Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 15:21-28:

This past week witnessed a holiday that I am guessing few of us observed, in fact I am guessing that few of us probably even knew it existed let alone knew that it was observed on Thursday. The holiday is known as Yom HaShoah. It is the day that has been designated within Judaism to remember the Holocaust. But it is not just a day to remember the lives of 6 million jews, and another 5 million others, lost in German concentration camps, but also to remember those who survived and those who helped Jews survive. It is a day to remember an event that I pray will haunt us for all time, and I pray that because if it does not haunt us, if we forget the holocaust, if do not continue to be disturbed by that event then I fear, or rather I know, it is something that will be repeated, and in fact it has been repeated countless times since then in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur, just to name a few.

The plan to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe, which if Hitler had been successful would have been just a start, was known as the “final solution.” But most people don’t really follow-up on what that actually meant, what was it meant to be the final solution to? It was meant to answer the question, “What are we supposed to do with the Jews?” This was a question that was not just posed by Hitler, but was posed by society in general. It was not just that Hitler was somehow able to convince the Germans that they should dislike Jews and follow him, instead he tapped into deep seated feelings that were already pervasive in the culture and went back a long time.

Rev. Dr. George Hermanson said “social conventions develop over centuries, and by definition, are never explicitly discussed or agreed upon. A crucial aspect of ‘convention” is that it is unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, so taken for granted that we are by and large completely unaware of how much these codes are embedded in our most deeply held sense of what is true, right and just.”

In his phenomenal book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, lays out the social conventions that allowed people to view Jews as the other, as less then, things like speed limit signs on corners, which would say 25 mph, and then in smaller letters, 65 for Jews. It was things like this which pervaded the society, and went back even to the writings of Martin Luther, which were filled with vitriolic anti-Semitism. People didn’t need to talk about these things, they weren’t taught in any formulaic way, they didn’t need to be because they were so much a part of society that everyone just knew them and just assumed that these things were just “true, right and just.” And so when Hitler proposed a final solution, it didn’t strike many people as outrageous, because they themselves had been asking “what should we do with the Jews?” and proposing their own solutions, which ranged from living with them, locking them into their own neighborhoods, which is what the Russians had done, all the Jews were moved to one area in the country called the pale, which is where we get the term, beyond the pale, some posited forcing them all out of the country, and others proposed combinations of these things and killing those who refused to obey.

The way that unspoken conventions, unspoken rules about people, especially about the “other” work is important to fully comprehend what is going on in today’s story. Jesus has entered into gentile territory in order to try and get away from crowds that surround him everywhere he goes, and he encounters a Canaanite woman. The simple fact that the woman is named as she is is a set-up, but not one that we really understand today because most of us have no idea who or what a Canaanite is, unless we are very familiar with stories from the Hebrew scriptures.

The Canaanites are long time enemies of the Israelites. They were living on the land the Israelites are going to occupy when they leave Egypt, the Canaanites occupy the promised land. When Joshua leads the Israelites against Jericho, and the walls come a tumbling down, this is the first conquest against the Canaanites. We are also told that they are descendents from Canaan, who is the son of Ham, and the grandson of Noah. You might remember that after the ark has settled on dry land, that Noah gets drunk and then something happens with his son Ham. What happens is not entirely clear, and we will actually cover the stories of Genesis next year at this time and will try and look at this, but Ham does something and therefore earns a curse from his father Noah. But here’s the interesting thing, the curse given to Ham actually says “cursed be Canaan, lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers.” So Noah doesn’t actually curse his son Ham, he instead curses his grandson Canaan, and then the descendents of Canaan, besides for the Canaanites, are the Phoenicians, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, and Hamathites.

There are 613 Mitzvot, or commandments, given in the Torah, which are the first five books of the Bible. You probably know the term Mitzvot from its singular version Mitzvah, from which we get bar mitzvah, which literally means son of the commandments. The 596th of these 613 commandments comes from Deuteronomy 20:17 and says about the people living in the towns that God is giving to them as the promised land, “You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.” These are people that the Jews have been told are servants to them and should be annihilated. This is not just sort of permission to treat them roughly, but instead they are told to wipe them out, to literally “not let anything that breathes remain alive.” That is who the Canaanites are to Jews, much like the Jews were to the Germans, and so here comes this Canaanite woman up to the disciples and she is making a major ruckus, she is not just asking for assistance she is shouting for help, and nothing they do, including Jesus ignoring her will make her go away. Her daughter is sick and she wants help and she is demanding them to help. She has apparently heard about Jesus, maybe about his teachings, but most definitely about his healings and so she wants him to heal her daughter.

