Aug 20th, 2023 “Did Jesus really say THAT?“
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
Our Gospel story today is in 2 halves. In the first we have some wonderful teachings of Jesus. Jesus once again confronts the religious leaders or gatekeepers over the importance of observing religious rules and regulations versus doing what is right for people.
Jesus says it does not matter what you eat - or rather what goes into your mouth - what really matters is what comes out of it. Words wound. Words have the capacity to kill enthusiasm, faith, self esteem, goals and dreams. What we say and how we say it have far reaching effects. The words we say and how we say them can promote hate, intolerance, racism and disinformation.
But our words and how we speak them can also build bridges, promote understanding, faith, love, justice, kindness and lift hearts and spirits.
This teaching by Jesus is a cautionary tale. Be careful of what comes out of your mouth - for you will be judged by it.
And then we have the second half of the teaching. And we have to do a double take - did Jesus really just say that? Did Jesus really ignore the plea of a desperate mother and then call her a dog? Did he really do that on the heels of teaching that what comes out of your mouth is what counts.
Some scholars have tried to explain away this harsh behaviour of Jesus and these hateful words. They say that Jesus was focused on his mission - he was focused on the tribes of Israel - no one else. Or they say well, there was discord and hate between the people of Israel and the Canaanites. They say that to refer to a Canaanite as a dog was just a common expression of the time and would not have been out of place.
But it is out of place. We don’t want to hear that the person who came in love and peace and inclusion would refer to anyone as a dog. But Matthew tells us that he did. So how do we reconcile this part of the Gospel with the part that came before? How do we reconcile this story with what we think we know of Jesus? The man who healed, who spent time with outcasts and sinners, who had compassion for the crowds that followed him?
Why did Jesus behave this way? What is going on here?
I think we could say that Jesus’ humanity got in the way. He spoke the way others around him did. He used a slur against the “other”. He behaved the way we too often do. And he was wrong. Yes. The Son of God, the Christ, Our Saviour, the Son of Man - was wrong.
And it is a testimony to the person that he was that he was able to take the teaching of the Canaanite woman and acknowledge that he was wrong and to make amends.
The Canaanite woman is not named - like so many of the women in our scriptures. But she knows his name. She knows what this man has been doing, she has followed his story and the stories about him.
She is a Canaanite making her “other” or despised by members of the 12 tribes of Israel, a woman so of lower status she is also a mother and she is desperate for healing for her daughter.
And because she has heard that Jesus is a healer, because she is desperate for her child she breaks the rules, she crosses the social boundaries - she goes outside the box and she has a unique encounter.
She makes a pest of herself - she calls out to Jesus - he ignores her - the disciples are getting annoyed and want her sent away. And she does not back down - she keeps on and finally she is recognized. But not in a positive way. NO. Jesus tells her that the work he is doing is not for her or her kind. In effect he is saying that the kingdom of heaven is only for the people of Israel - not the message we were expecting! This is a jarring note in the story.
Jesus calls her a dog - says that the teachings he is bringing - the good news of the kingdom would be wasted on her - squandered by people like her.
But then this mother turns the tables on Jesus and uses his own words to convince him that her daughter does deserve his attention and her healing. She says that even the dogs are welcome to the crumbs.
The tenacity of this woman - - this refusal to back down in the face of scorn, and racism and slurs is incredible and so very very brave. The story might have gone another way. It so easily could have ended in violence or death. But it did not.
Jesus’ humanity that got in the way of his recognizing a beloved child of God gives way to his divinity.
This Canaanite woman who was desperate for healing for her daughter changes Jesus’ mind. And with this change of mind we might speculate that the mission changed as well. By the end of the Gospel of Matthew the mission is to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the nations.
And for that we give thanks to God.