This is not a story I like to preach. I do it because I respect the discipline of the lectionary. The three year cycle of texts which covers most of the Bible is designed to take preachers and congregations through most of the Bible: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This story is ugly. Ugly doesn’t win friends, influence people, and get comments like, “nice sermon, preacher” after the service. Sometimes, however, you got to do ugly.
If I preach a seven part sermon series that’s some reworking of “Finding Your Destiny” or “Daring to Dance with Goliaths in Your Life” what have I done? I’ve cherry picked the feel good texts which are easy to digest. Some Bible stories are like that; they are like the warm blanket you instinctively reach for on a cold and rainy day. But if that’s all we know of the Bible; then we are never challenged. When we only read our favorite parts or I preach the texts I love; neither one of us grow, spiritually or intellectually. In fact, we stagnate. We stew in our own religious juices. We’re more likely to come out of church feeling we’re great for being so in touch with our religiosity instead of realizing God’s grace is calling us to be a little uncomfortable.
The lectionary challenges our reality and gives us an opportunity to grow in relationship with God. So let’s do the hard work of challenging our preconceived notions of Jesus.
The main way people get out of asking the hard questions about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is to say it’s a story about faith. They focus in on verse 28, “Woman, you have great faith.” Oh, wasn’t she faithful. What a model of a faithful woman! That’s true. If we have faith, God will answer our prayers and meet our most basic needs. But by focusing on verse 28 to the exclusion of the rest of the interaction, you have to conveniently forget that this woman is a victim. You must ignore how Jesus and the disciples treated her. To focus on her great faith, is to justify Jesus’ unjustifiable treatment of an innocent woman who only wanted to save her daughter. That’s the hard question. That’s why this is a touchy question, that’s why you’ll never hear Joel Osteen (or anyone like him) preach on this passage. There’s no way to feel good about what you’re reading.
Here’s where a bit of context helps. Verse 21 tells us Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. Given the schedule he’s kept recently of walking on water and feeding 5000 people, he needed a Sabbatical. Tyre and Sidon were areas northwest of Galilee. They were technically different administrative regions made of Phoenicians and Canaanites. Jews, like Jesus, were the minority in this area along the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus was the outsider (always) but here he was an outsider among outsiders. He was truly a minority. Ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and it just about every way Jesus was in the minority. He’s a tourist. It would be like me taking a few weeks off to visit a friend in the South African Methodist Church and staying in Johannesburg.
A local Canaanite woman, who knows who he is, (we know this because she calls him the Son of David) recognizes him, comes up, and asks him for help. Jesus is all the time approaching people and speaking to women (by the well, caught in adultery). But if one comes up and speaks to him (a bold act in that day and time, the dynamic is a little different. I told you this was uncomfortable.) Apparently her daughter is possessed by a demon. This should be garden variety stuff for Jesus. Exorcisms are nothing for Jesus. Jesus ignores her. Maybe he doesn’t want to work on vacation. But can Jesus ever really be on vacation? He is Jesus, after all. The idea of Jesus ignoring anyone is disconcerting. She seems to be making a fair and heartfelt request. Removing her daughter’s demon is not the same as looking for a parking space at Wal-Mart. Jesus doesn’t budge.
The disciples then enter the picture. I sort of imagine them like a group of Mafioso. “You want we should move her on, boss?” She was shouting and making a scene. God forbid we make a scene in front of Jesus. We wouldn’t want Jesus to be embarrassed by us. Again, I told you this was uncomfortable. I’m just reading the text.
Now here’s where it gets both weird and hurtful. Jesus says, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” Jesus plays the race card. I know I’ve got the ability to help your demonically possessed daughter but the thing is; I wasn’t sent here to help you Canaanites and Phoenicians. I was only sent here to help Israelites.
Jesus, I thought you were sent to save everyone. What would it hurt to help this little girl? Why do you have to make it an ethnic issue? After all, you’re in their country, Jesus. How smart is it to insult their people when you’re in their country? It’s not only limiting God’s work to a small group of people it’s insulting a group of people in the worst possible place, their own country. I told you this was uncomfortable. If you’re not feeling a little topsy-turvy, just wait. It gets worse.
She pleads in the most basic way possible, “Lord, help me”. Jesus does something utterly remarkable, he calls her a dog. The English translations clean this up in various ways. But in Greek, it’s clear; he calls the woman a dog. “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” What that means is this; his power and healing abilities are compared to “children’s bread” and he doesn’t want to waste it by giving to her, a “dog”. So not only has he said “no” to her, he’s said no a second time by insulting her in the most degrading manner possible.
Yes, this woman has faith but also she has perseverance. Does she love her daughter or what? To put up with this kind of racial and verbal abuse and harassment from foreigners (one of whom happens to be the son of God) to save the life of her daughter is real miracle in this story. Even Jesus can’t stop the love a parent has for a child. If I learn anything from this story, this is what I learn. Love doesn’t always win. But love will die trying to save love.
The idea that Jesus was toying with her faith, to see how long she would last (because she eventually had a good comeback, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall of their masters’ table.”) is repulsive. Jesus shouldn’t play games with our faith. Faith isn’t about putting together the right words in the right order in the right formula to please God. Faith is about meeting the present need: a girl dying with a demon.
There’s one more crutch preachers like to use in order to explain away this passage and make Jesus’ words seem less uncomfortable. (Again, I think we grow and become better Christians when we confront the awkwardness head-on.) It’s this: Jesus was having a bad day. Jesus was tired and he just snapped at the woman. Sure, Jesus can have bad days but I don’t buy it. Jesus can walk on water, feed 5000 people, and then when he’s on vacation in another country a poor woman with a demon possessed daughter causes him to act like someone who is totally unrecognizable. No, this isn’t a bad day. I have bad days. You have bad days. Jesus when he was being beaten to death and crucified wasn’t this vicious to other human beings. Jesus doesn’t have bad days. We read “the bad day” idea into the story because we find no other good explanation for Jesus’ meanness. We want a reason to justify our own meanness, petty racism, and justifications for ignoring the simplest cries for help.
Perhaps that’s why this story is here; to remind us how not to be. There is no justification for how Jesus acted or what he said. This is not a “what would Jesus do” story.
When all is said and done, faith is the great equalizer between people; whether they are Canaanite or Jew, Black or White, or whomever.
The Canaanite woman’s faith made Jesus uncomfortable. That’s why her daughter lived. I hope her story made you a little uncomfortable. I hope Jesus made you a little mad. I pray that what we feel now will keep us alive for another week.