I believe the Gospel reading from Matthew was surprisingly relevant after the previous week in national political affairs. So, I am going to change a couple of the details just to help us understand how it is relevant, and how shocking it is (because Jesus does not initially come off well — at least as far as I am concerned).
So Jesus left from there and slipped away to the region of Phoenix, Arizona.
And Listen to this! There was undocumented woman who lived there. She went out to Jesus, saying things like, “Show me some compassion, Sir, Son of David! My daughter is afflicted by a demon!”
Jesus just ignored her.
His students went up to him and tried to convince him to do something. They said, “Help her out or send her away! Her nagging is driving us nuts!”
Jesus answered, “I am not here to look for foreigners, but to put America first and to Make America Great Again.”
The woman approached and fell at his feet and said, “Sir, help me!”
But he simply answered, “Its not right to take bread away from children and throw it to dogs. It’s not right for me to take what belongs to Americans and give it to foreigners.”
She responded, “That’s true, Sir, because the dogs are content to eat the scraps that fall from their owners’ tables.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Wow, ma’am! Your faith is huge! What you want has happened for you.”
The woman’s daughter was cured at that exact moment.
So, what are we to make of this story? Does it show that Donald Trump is possibly more in line with Jesus than some would like to believe? Does Jesus come out against foreigners and seek to “Put Israel first”? Was Jesus leading a political movement that sought to “Make Israel Great Again”? What are we supposed to do with this?
As with everything, context is important. John the Baptist had only recently been murdered. Jesus is drawing huge crowds – and unlike those who brag about the size of their crowds, Jesus often sees the crowd as an obstacle. The crowd is not just filled with supporters, but it is also filled with rivals, enemies, and those who are there to simply witness a spectacle. In the crowd there are the Core, the Committed, the Curious, and the Contenders. The crowd sometimes is a barrier that keeps people who need to get to Jesus separated from him – as with the case of the paralytic man whose friends had to climb onto the roof and hoist up the paralyzed man, then dig a hole in the roof, and lower the man down.
Jesus is tired. Remember, Jesus is human. We like to focus on the fact that Jesus is divine, and we often forget that Jesus is human. He is fully human and fully divine. We have to keep this in balance. If we stray too far on the fact that Jesus is human, we lose sight of his divinity; if we stray too far on the side of his divinity, we lose sight of his humanity. So Jesus is tired and needs a break from the crowds.
But like many of us who seek a respite from our work and the demands upon us, even when we try to get away, our work, and those demands follow us. And here comes this foreign woman looking for help. She heard of Jesus. She believes in what he can do. She believes he is the Messiah by her use of the title “Son of David,” she is in desperate need and at her wits end, AND JESUS IGNORES HER!
I am quite sure, that like most of us, the human Jesus had moments when he just wanted to be left alone. I am sure there were times when Jesus did not feel like being the Messiah that day. I am sure that Jesus, like most of us, had moments when he hated his day job. So, Jesus does what many of us might do in that situation. He tries to pretend that he can’t hear her.
The disciples with Jesus intercede. Yet, they do not intercede because they care about the woman, but solely for the selfish reasons that she won’t stop nagging and it is irritating them. Like Jesus, who is on vacation, the disciples are on Spring Break. They, like Jesus, are off the clock. So they intercede for the wrong reasons: “Help her or get rid of her. But STOP HER NAGGING!”
And Jesus’ response shocks us – at least it shocks me. he refers to the woman as a dog – a common Jewish expression at the time for Gentiles. Dogs were unclean because they would eat anything. Gentiles also ate anything (including pork), so they were no better than dogs. But her reply to Jesus changes Jesus’ heart and he reverses his thinking.
Commentators for centuries have been surprised, even embarrassed, by Jesus’ response to this woman. There are usually justifications for it such as he was just playfully teasing her, or that he was testing her faith and commitment, or some other similar suggestion. But, they always, to me, seemed to be more of rationalizations more than they were scholarship and exegesis.
