What if Jesus wasn’t really a nice guy? What if he was a first-class jerk?
Today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:21-28) is ripe for wide-ranging and contradictory interpretation. In the story, we read that Jesus was not only dismissive of the “Canaanite woman” but also rude and perhaps even cruel. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said when the woman asked him to heal her daughter. How do you make sense of that statement? How do you read that verse of scripture and still maintain your faith?
Some just ignore it completely and pretend Jesus didn’t really say it. Other prefer to believe that it wasn’t really what Jesus meant—he was just proving a point for the disciples. But what about the third option? Is Jesus really not the sweet, caring person we’ve made him out to be? Might Jesus have actually been a racist? Or might he at least have been having a bad day and shot off in impatience as all of us have at one time or another? We don’t like to think about those possibilities because they force us to admit something about Jesus (and about God) that we’re uncomfortable with—that some people are “chosen” and others are not.
This woman is described as a “Canaanite.” That’s an odd declaration for an individual in Jesus’ day. It was an anachronistic term that evoked the past conflict between Israel and the other inhabitants of the “Promised Land,” who fought each other over the years. Although I didn’t do my homework on this particular point, I’m pretty sure Matthew is the only one who uses this term to describe the woman in this story. Matthew wants us to read this story with all the conflict-laden history that existed between Jews and their neighbors. It’s into that context that the scene unfolds.
Jesus says no. He says it twice, and he says it quite harshly. Personally, I don’t think that Jesus intended to help this woman. I think he was genuinely surprised at the way things unfolded. I think he dismissed her on purpose, and the remarkable point is that the woman—least likely to be helped—ends up getting what she needs. And it all works according to God’s overarching plan.
The people of Israel are the chosen people. But chosen for what? For salvation? Well, yes…but it’s more than that. According to the promise made to Abraham, his descendants were chosen to reveal God’s salvation to the rest of the world. It starts with Israel and spreads to others. Matthew’s Jesus knows this. He lives it. He is the embodiment of the fulfillment of that promise. The bread is given to the children of God, and then the crumbs fall to the rest. Only by participating in the much-bigger story of salvation history can this Canaanite woman receive God’s saving help.
The problem is that we don’t like thinking of ourselves as dogs. We don’t like thinking that the banquet was prepared for someone else and that all we get to do is pick through the leftovers. But that’s where I think the image breaks down. Salvation isn’t “crumbs” in the way we think of them. Yes, it’s through Israel that we are saved, but salvation isn’t a cold half-eaten meatloaf. Salvation is still as rich and beautiful as we’ve ever imagined it to be. But it isn’t us-centered. We don’t get it according to our terms. Salvation is about humility. It’s a gift. We don’t get to preorder it the way we want it. The Jesus (and God) of salvation history isn’t a character in our own play. We participate in the story as God has written it, and for that I am grateful.
Israel was chosen for a purpose, and we (Gentile Christians) are the beneficiaries of that election. We don’t have the first claim on God’s love. But even a derivative claim is more than we could ever dream of.