Reflection on Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 15:21-28

Canaanite Woman 

The Offense Of Grace!

“…it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26

This is a poignant and most disturbing gospel story.   It is a rough, raw and ragged story. I have yet to see this story included in a children’s Sunday School curriculum.   This story radically departs from the popular portrayal of sweet Jesus.

Matthew tells us that a Canaanite woman desperately seeks out Jesus.   The fact that she was “Canaanite” is significant.   Israelites and Canaanites were ancient and bitter enemies.   Profound animosity and hostility existed between them that was religiously and culturally nurtured.   Almost all biblical scholars think that Matthew’s congregation was almost exclusively Jewish, probably a Jerusalem congregation, who would have not only understood the tension between Jews and Canaanites, but more than likely reflected the prejudices of their religous culture.  It was also a mutual  prejudice that ran both ways.  But in spite of the mutual hostility, this woman dared pursue Jesus.  In Mark’s version of the story (Mark 7:24-30), she even pursued Jesus into the house into which he had withdrawn.   Ignoring all sorts of sacred prohibitions that forbid such behavior, the woman violated customs even more by addressing a man directly, and a man with religious status to boot. She had apparently heard that Jesus was a healer, and she needed a healer for her daughter who had an unclean spirit, which could have meant any number of things. The point is she was desperate, and she thought perhaps Jesus would help, so she relentlessly pursued him and implored him to help her daughter.

The Jesus with whom we are most familiar is the sweet Jesus who offered words of comfort and consolation.   But, I know a good insult when I hear one!   Make no mistake about it, Jesus calls this woman and her daughter “dogs.”     “Dogs” in that time was a prejudicial slur.   The Jews often called the Gentiles “dogs,” and they didn’t mean sweet domesticated animals like our well-loved, well-tended, well-groomed and well-fed pets. Rather they meant the diseased and garbage-eating mongrels that roamed the streets.   It was a prejudice that ran deep; a bias that was passed on from one generation to the next; it was ingrained and embedded in the psyche. This is clearly not the Jesus we thought we knew.

Even so, this woman apparently was not deterred in her mission, but she deftly responds, “Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”   Responding to her quick-witted remark, Jesus agrees to help her daughter, and immediately the daughter is healed.   In Matthew’s version, Jesus lauds her with the affirmation, “Woman, great is your faith!”  

So what do we do with this story?  Becasue of the prejudcial slur, biblical scholars disagree on whether or not these words can be traced back to the actual words of Jesus. Some say that they are not Jesus’ words but a story that emerged in Mark’s community several decades after Jesus and then Matthew included it in his gospel.   But either way, whether they are Jesus’ words or a story that emerged from community tradition, the important question is what does the story mean?   What are Matthew and Mark saying about their experience of Jesus by including this raw story in their gospels?     What was the message for them, and what might it be for us?

Many have tried to dance around Jesus’ harsh words by softening and rationalizing Jesus’ words, making excuses for him saying he was under stress from engaging the crowds. Others say he was just trying to get away for some quiet time and this woman interrupted; or that he was testing the woman’s faith in some way; or that he didn’t mean “dog” in the pejorative sense. But let’s not soften or change the story or try to tone it down to erase the offense, so we can be more comfortable.  If we do soften it, we will miss the real power and the cutting truth of this story.

This story offends me!   But you know what? I think that’s the key that unlocks   the story – the offense.   That’s the point.  The meaning lies in the offense.   But which offense, and who is offended?     You see, there is more than one offense here!

First, our polite sensibilities might be offended.  So we try to soften the story or explain it away or excuse Jesus.   But if you were a typical first century Jew, you would not have been offended at all by Jesus’ words. He simply parroted what was culturally and religiously acceptable. The story initially shows Jesus acting, doing, and speaking like many would have expected him to act, do and speak. His racial slur would have not been recognized as a slur, but as an accepted designation, sort of like when I was a kid and the white Scandinavian culture in which I grew up had an assortment of slurs for everybody: Italians, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese – all of which were freely used in their everyday conversations.

Second, what would have offended the first century Jew would have been if Jesus did show mercy to this Canaanite woman, did heal her daughter, and did commend her for her great faith, because as an outsider she had no legitimate claim, as far as they were concerned, upon Jesus.   That would have been monumentally offensive!   And that’s exactly what Jesus did. He offended the religious in-crowd by affirming someone on the outside – someone they considered to be far less than themselves – “dogs.” Those who are offended the most by this story are not you and me; not even the Canaanite woman; but the religious insider of Jesus day.