This woman who is sort of an affront to everything that the Jews believe is “true, right and just” and she confronts them asking for assistance. A Canaanite woman, a person they all despise is forcing herself on them, and so the disciples turn to Jesus and ask him to send her away because she is bugging them. We have already been told several stories like this several times in the Gospels in which the disciples have told Jesus to send someone, or a group of people away, and in the past Jesus has always rebuked the disciples and done whatever it was that he wanted. This happened just two stories before this in the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples tell Jesus to send the group away, and instead he refuses and feeds the group with five loaves of bread and two fish. Everything is set up to follow this very similar pattern.

In addition, the woman comes to Jesus making a very Jewish proclamation. She cries out “have mercy on me, Lord, son of David.” She is not crying out in some foreign language, nor is she trying to fit Jesus into her own understanding of the world. She does not say, “If you are the son of David” then do this. No, instead she cries out to him asking for mercy and making a messianic claim, that Jesus is the son of David. In Matthew’s gospel, the idea of mercy plays a prominent role, as Jesus has already quoted from Hosea saying “I desire mercy not sacrifice” twice when this encounter takes place. This woman seems to be doing everything right, saying all the right things, and everything is set up so that our expectations will be that Jesus will rebuke the disciples for their treatment of the woman and then turn to the woman and grant her request. But that is not what happens, but before we get to that, let’s look at one more parallel story.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is at Jericho, remembering that Jericho was once a Canaanite city, and as he is leaving Bartimeaus, a blind man, cries out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Sound familiar? The crowd tries to silence the man, but instead of being quiet or going away, the man imply cries even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus then calls the man to him, asks him what he wants, and then tells the man that his faith has made him well, and instantly the man was able to see (Mark 10:46-52). This set-up is exactly the same as that for the woman, but with one distinct difference, and it is this feature which seems to make all the difference in the world, and that is that we are told she is a Canaanite woman. The only distinguishing characteristic is that this woman is of a heritage that is despised by the Jews, and so rather than rebuking the disciples and then blessing the woman, or at least asking her want she wants, which is what we would expect, Jesus response is so totally out of character that we almost want to do a double take as he says to her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But then the woman persists, and Jesus says “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What we sort of miss through time and the vagaries of translation is what Jesus is actually saying to the woman. This is not just a sort of rebuke; this is actually a racial slur that Jesus is throwing out. We don’t usually use the term dog now as a slur, as we more likely to do a fist-bump with someone and call them a dog, but ancient Israelites did not use the term that way. Instead it was the derogatory term used by Jews towards Canaanites. There is a term which references female dogs, which begins with a b, which sort of begins to get at the connotation, but it’s really a little deeper than that. It’s more as if Jesus had called her a coon, or a chink, or a wop, or a spic, or a mic, or a dike, or a kike, or a towelhead, or one of the other extremely derogatory words that one group of people throws at another, usually the group with power using it against those without power, and they do so usually without thinking about them except that their cultural assumptions tell that it is “true and right and just.”

Now when you hear Jesus’ response in that language, I’m sure that you, like me shudder a little bit and then ask, “Can Jesus really have said that? Can the Jesus who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves really have just thrown out the d-bomb against this woman?” and the simple answer is yes. Now if you do some readings on this passage you will find plenty of people are try and soften it up a little bit, or make excuses for why he didn’t say what he really just said. They’ll say that he was really trying to prove a point to his disciples, who had probably used this slur themselves, as it was a favorite of the time. They’ll say that the woman understood what he was doing, and that he didn’t really mean anything by it. And they’ll say that it was really a test of the woman and her persistence, that Jesus wouldn’t just let this word fly unless he was trying to teach a lesson. But, while those all sound like reasonable excuses they are not ones that I buy even for a minute.

Instead, I think that what we have captured for us here in this amazing story is a moment in which Jesus himself is enlightened and comes to a deeper understanding of his own ministry and mission. In the passages immediately before this, Jesus has heard of the death of John the Baptist and then he keeps trying to get away from the crowds, to find a space where he can be alone, but everywhere he goes people keep surrounding him “begging him” in the words of Matthew to heal them, and then he has another encounter in which he is being challenged by the scribes and Pharisees about keeping the holiness codes. I think that Jesus is tired and frustrated, he’s beginning to get at his wits end, he can’t get away to recharge his batteries, and just then this woman comes shouting at him to help her, and it’s not just any woman, but it’s a Canaanite woman, and he’s just had enough, he can’t take anymore and so he says the first thing that comes into his head, and he throws out this slur. Most of us have been in similar situations in our lives, when we have said something which we immediately regretted the moment we said it, and if we had thought for even a second we never would have said it in the first place. Maybe it’s something we don’t even believe, like something derogatory about someone else, but it’s around us all the time and it just sort of slips out, and there it is, exposing the conventions of society.

