There is very little that prepares us for this Gospel story. Not in Matthew’s Gospel leading up to it, not in any of the other Gospel accounts. We have been reveling in a Jesus who includes, who heals, who forgives and who feeds. Sure, Jesus can be enigmatic at times, sending Disciples off in a boat, challenging them to feed the crowds, and a bit scary walking on the water.
But nothing prepares us for a Jesus who turns out to be a racist.
Yes, we can use that term here, as powerful and as objectionable as it may feel. Jesus is a racist in this story. He takes one look at this woman who comes looking for help, and the first thing we are told about her is her ethnic derivation.
She is a Canaanite.
That moniker in the history of Israel carries with it a lot of baggage, just as much as any ethnic slur we might have today for a particular group of people. Canaanites were the original inhabitants of this land. They were the Ba’al worshipers that Israel attempted to drive out, subjugate, or get rid of, but who always managed to appear again.
The Canaanite woman begs Jesus for help, but instead of compassion and understanding and readiness to help, what she is met with is rejection. Jesus seems to go out of the way to insult her.
He does not even inquire of the child, or do what we would normally anticipate him doing, say “take me to her.”
No, instead He calls this woman a dog. A demeaning slur on top of the other slur.
He tells her that it just wouldn’t be right for him to help her since he was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Let me make that clear – Jesus is saying here that he was sent only to his own kind – his own kin and country.
What kind of a picture of Jesus is this? This is a racist Jesus. There is no avoiding that, or talking our way around it.
How could Jesus have turned his back on someone in need?
I believe Matthew and the other gospel writers preserve this story to give us a glimpse into just how fully human Jesus was.
We already know that he is susceptible to temptation. He spends the 40 days in the wilderness, and comes out of that experience on top. But temptation isn’t usually a “once and done” experience. It comes at us again. The “opportune time” mentioned in Luke’s Gospel will arise again.
Remember that the whole point of the incarnation was born was that God became as one of us, a human being. God did that so that God would come to know what it is like for us to live in this world.
And, here is the ugly truth of being human and living in this world. If you live in this world, you are always tempted to see division and difference. You are tempted to think tribally, me—my own—not them—their kind.
If you live in this world, you are always tempted to put limits on what it is that you can do, and what it is that can be accomplished, and you are attuned to the differences between people.
If you live in this world, (and truly understand what it is to be human,) you will discover how deep the lines of prejudice, race, and privilege can be, and how susceptible you are to their influence.
We live in a world that is in many ways always “measured.”
We recognize that much of our time as human beings is spent either “measuring up,” or making judgments about who “doesn’t measure up,” or trying to figure out just “where to draw the line.”
Isn’t that ever the temptation before us?
In the wake of Charlottesville, we’re all trying to figure out where to draw lines, aren’t we?
When do you denounce actions, and when do you accept them or encourage them?
Were there “good people” in that crowd of torch bearing protesters? Or does marching with a crowd shouting “Blood and Soil” pretty much make you of one cloth?
Were there “violent people on both sides?” Or was this the kind of moment where opposing the manifestation of evil warranted meeting such force with opposing force?
You can look out over the events and conversations of this past week and see that we’ve all spent a great deal of energy in our conversations and in social media trying to figure out just where to “draw lines.”
That is the human tendency. One quickly discovers that there is no clear agreement of where any line ought to be, but still we are drawn to consider it.
So then, when we hear Jesus voice the hard line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” — that at first sounds like a pretty good hard line to us.
We might even find a sense of comfort in that. “See, Jesus isn’t afraid to draw it, call it like he sees it, you have to draw the line somewhere.”
And, indeed, part of us can relate to this moment in Jesus’ life.
Jesus had come up to Tyre and Sidon to get away from the crowds pressing him in Galilee. This is supposed to be a “mini-vacation” of sorts. But now this woman shows up begging him for help like a vagrant on the street corner asking for change. It’s just too much! You have to draw the line somewhere!
And so, Jesus does, and as soon as he does, — as soon as we hear the line coming out of his mouth….we instinctively know that there is something wrong about it.
That’s what bothers us about this story.
How could Jesus, of all people say no?
Well, as it turns out, saying “no” and drawing lines comes with the territory of living in this world and being human!
It comes with the kind of fear that is born of scarcity, that there might not be enough to go around, not enough for me, or that viewpoint that “you have to draw the line somewhere.”
Here Jesus is tempted in a not-so-subtle way, more powerfully even than he was in the wilderness, to be fully human. Is God really only interested in the lost sheep close to home? In Jesus’ own kin and countrymen?
Is there really a finite measure of God’s power to heal, forgive, love, and accept? Only enough for the “Lost sheep of the house of Israel”… and after we attend to them, we’ll see?
There is another reason why this story ought to bother us. Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel?
In Jesus’ day that distinction was clear. They were the people who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were the Jews, the people living in Palestine or in diaspora waiting and watching for Messiah.
Take a look here people, a good look at this Canaanite woman, this “Gentile” because she is arguing on your behalf.
None of us gathered here most likely have any Jewish background.
None of us here have been about the task of keeping the Torah, keeping the Sabbath and the commandments or observing the laws.
Most of us wouldn’t know a bar-mitzvah from a bar of soap.
So then, when Jesus says he was not sent for her,- “I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – he is saying that he was not sent for us either… not in this moment, not in his own self-understanding of his mission at this moment in time.
That puts you and me out in the cold.
What Jesus would decide to do with this woman’s request, is what Jesus would have decided to do with all of our requests, as we come to him as Gentiles, foreigners, and outsiders.
So how would you have reacted to Jesus? Would you have been insulted by his remarks? Outraged? Argued with him? What would you have done?
The woman’s answer is most intriguing.
She agrees with Jesus.
Yes Jesus, perhaps I do have no right to ask this of you. Maybe you did not come specifically for my benefit. Yet, am I not able to receive some scraps, some crumbs that fall unintentionally, or purposely, from the master’s Table?
The scraps of God’s bountiful grace are enough, more than enough to help me.
That is an incredible statement of faith!
This woman’s vision of God is far greater than Jesus’ own vision of God or of himself at this moment, and It takes him back a bit.
The hazard of being human is that temptation to begin to think in limited ways, (as humans will) or to think as the world tempts us think, to be about drawing lines.
The scraps are more than enough to save her little girl.
That is what is reckoned as faith to this woman. She sees the truth. God is big enough to provide for everyone, and everyone is of God’s concern. The least bits that God lets fall around are more than enough to bring healing and life and power to her and to her people.
In that moment, Jesus is taught by her.
Can we dare to believe that?
Can we dare to believe that the power of human pride and arrogance is so overwhelming that even Jesus is not immune from its most powerful temptations?
The whole world is looking for Messiah. The whole world is looking to Jesus.
The lost sheep becomes all of us, — everyone caught in the web of sin in this world that ever tempts us to draw lines, and draw distinctions, and succumb to “this far and no more.”
All of us tempted to look at this world tribally, as “my people” as opposed to “your people.”
All of us are infected with a degree of racism simply because of our very humanity.
And so, in this moment, when confronted with this woman’s need, her faith and her persistence, Jesus is taught, or reminded, of God’s greatness. He repents of the worldly viewpoint that even he is susceptible to at times, and grants what the woman requests.
“Let it be done for you as you wish.”
This is the good news of this Gospel.
This woman speaks for you and for me to Jesus.
This woman reminds Jesus of how big God’s table of grace truly is, something even Jesus needed to be reminded of, it appears.
And, if even Jesus needed a reminder of that, then we do too.
This is the good news of this Gospel. Racism is something that even Jesus was tempted by, and something that he had to repent of, and if Jesus can both experience it and repent of it, so can we.
Jesus, it appears, could be taught when confronted. The question remains, “Can we?”