Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."]
Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and
It seems, at face value, a story that does not fit in with what we know of Jesus: a man of pure racial lineage with followers of the same race; a chance encounter with a woman of a mixed race; the man calling the woman a dog; the woman not taking offense, but speaking up for herself; the man relenting in spite of the followers wishes to dismiss the woman. The story seems much more in keeping with Nazi Germany, or the deep South of the 1950’s. But there is more going on here than there seems to be: this is not just a story of racism, but in actuality, a story of good management principles.
The first thing you have to realize is that this was not a chance encounter. One of the other translations of this passage says that “Jesus withdrew from Gennesaret”. Jesus frequently would withdraw from
And so Jesus withdrew to
Yet the woman was still not a Jew, not one of the chosen people. As the disciples illustrated, those not of the Jewish race were not highly regarded by Jews. They had forgotten why they had been chosen: to be the people who would be the means of salvation for the entire world, the people amongst whom the Messiah would be born. The prophecies in the ancient texts we call the Old Testament had been twisted to point towards a purely Jewish salvation, an earthly kingdom.
So when the Canaanite woman started pestering Jesus, the disciples asked Jesus to send her away. They were typical men of their time, with the racism of their time engrained in their thoughts and actions. And, at first, Jesus seems to go right along with them. What is up with that?
The second thing to remember is that Jesus’ ministry was first and foremost to the Jews. Like any good manager, Jesus knew that you have to train the supervisors before the supervisors can train the employees. He very rarely even addressed people of other races and always emphasized that his mission was to the Jews, as he does here when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of
Jesus was doing two things: one, he was testing the faith of the Canaanite woman. You’ll notice that Jesus often did this when he is confronted by people who want things from him. He wanted to see how persistent they are, how great their faith was. And the woman here is certainly very persistent, persistent even in the face of the insult of being called a dog. We need to know, though, that the word for dog here is not a word that means a mangy dog on the street. It is the word that is used for lap dogs, pets that are pretty much helpless without human aid. So Jesus, while insulting her, was not insulting her as badly as you might think. Yet still, it is an insult.
The woman’s faith is so great and her desire for her daughter’s healing is so great that she has one of the best comebacks you could ever hear: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." How many of us have been insulted, only to realize hours later exactly what we SHOULD have said? She certainly was very quick witted. And her quick wit and persistence are rewarded. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith” and grants her desire for healing for her daughter. But there is still more going on here.
The second thing Jesus is doing is laying the ground work for the redemption of the Gentiles by breaking down the racist attitudes of the disciples. This was no chance encounter. Jesus knew that the disciples were still stuck in the mire of their Jewish ethnocentrism. In this encounter as well as others, he slowly introduced to the disciples the notion of the Gentiles’ worthiness of redemption. This would be their mission in the future, the mission of the early church. Until the disciples learned to view Gentiles as worthy of salvation, Jesus’ broader mission to redeem the world could not take place. Racial barriers must be broken down. The woman, initially ignored by Jesus and urged by the disciples to be sent away, goes from “dog” to “woman” in the space of a few minutes. Jesus plainly regarded her as equally worthy of redemption and the disciples took note.
Truly, it is not a story of recent origin, but sadly a story as old as time itself. We are continually putting up barriers between ourselves and our fellow men. We invent more ways of dividing ourselves from other people than is ever necessary or desirable. It is encoded in our frail human nature, the nature flawed by original sin, the nature that Jesus came to redeem us from, saving us from ourselves.
In the end, the disciples are sent out into the world, to make disciples of all nations. As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
In our own lives, we must live according to this promise, breaking down barriers, offering the word of God to all alike. We must fight against our tendency to reject those who do not dress as we do, talk as we do, look like we do, or come from the same place we do. It is truly one of the hardest tasks in our Christian “job description” but it is one that must be done if the church is to continue spreading the gospel of Jesus to every nation. Not one of us can hold ourselves to be better than our fellow men, for as Paul said in our second reading from his letter to the Romans, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”