The truth is, if this were any other week, most of us would gloss over Jesus’ response to this woman and focus instead on the woman, presenting her as a model of faith and prayer. After all, there are those times when we pray and feel ignored. There are those times when we pray and we feel like Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit offers us a harsh response in reply to our prayers instead of what we were praying for. And this woman, gets all that, but keeps praying. She keeps believing. She demonstrates everything we need in our intercessory prayer: faith, perseverance, and humility.
BUT THIS IS NOT ANY OTHER WEEK! It is THIS week – a week that saw white supremacists and Neo-Nazis wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, carrying torches and chanting chants that were anti-the-other: anti-anyone-not-white; anti-anyone-not-their-perversion-of-Christianity. This was a week where the President seemed to support these people and condemned those who challenged them as much as he condemned them. This was a week when a woman was killed by these white supremacists and those white supremacists said it was justified and the President blamed everyone – not just those responsible, but those who were victims; and by so doing, removed the responsibility of those who were responsible. And after ALL that, this is a week when Jesus in the Gospels seems to agree with the President and possibly even those white nationalists.
I am certain that the fully divine Jesus loved this woman and instantly wanted to help her. But perhaps, the fully human Jesus was more focused on Israel and what was best for Israel, that it limited his ability to be open to what the fully divine part of him was saying. God does not just act in this world, but God acts through human beings. God can only act through human beings when human beings are open to God and allow God to act through them. Our bigotries, our expectations, our physical condition, our emotional condition, all of these and more, may keep us from hearing the divine voice, replacing it with our own voice. Worse than that, we may sometimes convince ourselves that our own voice IS the divine voice.
“Aha!” someone will say, “Doesn’t this prove that Jesus was not ‘without sin’?” It is not a sin to be tired. It is not a sin to want to get away from it all. It is not a sin to want to be left alone for a while. It is not a sin to focus on what is best for your country, your friends, your family. It is not a sin to want to put those people and things first. It is not even a sin to not feel like doing the right thing when asked because you just need a break.
And remember, in the end, Jesus does the right thing. The fully human part of Jesus is shut down by the woman, and he can once more hear the fully divine part that was screaming “Help her!”
Jesus may have been focused on Israel. Jesus may even have been focused on “Making Israel Great Again,” but Jesus was not so focused that he was closed to the humanity and the need of this woman who did not fit into what Jesus thought his mission was. The faith, the persistence, the humility of the woman confronted Jesus with her humanity. Jesus may have had a moment of weakness, but the woman’s faith, persistence, and humility reminded him that she is a person, just as much as anyone in Israel. She has needs and wants and dreams just like anyone else. She has feelings just like the “sheep of Israel.” And she is just as deserving as anyone in Israel. She is not a dog! She is not an animal! She is a human being – the same as any other human being Jesus came for; therefore, she was just as deserving of Jesus’ mercy and compassion.
Jesus in this story is not like Donald Trump or the white supremacists, but like those who supported Trump because they supported the policies he proposed, but who have changed their mind on Trump because of his dehumanizing of those who he deems as unfit, or unworthy, or somehow not as American because of the color of their skin, or the creed in their hearts.
Jesus begins the story apparently focused on some nationalistic mission, to the point that he almost missed an opportunity to do the mission he was sent to do. But Jesus reversed his course, put his own nationalistic pride aside, and did what was right for the other – even though she was a foreigner.
Somewhere in there is message of this Gospel reading. This woman, who did not have much status if any in the society of the time, who was also hindered by the fact that she was a foreigner, confronted the King of the Jews and reminded him that Canaanite Lives Matter!” And Jesus, confronted by this challenge, agrees.
I have to admit, that it is hard for me to find the words to adequately express what I see happening here, especially in light of this past week. The heart sometimes has a language of its own and sometimes all it can do is feel and accept that it is unable to express those feelings fully. The story no longer makes me cringe or feel embarrassed by how Jesus initially responds to this Canaanite woman, but instead give me hope for how we all may respond to the “Canaanites” of our own time. It gives me hope that all of us can put aside our bigotry, our pride, our xenophobia, our nationalistic chauvinism, and instead, come to see our common humanity. Sometimes it feels like a slim hope, but it remains a hope nonetheless.