I love waking up on Monday morning, turning to the lessons for the coming Sunday, and discovering that I’m going to have a challenge on my hands all week. It makes the journey to Sunday a fun, bumpy ride. Although I haven’t made up my mind about the optional omission, this Sunday, we will read Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28—the story of the Canaanite dog-woman unworthy of gathering up the crumbs under Jesus’ table. I love it!
Even if you remember the story, take a second and read it and let the vituperative words sink in:
Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt. 15:21-28)
Matthew gives the reader as much tension and 21st-century angst as possible. The Gentile woman begs Jesus for help, calling him “Lord” and “Son of David.” She uses very Jewish language when addressing this rabbi, and what does he do? To use the King James Version, which actually pulls in the literal Greek, “He answered her not a word!” Persistent, she keeps crying out to the point where the disciples are annoyed, and they come to Jesus asking him to at least send her away. But Jesus makes his point even more harshly, saying he was only sent to help “the lost sheep of Israel.” A third time, Jesus encounters the woman’s plight as she throws herself at his feet, begging for help. And Jesus dismisses her, calling her and her demon-possessed child dogs.
What do you do when the Jesus you love brings out the racial slur? What do you do when your Lord and savior refuses to help someone because of her race?
You can chuckle quietly because he’s just telling a joke he heard at the country club. You can dismiss it as the kind of thing a man of his generation says without knowing better. You can pretend that it doesn’t matter because he’s just proving a point. You can soften the sting by claiming that Jesus was exhausted and overworked. But, however you deal with it, you’ve got to find a way to accept the fact that the “sweet little Jesus boy” you love and adore looked at a Gentile woman and called her a dog, unworthy of his attention or assistance.
This week, I’m trying to find a way to take the shock of this text seriously. I don’t want to explain it away with some homiletical hocus-pocus. I don’t want to pretend that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. But why? Why is it important that Jesus was so utterly harsh and cruel and prejudiced against this woman? Why did his mission and ministry focus on the Jews to the exclusion of Gentiles like her? How do we, the Gentile church, make sense of these provocative lines? What am I, a southern American white male, supposed to learn from this biblical racist tale?