A sermon delivered byJennifer Dault Harris at Grace United Church of Christ in St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2011.
Have you ever eaten dog food? When I was an elementary school student, I remember going over to a neighbor’s house with a friend. She was dogsitting while our neighbors were on vacation. After filling the dog’s bowl, we were sitting in the storage closet when the challenge came – “I dare you to try it.” Perhaps you have been in a similar situation. It doesn’t take long for most of us to decide that dog food doesn’t quite measure up to our preferred cuisine. But not all are so lucky. Last year a news report ran about a Houston couple, Glenn and Jennifer Abissi. Glenn has heart disease and is confined to a wheel chair. Jennifer has what is thought to be small cell carcinoma in one of her lungs. He qualifies for medicare. She does not. At the time of the news report, they were living on payday loans and dependent on the grace of their landlord who had not thrown them out even though they owed an incredibly large amount of back rent. Unable to afford meat, they turned to the canned food their dogs ate. “There’s a trick to cooking it properly,” she says. “Ketchup helps. But the real secret is this: you have to boil off as much of the juice as possible.”
Desperation. It was written on the faces in the photographs. It was in the cooking of a meal fit manufactured for a pet. This was it – their only hope. Their last effort.
And isn’t that where we find the woman in today’s New Testament passage? Her daughter was demon-possessed. In the Gospels, demons cause disease, blindness, deafness, paralysis – if something is wrong with your body, the ancient understanding was that a spirit of some sort had grabbed hold of you and was causing the bad thing. This girl, this daughter was demon-possessed, she was sick. And judging by the mother’s anxiety, this was more than just a minor problem. It was bad enough that she would chase after a man she had never met, pleading for help. It broke every kind of code that the shame/honor system gave them. A woman should never challenge a man. It was improper. A man held the family honor, so a man was the one who would negotiate such an encounter. This was the place for the woman’s husband or her father or brother. It was not her place.
And then we face her ethnicity. Matthew is very specific – much more so than Mark, who simply calls her “Syro-Phoenician,” which basically means that she is from somewhere along the Mediterranean coast. Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman. This was a loaded term. The Canaanites were everything that good Jews were not – after all, remember Jericho? That land originally belonged to whom? The Canaanites. The Israelites marched around the wall, blew trumpets and wall fell down – that was the promised land. The land taken from the Canaanites. They were the idol-worshippers, the people not “good enough” for our sons to marry. They are the “thems” in us vs. them. This was not the sort of individualistic culture that we live in where every person has their own identity. Someone knew everything about you based on the family you came from or the ethnic group you belonged to. A Canaanite was a Canaanite was a Canaanite. You know one, you know them all. And they aren’t our kind of people.
So the proper response when a Canaanite woman is following you and shouting is to get rid of her. You know what people will say if they know you are keeping company with a Canaanite woman? And Jesus didn’t just have his own reputation to protect. What about the disciples? What about ALL of their families? If they lose honor, that impacts their abilities to provide, impacts their standing in the community, impacts who they can buy from.
And so Jesus and his disciples do what the culture expected – the very thing that makes us cringe – they ignored the pleading woman. One commentator has said that Jesus was “caught with his compassion down.” He keeps walking. And the woman keeps following. The disciples beg Jesus to get rid of the woman – she is driving them all crazy. And Jesus responds “I was only sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I’m here for the Jews. For MY people.
But again, the woman doesn’t give up. Instead, she kneels down in front of Jesus. The text doesn’t tell us, but I imagine she looks him in the eye – that she makes sure he sees her pain, her desperation. And she offers what many believe to be the best prayer – help. “Lord, help me,” she cries.
Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Many suggest that “dogs” is a type of racial slur. Others suggest that it is a reference to the cynics, who don’t follow social customs and often referred to themselves as dogs. Still others, trying to make this statement more palatable say that this is a reference not to wild street dogs, but to a house pet. Regardless of what was actually being referenced, this was not a polite conversation – it was insulting. Referring to the woman as dog is to make her a second-class citizen. To make her an “other” who is not worthy of the good things that the children receive.
Not exactly the image of Jesus we like, is it? But the woman was quick on her toes – “even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” Give me your scraps, she cries. Call me a dog, but at least feed me the dog food. If we read this story in Mark, Jesus changes his mind because of the woman’s word – her “logos,” the same term John uses in his introduction – In the beginning was the WORD – the logos. It is an instructive, divine-inspired word. Matthew attributes the change to the woman’s faith – a faith which seems to startle Jesus. After all, who would expect a Canaanite woman to understand and trust in God? But she does, and Jesus is changed – instantly the woman’s daughter is healed. And in that action, the dog has become part of the family – one of the children. The woman is no longer a second-class animal, but a teacher – a woman honored for her deep faith. The “other” is “one of us.”
It’s hard not to wonder why this interaction had to take place. Was Jesus racist? It’s a question many raise over this text – was Jesus a product of his culture who had to be taught to love and respect those who didn’t look like him? Many like to skirt around the issue, saying that this was merely a test for the woman. But is it really any more compassionate to play with the emotions of a woman who is pleading for her daughter’s life?
The truth is, we don’t know Jesus’ motivation at the beginning of the story – but we do know that this encounter changed his mind – changed him. Luke 2 tells us that Jesus grew in strength and wisdom – he had to grow up and learn. And we see several examples in the Hebrew Bible of God’s mind being changed. In Genesis, Abraham negotiates with God about the fate of the people of Sodom. They go back and forth – if I find 40 righteous people, will you spare it? Yes. Well, what about 30? Eventually, God agrees that if there are 10 righteous people in Sodom, that it will not be destroyed. In the book of Exodus, God is ready to let God’s wrath burn up the people that God just brought out of Egypt and let Moses be the father of a new nation. But Moses talks God out of it, reminding God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and so in Exodus 32:14, we’re told that God’s mind has changed.
And isn’t that what we hope for when we pray? That God will listen and be moved to act? We believe we serve a God who cares about our needs and our fears – a God who will answer when we call. Jesus yielded when the Canaanite woman challenged him to act with compassion and justice. Are we as teachable? Are we as willing to change our minds when we realize that there is a better way?
I have been incredibly blessed this summer to serve among you and learn from you. You have helped me clarify my own calling into ministry and have allowed me to see a wonderful example of a woman in a pastoral role. You are a people of grace and of love. But my guess is that all of us have areas where we are blinded by our own culture or upbringing. Places where we are trapped in stereotypes or even in the wrappings of good intentions. How will we react when we are caught with our compassion down? Will we learn to see beyond our own prejudices?
The band U2 sings a song from the perspective of the all the Canaanite women out there, appropriately called “Crumbs From Your Table.” The chorus is haunting: “You speak of signs and wonders, but I need something other. I would believe if I was able, but I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table.”
Who is waiting on your crumbs? On your compassion? Are you willing to share the love you’ve been given with those who are begging for dog food?