What Jesus said would not have been shocking to the disciples. It probably was not even shocking to the woman, in that it was not something that she had probably never heard before. It certainly might have shocked her that Jesus said it, but maybe she did truly understand that she caught Jesus, as some commentators have said, “with his compassion down.” But it’s the woman’s response that truly stops everyone, because she changes the entire nature of the conversation by telling Jesus “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

In my imagination of this story I always picture Jesus sort of shaking his head at the woman’s response. Not in agreement or even in disbelief, but instead sort of shaking the cobwebs out or clearing his head and being taken to a new level and a deeper understanding and meaning. He is forced, maybe for the first time, to confront his own prejudice and those of his culture. He is forced to a new understanding that his message is not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but is instead for everyone, even the Canaanites. Some have said that we really need to see two Jesus’ in Matthew’s gospel. There is the Jesus BCW – before the Canaanite woman – and there is Jesus ACW – after the Canaanite woman. The one before shows partiality to his own people, but the one after expands and welcomes all people. In the stories leading up to this, and in the stories in other gospels, in similar circumstances Jesus would rebuke the disciples or others, or give them a new teaching so that they went away with a new perspective. Jesus responds to those who offer him hostility with a correction. But in this story it is Jesus who responds with hostility and it is he who is responded to with correction, and he goes away a different person.

As I already said, there are plenty of people who want to try and soften this story, who want to make it something different than what it is, who want to try and add things, or subtract them, in order to make Jesus fit some image that we have of who he is, what he does, and what he has to be. But to do that is to make a mistake. Rev. Steve Charleston says “we need to let the integrity of this strange, bizarre story stand on its own. We need to allow this moment to confront us, to say that Jesus, in fact… lived as a member of his culture, was acting in a very human way of dismissing someone else – for all of the stereotypes and all of the reasons that [we might] mention. Because she was a foreigner, because she was different, because she was female, and because she was pushy.”

After last week’s sermon on Mary Magdalene, several of you came up to me and said that I didn’t really talk about the fact that what Mary Magdalene also represented was the fact that Jesus’ message was for everyone, that it was not simply for men, even though they were his disciples. My response to that is that that is entirely true, and what we can see from the fact that there were women who were following Jesus around was that his message obviously contained something which was appealing and attractive to women, which offered them new hope and new understanding about their relationship with God and about their role in the Kingdom of God. But, I believe that it is the Canaanite woman who shows us who Jesus’ message is for and what it is about, and it is shown to us not because Jesus initially understands that, but instead because he sees in the simplicity of her answer, in her cry for mercy, in her language that is to become the language of the Christian church when we say Kyrie Eleison, lord have mercy, that Jesus is not just for a small group, that Jesus is not just about a small message, but that Jesus’ message is for everyone, that the gospel message is for everyone, that the cross is for everyone, that eternal life is for everyone. It is this woman looking for healing for her daughter which causes Jesus to understand that his healing is for the whole world. Jesus leaves this encounter changed.

Edwin Markham wrote a famous poem about something like this that goes, “they drew a line that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout! But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle and brought them in.” Drawing circles of who is in and who is out is seemingly part of who we are sometimes. We want to make us’s and thems because it make the world easier to operate it. it’s easier to live in a world of black and white, rather than a world of grays, to live in a world in which it is clear who is with you, and who is against you, who is in your group and who is out, and then to treat the “other” in derogatory and demeaning ways, after all, they are not us.

What Jesus shows us, what the Canaanite woman shows us, is that when we draw these circles, that those who draw them the narrowest will always lose, and those who draw them the biggest, not only win, but are also closer to who and what God has called us to be. It has been said that the easiest way to do evangelism in the church is to see who is at the table, and then recognize who is not there and then reach out to them, to reach out to those who have been excluded, to reach out and offer the bread of life to those who have been rejected, to those who have been told they are not worthy, to those who have been told that God does not love them, to those who have been told that they are dogs, and the children’s bread cannot be wasted on them.

When we begin to draw that circle as broadly as possible and welcoming all to God’s table, then we begin to live into the gospel message and we begin to understand the call of the Canaanite woman and what she means for us as disciples of Christ, and we truly understand what is “true, right and just.” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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