This is a dangerous and subversive story – for the religious insiders of Jesus’ day – and for us who name ourselves followers of Jesus in our day.   It is no wonder that this story is ignored by the religious mainstream or explained away. The stakes are critically high! This pleading woman asked Jesus for the impossible by their definitions!     She asked for far more than merely the healing of her daughter. She asked Jesus to bestow gifts upon her that were, according to their religion, not hers to have or claim.   It is preposterous and offensive!

The attitude projected in this story toward the woman is   analogous to the attitude by some towards undocumented workers who live within our borders and who use resources supported by our tax dollars. Some passionately argue, “They have no legitimate claim on that which rightly belongs to American citizens!” Or how about the thousands of Central American children who are laying at our national gates wondering what the powers that be  will decide concerning their futures.   Perhaps that analogy might help us appreciate how those first century Jews might have felt in response to Jesus bestowing grace upon this woman – a Canaanite outsider – a “dog.”

You see, the stakes were incredibly high, for if Jesus were to grant the request of this Canaanite woman, the implications of his action would forever change the meaning of their religion; the direction their religion was leading them; the destinations their religion would ultimately take them; the worldview their religion espoused!

It is right here with the grace bestowed on this outsider that the real offense lies.  I believe this story was remembered and recorded by these early faith communities for the insiders; the insiders of the house of Israel; the insiders of Matthew and Mark’s faith communities; and the insiders of today, you and me!

This is a shrewd and scandalous story     The story portrays Jesus beginning this encounter in a place that was acceptable to the insiders, parroting exactly the conventional religious prejudices of the time. But then, in the blink of an eye, the whole thing turns up-side-down and inside-out, and those same insiders, who just moments before were cheering him on, are offended!   What an incredible story! What an offense – the offense of grace – and with the offense of grace comes a monumental challenge for transformation.   Jesus turned the tables on us insiders with the offense of grace.   He shocks the living daylights out of us by demonstrating that God is active and present in and with outsiders too – not just us.   The offense of grace is a tough pill to swallow.

One of my favorite movies is the searing and scorching 1967 mystery drama, “In the Heat of the Night.”   It has been my experience that I have to be in a rather serious mood to watch this movie.   It is heavy, poignant and powerful.

If you have never seen the movie, you should.   The setting is a small town in the Deep South of the mid 20th century. It is essentially the story about two men that fate brought together: local Caucasian Police Chief Bill Gillespie, and African-American northerner, Virgil Tibbs, an experienced Philadelphia homicide detective who was simply passing through town while visiting his mother.   Circumstance brought these two men together in a very conflicted, prejudice-laced relationship in order to solve a local murder case that had profound community-wide and personal   implications. The two men, whose personal lives and indigenous cultures were saturated with prejudice and racism on both sides, were forced together against their wills.

As the story-line unfolds, these two men had to struggle through and beyond their deeply embedded racial prejudices to solve the serious task at hand. The community around them was profoundly offended and enraged by each of them. It was dangerous and daunting for them.   It took humility and courage on the part of both of them.   In the end, no, they did not become bosom buddies, but they each emerged at a place where they were no longer totally controlled and blinded by their prejudice, but could see the intrinsic value of each other’s lives, affirm the humanity of each other, and in the end held each other in mutual respect.   The circumstances forced them to go deep inside themselves to a place beyond prejudice and racism and claim a larger, greater and fuller humanity.

It seems to me that this gospel story is about a similar thing.   Jesus was a part of a religious culture that included deeply cultivated prejudices. But he drew upon Truth from a very deep place, from a Divine Presence that took him beyond the prejudices and hatreds that cause so much of the pain, conflict, suffering, violence and injustice that exists in the human experience. It empowered him to embrace the humanity of the Canaanite woman, bestowing grace upon her and, in the process, appealed for a transformation of his own religious culture.

I trust that is why Matthew and Mark included this story in their gospel testimonies. It was challenge to their faith communities and their culture to be shaped and guided by the radical grace they experienced in Jesus that brought to reality a larger and fuller humanity that could affirm the humanity of those who were nothing much more than objects of their prejudice and disdain – “dogs.” 

We live in a world that is divided and marred by visible and invisible prejudiced reinforced boundaries.   Matthew and Mark were not starry eyed dreamers who acted if such barriers and boundaries did not exist.   They were realists who understood that tragic reality all too well. However, they also had experienced something extraordinary in Jesus that took them past humanities’ opaque prejudicially fortified partitions to see into the fully human faces of those on the other side – to even see a holy Presence in those same faces. It was the offense of grace that gave them new eyes to see!

Therein lies the greatest hope for humankind and an indispensible aspect to our mission as contemporary followers of Jesus.  Are we up to it?  Amen.

 

 

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