus has inherited is broken and wrong: not at all! Jesus lives his entire life as a faithful Jew, he will remain a faithful Jew for the rest of his days. Jesus never rejects Judaism, this story is not about how he leaves Judaism in order to do something better, in order to form the church. Rather, this story is about the how his very faithfulness demands a willingness to critique his tradition when it defiles, to resist his tradition when it defiles, to change his tradition when it defiles.
That expectation of resistance, by the way, is built into Jesus’ praise of the woman: Great is your faith, he says to her. And her faith, as we have just witnessed, is not just her persistency, but it is also her choice to push back when Jesus falls into the bigotry that he grew up with, the bigotry that, up until this moment, he had left unquestioned.
What does following Jesus’ example mean when we encounter Charlottesville and its aftermath?
I bet you have your own answers. Here’s but a couple to get us started.
Following Jesus’ example means listening. For white people in particular, it means listening to people of colour and to others whom our culture has historically marginalised: Jewish folks, GLBTQ folks, Palestinians. (I read a fabulous article a couple of days back written by an African American woman in response to the many white folks who had asked her how they could be better allies. Her advice? Among other things: White people, stop talking so much. You’ve had the microphone early and often, she said. It’s time now to do some more listening.) In particular, I want to suggest that white folks are called to listen to and to believe People of Colour when they tell us that, while the racism in Charlottesville was overt and unapologetic, it was neither new nor unusual. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Racism is as old as this country, it is woven into a country’s fabric. So let’s listen to those who have been so often unheard.
Following Jesus’ example means being willing to critique the tradition and the culture we have received. Again, a critique is not a rejection, I really want to underline that: this is not a binary place where recognising the racism in our country means that we can’t love our country, that we aren’t patriots. To the contrary, this is one of those instances in which a critique of our country is a profound act of patriotism. Sometimes, you love someone or something so much that you can’t help but critique them or it; every parent in the world will tell you as much. When applied to the question of Civil War statues, a critique of our tradition means acknowledging that the statues of confederate leaders are not harmless examples of history but, rather, they are deliberately racist symbols. They honour people who fought to preserve slavery and they were overwhelmingly erected during the worst days of Jim Crow and of lynching. Their purpose is and always was to keep black people afraid and in their place. Thus, their removal is a moral necessity.
At its simplest – and at its hardest – following Jesus’ example means being open to being transformed, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it means surrendering certainty and privilege. It means being open when the Canaanite woman speaks to you and me. It means being open to being defeated by God’s love.