Crumbs from the Master’s Table
How did you feel when Jesus as much as called the Canaanite woman a dog?
Just think how you would feel about Jesus if all you knew about him was what you just heard of him in Matthew’s gospel.
Here was this mother, begging Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter.
And Jesus basically says to her, “Get lost, woman, I am not about to give to you, an unclean gentile, the blessing God has reserved for God’s chosen people.”
When you look at that statement, forgetting for a moment what you already know about Jesus, how does it make you feel?
Do you feel a little conflicted?
Does this small bit of Matthew’s gospel give you pause to think, pause to reflect on Jesus’ attitude, expressed in these harsh sounding words?
What do you think was going on here?
Before we jump to the obvious conclusion that in this exchange Jesus is a portrayed as a prejudiced person, a man who Judges others based not on their personal character but on which social or religious group they belong to, let’s briefly look to see if there is other evidence as to Jesus’ true nature.
For instance, to give us a more complete picture of Jesus’ true nature, let’s take a look at what happened in Matthew’s gospel immediately before today’s lesson.
Before the story of the Canaanite woman Jesus had just reamed out a bunch of Pharisees.
He had chewed them out for their unjust, unsympathetic, super judgmental, exclusionary religious behaviour.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for excluding from their community all those who failed to follow their man-made tradition that demanded everyone who wanted to belong to their group must wash their hands before eating.
In this rebuke, Jesus roundly rejected the idea that any community founded on God’s law should reject people who failed to live up to the traditions of men which dictated who was ceremonially clean and who was not.
So, clearly Jesus was not about excluding people from community for living outside Jewish traditional norms.
And yet Jesus refused to address this Canaanite woman’s pleas for mercy.
Its clear from his own word’s that he rejected her pleas for mercy on the grounds that, by accident of birth, she found herself outside the religious group that he had come into the area to minister to; the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
Does this sound like religious prejudice and discrimination to you?
It does to me.
But how can the God of love,
Jesus, who just chastised others for excluding people from their religious community for failure to obey the community’s traditions, how can He do such a thing.
If upon reflection, you are shocked by the facts of this story.
If your sensibilities around religious discrimination are offended by this story.
I am with you.
But since I reject the idea that the God who is love could somehow be at the same time a religious bigot, we need to look deeper into the story; going beyond our first impressions looking past our modern-day sensibilities around religious discrimination.
We need to consider that fact that this story shocks us and reflect on what we are meant to learn from this outwardly shocking tale.
So, let’s do that, let’s reflect on what learning we might gain from this story.
Let’s start by looking at the characters as presented.
For example, which of the two characters do you identify with; the woman or Jesus?
Perhaps because of your own past experiences of rejection you identify most closely with the woman who surely felt the sting of Jesus’ rather rude rejection of her pleas for mercy?
Or because of your strong religious convictions that Jesus could do no wrong you identify with Jesus and feel like he was justified in rejecting the woman’s pleas for mercy because she did not belong to his chosen in-group?
Those of us who identify with the woman probably do so because at one time or another we have found ourselves a member of the out-crowd; forced into the role of social outcast by the rejection of others.
On the other hand, those of us who identify with Jesus and feel his rejection of the woman was justifiable, based on the otherness of her religious and ethnic origins, we have likely never experienced what it is like to be someone forced to live outside the social or religious norms of the mainstream culture in which we live.
Which ever character you identify with I believe that this lesson from Matthew is meant to help each one of us reflect on our personal experiences of rejecting and being rejected by others for religious and cultural reasons.
If you identify with the woman because you have felt the sting of the rejection of others for cultural or religious reasons.
I invite you to also identify with the Canaanite woman’s response to that rejection; which was in fact God’s initial rejection of her.
The woman responded to God’s rejection of her person not by being offended but by answering his rejection by calling out to him in faith.
Even in the face of God’s outright rejection of her, this unclean Canaanite woman, this member of the out-crowd trusted that ultimately, she would receive justice from this just God whom she called upon.
This outsider woman trusted that God’s very nature, which is love and justice, would ultimately prevail in their relationship guaranteeing that she would receive her loving and just petition.
She did not let God blow her off; she refused to be put off in her just demand for God’s healing attention.
She debated with God.
She argued successfully against God’s initial rejection of her plea for mercy.
She persisted; even enduring insult.
And in the end her faith carried the day; her plea was heard; her daughter was healed because God is in very essence love and justice and cannot act against his nature.
On the other hand, if we identify with Jesus in this tale.
Let’s first recognize it for what it is, at least at the outset, if not in the end; this is a tale of discriminatory behaviour.
So, before we let ourselves off the hook for discriminating against others in our day-to-day life because this type of behaviour was good enough for Jesus; consider for a moment the end of the story.
In the end, Jesus relented of his discrimination caused by his laser-focus on the in-group that he was called to minister to.
Surprised by faith in God coming from an unexpected quarter, Jesus relented of his initial discriminatory reaction against the Canaanite woman.
Jesus recognized, in the faith claim of this gentile woman, this unclean outsider, that even such a person as this could recognize the reality of God’s power to heal.
Therefore, by the end of the story, Jesus understood that this person, and all people like her, were worthy of God’s healing love.
So, next time you are faced with someone who you cannot relate to because they are not like you, not from your in-group.
Look more closely at that person.
Look at them through the eyes of your Lord’s understanding, given you by the grace of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Behold them, ignore their otherness and instead be guided by the leading of the Holy Spirit in your response to the next “Canaanite woman” you meet.
In the living of your life have the faith to challenge your personal view of what God is doing out there in his world.
Open your heart to God’s love for you and for others and see what miracle of healing God performs for you and for others in and through you as you live out your life in God.
Have the faith it takes to negotiate your place in God’s world.
Live out the faith it takes to negotiate even with your God.
Live your life in faith, and see what crumbs from the Master’s table might become yours for the good of others.