Expanding the Gospel
I speak to you in the Name of the one, holy, and living God.
We’ve just heard one of the most difficult and interesting passages in our Gospel tradition: Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, or as she’s called in Mark’s Gospel, the Syrophoenician woman. And what’s troubling about this story is that Jesus doesn’t act the way we think Jesus should act! Instead, he dismisses and dehumanizes a woman who’s crying out to him for help, for healing for her daughter.
And as she calls out we’re told “he did not answer her at all.” Seeing that she’s not Jewish, that she’s a Canaanite, he just ignores her. And then we’re told that the disciples chime in and say, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And we want Jesus to not participate in this, to tell the disciples, “No, we must welcome her here, for such as these will enter the kingdom of God.”
But instead, he says to her, coldly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And he intends to move along, simply ignoring her cries. But she falls down and begs him for help. And so he insults her further, calling her a dog, calling her non-Jewish filth. And then she says, “Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And something shifts in Jesus and he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Now when you read commentaries on this passage the discomfort of the commentators is abundantly evident, and they try to make excuses for Jesus’ actions: they say, “Well he was just testing her faith!”—yeah, testing her faith through the godly tactics of dehumanization and racial slurs (!); they say, “Well maybe this is just a reminder of the ordering of salvation history”—that the salvation of the Jews precedes the salvation of the Gentiles, moving the encounter into theological abstraction. Some commentators even try to say that “Maybe he was using the term ‘dog’ affectionately”—because the Greek here is in the diminutive form, “little dogs”—but you really can’t clean this word up; it’s clear throughout scripture that “dog” was used as a slur, that dogs were seen as unclean.
And what makes us so uncomfortable about this passage is a commonly held Christian belief that says “Jesus cannot grow; Jesus cannot change or learn”; a heretical belief that says “Jesus was not really human”; that he couldn’t have a new insight because he knew everything already. In its most extreme form, this belief would say that the infant Jesus, lying in his crib, would have known and understood fully Einstein’s theory of relativity. The fear is that somehow Jesus’ growth as a human being diminishes his divinity.
But if we drop our discomfort, we can see Matthew, our Gospel author, doing just what he’s doing—using a story about Jesus to teach us a lesson about drawing the circle wider. Matthew’s audience was a community of Jewish Christians, and he has Jesus do just what they initially might expect—Jesus maintains the boundaries of purity and stays focused on the mission to his own people.
While it feels shocking to us, this wouldn’t have been shocking to the initial readers. They would have felt validated in their own beliefs. The shocking part would have been Jesus’ turn-around when he’s confronted by this woman, by her pain, her need, her humanity. And Jesus discovers in that moment, and the reader discovers with him, that compassion trumps purity, that someone’s humanity trumps our ethnic and religious boundaries. This was an amazing 1st century teaching story.
The lesson is lost on us though when we deny the possibility of growth in Jesus, when we simply say, “He was just testing her faith, just seeing if she was really strong enough to meet him.” If you ever find yourself in a religious context in which the leader “tests your faith” using the tactics of dehumanization, you’re in a cult and you need to get out as quickly as you can.
And so the real hero in this story is not Jesus, but the Canaanite woman. Austin Steelman writes of her: “Her willingness to challenge unhealthy preconceptions is courageous and insightful and alters the unfolding of the Gospel.” After this moment, we never see Jesus again diminish someone for their “Gentileness.” This woman’s courage, her willingness to push back even against the master, the teacher, alters the course of the teaching, makes the Gospel truly good news for everyone.
And so there’s a word here for us about challenging revered religious teachings or teachers when their views seem too small. This woman becomes a teaching for us that when we have to choose between an accepted religious boundary, and what our heart tells us is truly compassionate and just—we’re to err on the side of compassion. With this woman, we’re to demand compassion. We’re taught here that it’s okay to challenge our teachers, and that this is what makes them grow and become better teachers.
To state this in the extreme—because Jesus represents God for us—if you ever have to choose between God or love and justice, choose love and justice, and in the process God will grow—or at least our conceptions of God will grow.
Steelman continues in that quotation: “Jesus also teaches us an important lesson here by modeling graciousness in a broken culture. Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.”
This is a choice our country is being faced with right now as we’re asked again to take seriously the lasting effects of white privilege and racism in our communities. So often, white people have wanted to ignore what people of color tell us about their own experience. White people have said, “No, you’re exaggerating. It’s not really that bad anymore.” And it’s taken recent events like Charlottesville to make a lot of us finally listen, finally wake up to how alive and well white supremacy actually is in our culture.
Some of you will be familiar with the term “white fragility,” which has to do with white people feeling personally attacked or slighted when confronted with the realities of racism. We—I’ll say “I” because I know all of us here aren’t white—I want to be on the good side, and just can’t believe it when I’m told that I might be contributing to racist structures, even unconsciously. But Jesus here models for us how to put our views on hold and actually hear and see the pain of another—and to be changed by it. We worry that Jesus being changed in this moment somehow diminishes his divinity, but I think it actually manifests it. What could be more divine than listening and growing through a vulnerable encounter with another person?
But I think there’s yet another reason we’re made uncomfortable by this passage—we’re the Gentile community. Those of us hearing these scriptures today are by-and-large not Jews. And so we feel ourselves ignored by Jesus in this passage—which is probably a good experience for the privileged class to have. Tom Breidenthal, the Bishop of Southern Ohio, writes about this: “I suspect we would not be so bothered by Jesus’ unkind words to the Syrophoenician woman if they were not directed against the Gentile community. Those of us who are Gentile Christians have less trouble with Jesus’ invectives when they are directed against the Jewish leadership of his day.”
If this passage stirs feelings of uneasiness because we feel ourselves excluded, perhaps that’s a good thing—perhaps it’s good to feel a hint of how excluded minorities have always felt. Perhaps those of us who have privilege need to sit in those feelings for a while, and need to sit with Jesus in the discomfort of being called out for not truly listening.
This passage is an awkward one, and because of that, we need to really hear it, really see what it says about growth, listening, inclusion and exclusion. Maybe we don’t need to explain it away, but accept the divine-human Jesus it presents us with. Steelman concludes that this “story is not a blemish in the narrative of the Christ. It is the very essence of Mark’s ever-expanding gospel. Jesus grew in love and shows us how to do likewise—how to listen and reconsider and respond accordingly in love.”
And so may we all have the courage of the Canaanite woman to challenge injustice, and may we all have the divine willingness of Jesus to listen and to grow in love.