Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “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.
Matthew 15:21-28 There’s more than one kind of prejudice out there. Being a Southerner in Maine this summer has taught me that lesson all over again. A week ago, as we were eating lunch on an outdoor terrace (lucky Is the restaurant with outside space right now!), I heard a woman at the next table commenting on the crowdedness of some of the more popular spots in Acadia National Park. “We went to Jordan Pond,” she said, “but we heard a lot of southern accents, so we left right away. You gotta watch out for those people. Who knows what they’ve spreading?” Her dining companions expressed their agreement volubly, all of them rejoicing that they were from Connecticut. I felt my blood pressure rising; nothing would have suited me better than to inform her that she was dining (10 feet away, but nonetheless) right next to one of those pesky Southerners, but I managed to restrain myself. The next day I called to make an appointment, but got no farther than the initial request when the receptionist interrupted me to say, “You’re not from around here, are you? Where are you from?” So I gave my standard reply: I’m from NC, but we live in Winter Harbor from June to November. “How long have you been here?” she asked. Two months, I replied. “Do you have a mask?” she inquired. Several, I replied, and I wear them religiously. “Well, OK,” she said, “I guess you can come in. People from the South just make us nervous, that’s all, but if you’ve got a mask...”. Mama would be proud; I managed to say thank you before ending the call. Then I phoned the town offices to ask a question about some online information that had left me wondering. “Who ARE you?” asked the phone answerer. Name, rank and serial number, I thought, so I gave her my name and address, and informed her that I was a taxpayer with a question. “Where are you from?” came the rejoinder; “and have you completed your quarantine?” I reassured the lady that I had completed my quarantine back in June, and left it at that...though I’m still scratching my head about why that should qualify as information required to make a phone call. I have to keep reminding myself that when we are feeling fearful or overwhelmed, prejudices intensify; blaming The Other is a time honored tradition in times of pandemic, as even a brief study of the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 will reveal. But somehow, the last place I’d ever expect to find prejudice is on the lips of Jesus. And yet, that’s where I found it yesterday as I listened to the Gospel being read. Not that I haven’t heard this passage from Matthew before, but repeated hearings don’t make it any easier to swallow when Jesus calls a Canaanite woman pleading for the life of her child a “dog.” Only the Lord knows how many excuses preachers and Bible commentators have made over the years for Jesus’ strange behavior here; I’ve probably made one or two myself, but they no longer fascinate me. Sanitizing Jesus is not my place; my place is to listen to the scripture carefully and take it seriously. But it truly is a quizzical story: what on earth was Jesus thinking? What motivated the original boundary breaker himself to make such an insulting remark to a hurting petitioner whose only “sins” were being from a different race and region and gender? One of my favorite Bible commentators has been known to say that “in this story, Jesus gets caught with his compassion down.” But I’m not so sure that’s quite right: I don’t believe that Jesus has been caught with his compassion down; I think he’s been caught with his conviction up. He is clearly convinced that he’s been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It’s easy for us to admire the Savior’s deep conviction about his calling when it takes him to the Cross for the sins of the world; it’s a lot harder to admire that conviction when it makes him turn away from someone in need of the healing only he could give. It’s easy for us to nod our heads in agreement to the doctrine that Jesus is “fully human, and fully divine” (check out Council of Ephesus on the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ) when that means that Jesus got tired or hungry or thirsty “just like we do.” But it sticks in my throat a bit to affirm that Jesus is fully human when that means that his understanding of the ministry for which he was sent might need some adjusting and expanding....just as ours sometimes does. And yet, that’s what’s happening here. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out on mission, with the proviso that they not to go into Gentile areas. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But after this encounter with a mother who will not give up, he sends his disciples out into all the world. Her belief in the unbounded nature of God’s mercy is fierce: she gets in Jesus’ face, and tells him in no uncertain terms that when it comes to her Canaanite daughter and her Canaanite self, their lives matter. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What this lady knows is that the crumbs are made of the same stuff as the loaf; if there’s power in the bread, then there’s power in the crumb. I can almost see Jesus beginning to smile as he says, “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And then the healing happens. Right that minute. Here’s the beauty part: by the end of the story, the One who calls us to follow him is modeling behavior we all need to embrace from time to time. Jesus is giving us living proof that it is possible (and sometimes imperative) to be able to change one’s mind. In a world -and a nation - where polarization seems to be the order of the day, and prejudice with regard to those we disagree with is counted as cool, the Savior reminds us that it’s essential to actually listen to the other person’s story. Listening doesn’t just change minds. Listening changes lives. Where listening goes, healing often follows. If even the fully human, fully divine Son of God occasionally needed his perspective stretched, who are we to think we’ve got it all figured out? Who is God calling you and me to listen to today? UMH #560, “Help Us Accept Each Other As Christ Accepted Us”
stanzas 3 and 4. Let your acceptance change us,so that we may be moved
in living situations to do the truth in love;
to practice your acceptance, until we know by heart
the table of forgiveness and laughter's healing art.
Lord, for today's encounters with all who are in need,
who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness and bread,
we need new eyes to seeing, new hands for holding on;
renew us with your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one!
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood