Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:21–28

 

Things tend to get dicey whenever you venture into foreign territory. Crossing borders can be a disorienting, even frightening experience. I remember landing at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, and setting foot on African soil (or, rather, African tarmac) for the first time. The sun seemed brighter, the heat hotter, and the humidity humider down there a hundred miles or so north of the Equator. The people I saw standing in line to go through customs and walking through the baggage area did not look like me, and some of the languages I heard were unfamiliar. The planes on the runway bore the design of that freaky-looking bird from the Ugandan flag. I knew I was in a new and different place.

Of course, you don’t have to go across the ocean to have this frontier-crossing experience. Columbus is not as cosmopolitan a city as, say, New York or Toronto, but it is still possible to encounter a person who hails from a different part of the world, speaks a mother tongue other than English, or practices a different religion almost any day of the week. Starting this Wednesday, for instance, our church will once again welcome a group of women from various parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas as they practice their English-speaking skills each week at UBC’s International Neighborhood Coffee Hour.

Then again, it is also possible to have that disorienting sensation of being on unfamiliar ground when interacting with someone from your own hometown who has the same skin tone, shares the same sexual orientation and gender identity, and confesses the same Lord as you. A lot of the people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend to assert the superiority they think is inherent in their whiteness looked a lot like me, but their attitudes and values felt jarringly foreign.

The way we respond to these unfamiliar feelings says a lot about our worldview. If we think of ourselves as open and accepting, yet we tense up or put a hand on our wallets or purses whenever one of those people approaches, that may be a better indication of where we are than all our protestations to the contrary. If, on the other hand, we lean into the discomfort, act and speak with sincerity, and open ourselves to the possibility of learning something new not only about the other person but also about ourselves, we will have taken a positive step toward understanding and maturity.

The unsettling thing about our reading from the gospel of Matthew is that Jesus himself seems to balk at his encounter with difference. Not what we have come to expect from the one we hail as the Savior of the entire world.

Jesus and his disciples have just crossed a frontier, both figuratively and literally. They have left the familiar environs of Galilee and gone into the district of Tyre and Sidon. These Phoenician cities have a checkered history in relation to Israel, and it would be understandable for the disciples to be a little leery and defensive going into this new territory. After all, this was the home court of the wicked queen Jezebel, whom we encountered last week as she threatened to destroy the prophet Elijah for killing the prophets of Baal, the Canaanite fertility god whose worship she had introduced in Israel. Besides, the Phoenicians were known as great traders whose ships plied the seas and brought back the wealth of the nations, and the Hebrew people and their Jewish descendants had an instinctive distrust of anybody who spent much time out on those waters of chaos.

So we might expect the disciples, unlettered provincials that they were, to be antagonistic toward the people of this region (because we all know that anyone from a rural area or who lacks a formal education is automatically a xenophobic bigot), but Jesus? No way! He’s above that sort of thing, being the Son of God and all. Right?

Apparently not. As much as it pains me to acknowledge, and as much effort interpreters have put in over the centuries in trying to deny it or explain it away, an honest reading of the text shows Jesus to offer a cold, uncaring, even insulting reception to the woman who comes to him seeking mercy. Perhaps he is merely testing her, and in fact that is one of the principal excuses scholars and preachers have made for his behavior here, but on its face it looks very much like a deliberate snub grounded in plain old-fashioned prejudice.

This is all the more surprising and disconcerting given who the woman is and how she approaches Jesus. Matthew describes her as a “Canaanite woman,” which in itself is kind of an odd designation. It harks back rather anachronistically to the stories of Israel’s early years, when Canaan was the land of promise and the Canaanite people were the Israelites’ neighbors and enemies, whom the Israelites made a good faith effort to wipe off the face of the earth.

What is pertinent about this woman’s designation as a Canaanite is that Jesus’s own genealogy features some notable foreign women. In fact, when Matthew recounts Jesus’s line at the start of his gospel, the only women he mentions by name are these foreigners. “Judah [was] the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matt 1:3), the Canaanite wife of Judah’s son who has to disguise herself as a prostitute to trick that patriarch into doing the right thing by her. “Salmon [was] the father of Boaz by Rahab” (Matt 1:5), an actual prostitute who hid the Israelite spies when they came to scope out Jericho. “Boaz [was] the father of Obed by Ruth” (Matt 1:5), the Moabite woman who forsook her own culture and religion out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi. And finally we have Bathsheba: “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (Matt 1:6). You may recall that Uriah was a Hittite, a member of one of the Canaanite tribes.

So we might be pardoned for expecting Jesus to have more sympathy for this unnamed Canaanite woman here in chapter 15, considering that some of his great-great-great-great-grandmothers may have been her great-great-great-great-grandmothers’ cousins, or sisters, even. But if that’s what we’re expecting, we’re about to be disappointed.

Besides her identity, and her genealogical ties to Jesus, another point in this woman’s favor is the way she addresses him. Matthew says, “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’” (v. 22). It’s remarkable not only that Jesus’s reputation as a healer and exorcist has already traveled this far, but also that this foreigner has the insight to call him “Son of David.” Not even his closest compatriots have yet declared Jesus to be the Messiah, which is another way of saying “Son of David.” Peter will not make his famous confession until the next chapter. Plus, the woman comes to Jesus asking for mercy, or compassion, an attribute of his that Matthew has repeatedly emphasized. So what we have here is a woman clearly possessed of spiritual insight, and a foreigner who recognizes Jesus as a rightful king.

That’s why it’s all the more troubling to see Jesus’s response to her plea. Or rather, his non-response. Matthew says, “He did not answer her at all” (v. 23). Have you ever spoken out of the depths of your soul to someone and had that person say nothing? How does that feel? It’s kind of like a scene in a movie or TV show in which one character says, “I love you,” and the other person says, “I know,” or “That’s good,” or just stares blankly. Jesus has left this woman hanging in what seems like a very unpleasant way.

She is undeterred, apparently, because the disciples chime in at this point, and not on the side of compassion. They urge Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us” (v. 23). One commentator on this passage suggests that the disciples serve as a modified version of a Greek chorus. If we take a little liberty by adapting this scene to the genre of Greek performative drama, we can hear a back-and-forth verbal contest between the woman and the disciples. Her lone voice cries out, Kyrie eleison, “Have mercy, Lord,” and the chorus responds with a harsh Apolyson, “Get rid of her!” Kyrie eleison! Apolyson! Kyrie eleison! Apolyson! Lord, have mercy! Get rid of her! Bismillah! No! We will not let you go! And so on.

Jesus finally speaks, and it’s not clear whether he is talking to the woman or just to the disciples. He explains, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). In other words, you’re out of luck, lady. Sorry about your kid, but you fall outside the margins of my mission.

Nevertheless, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, she persists. Seeing an opening, the woman drops to her knees—a posture of humble petition and another indication that she recognizes Jesus as a king—and says, “Lord, help me” (v. 25).

Now Jesus looks at her, possibly for the first time, and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). That was a common designation ethnocentric Jews used in the first century to refer to Gentiles. Dogs. Jesus uses a softer form of the noun, one that means a lap dog and not one of the feral scavengers that roamed the outskirts of every village, looking for scraps among the garbage, but it’s still not a complimentary image.

The woman does not take offense, however. Instead, she continues to persist, this time turning Jesus’s own metaphor back on him. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). She is calling him away from a narrow understanding of the blessing he has been sent to enact into a more expansive notion of his mission. She does not claim the status of a child in the household, but merely asks to be treated with the same consideration as the family pet. Just a scrap, she says. Just a crumb. Have mercy.

Jesus marvels at this answer, saying, “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (v. 28). Through her persistence in stating her just cause and refusing to take no for an answer, this unnamed Canaanite woman receives not only the mercy she is looking for when the demon leaves her child, but also a commendation of her great faith from the one she has already identified as Messiah and Lord. Nowhere else in the gospels does Jesus say that someone has “great faith.” Contrast this with the disciples, whom he repeatedly chastises for their “little faith.” It is this foreigner, this outsider, this “dog,” and not the insiders, the “children,” who serves as a paragon of faith and discipleship.

Does the woman really teach Jesus compassion, or is it a test, or possibly an object lesson for his thick-headed disciples? If the former, then we owe this woman a tremendous debt of gratitude for prying open the doors of salvation so that foreigners and outsiders like us can walk through. If the latter, then we can still thank her for offering a model of faith and tenacity worthy of emulation. She was a nobody, an outsider, a woman on the margins. Multiple decks of cards were stacked against her. Nevertheless, she persisted. And the fruits of her persistence can be seen in the next episode, when such an explosion of blessing takes place among the outsiders that all who witness it are “amazed” and “[praise] the God of Israel” (Matt 15:31). It can also be seen in the Great Commission Jesus gives his disciples after he is raised: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19, emphasis added).

We live in a time when far too many of the “insiders” feel justified in their entitlement and their misplaced indignation to say to all the outsiders, “Apolyson! Get rid of them!” We saw it in its ugliest form last weekend in Charlottesville, where the neo-Nazi ruffians and Dockers-clad white supremacists marched through town with their tiki torches and automatic rifles, shouting their slogans and carrying their swastikas and stretching out their arms in the Nazi salute. We heard it in the angry ranting of a President who tried to draw moral equivalency between the white nationalists and those protesting their twisted version of what will make America great again.

But it’s not just in these naked displays of hate that we see the denigration and marginalization of the other. We see it in national budgets that prioritize the weapons of war over health care for the poor and tax cuts for the wealthy over tried-and-true programs to assist those struggling both here and abroad. We see it in a municipal budget that continues to pump dollars into aggressive, militarized police operations in minority neighborhoods instead of investing in restorative justice and community policing. We see it in policies that demonize, defame, and hunt down immigrants; that allow persons and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ persons in the name of religious liberty; and that turn a blind eye to the grinding violence of systemic racism and generational poverty, choosing instead to blame the victims. We see it every time a woman gets assaulted and someone excuses it by saying, “Boys will be boys.” We see it every time someone holds up a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” and deep down we have to acknowledge that in our culture, they simply don’t matter as much as white lives. We see it every day in a thousand different ways.

But—and here’s the good news—we also see determined people standing up to injustice and hate with peaceful protest. We saw it when tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of Boston yesterday to oppose a white nationalist demonstration. We saw it in the overwhelming repudiation of the President’s vile equivocations by politicians, world leaders, journalists, business executives, late night talk show hosts, and millions of ordinary Americans who couldn’t believe what they were hearing from the man who is supposed to be leading our nation.

And we saw it in the willingness of those thousands of protestors in Charlottesville to face down the belligerent hate of the KKK and their cronies, most of them without resorting to physical violence themselves. Protesters like Heather Heyer, whom her friends and family described as having “dedicated her life to standing up for those she felt were not being heard,” and who died “fighting for her beliefs and campaigning against hate” (Almasy and Narayan 2017). A co-worker said that in the days leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally and the planned counter-protest, Heyer had expressed worry that there would be gun violence. “Heather said, I want to go so badly but I don’t want to get shot. I don’t want to die” (Almasy and Narayan 2017).

Nevertheless, she persisted.

In doing so, she achieved a victory that no helmeted Nazi-wannabe, no angry white boy in a Dodge Charger, no Grand Wizard, no White House strategist, no President, no agent of the Domination System or demon from hell can ever take away. Her courage sets an example for us all, and her blood will water the soil from which perennials of justice, truth, and love will spring. Thank you, Heather. Thank you, God.


Reference:

Almasy, Steve, and Chandrika Narayan. 2017. “Heather Heyer died ‘fighting for what she believed in.’ CNN. August 15, 2017. Online. http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-heather-heyer-profile/index.html

Robert Turner