Reading: Matthew 15:21-28
In our Sunday School class we discussed Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is a rather difficult passage for us, because when the woman approaches Jesus his disciples urge him to send her away and Jesus brushes her off saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel… it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
One reason this is difficult is that it seems inconsistent with the other depictions of Jesus in scripture. Another reason is that I’ve seen it used as justification for bad behaviour. Once my wife was in a situation where she felt it necessary to point out that people of her ancestry were human beings, also created in God’s image — and not inhuman animals. In response a (white) pastor pointed out that because this passage existed, the language being used was okay. Somehow, I doubt this was the intended message.
There are a couple things that I notice when I read this passage: I notice the setting, I notice who Jesus was responding to, and I notice the conclusion of the message.
This takes place in the “region of Tyre and Sidon”. These are Phoenician cities outside of Judea. The important thing about the setting is that Jesus and the Disciples were the foreigners and the woman who approached Jesus was the local. When she made her request to Jesus, Jesus did not answer the request, but let the disciples suggest a course of action: “Send her away” Jesus responded by telling her what the disciples wanted him to say: “not my job”. When she persisted, he said it is not right to give the children’s food to dogs.
The first thing that I find remarkable is that it is the woman who gives the lesson. Generally Jesus is the one that speaks wisdom, and people seek Jesus for his wisdom. In this case, Jesus was doing what the disciples asked: “send her away”, and the woman got in the major part of the saying: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
The woman was able to express that her need was something to answer, and that the excuse Jesus gave was irrelevant. Even if this woman were of lower value than those Jesus reached out to, she still had enough value to make a request — and Jesus praised her for her faith.
The Sunday school lesson suggested that this may have been a lesson for the disciples — and if anything supports that this was a lesson it was where they were at the time. When Jesus claims that his mission is limited to the people of Israel, it is clear that he’s in the wrong place for that claim to have any meaning. If the Canaanites were just dogs to him, He would never have entered the region; Jesus was saying one thing and doing another.
Perhaps this is why it is important that the Canaanite woman was able to give the lesson; it shows that not only her life and her daughter’s life matters, but her voice matters. This woman who the disciples wanted Jesus to send away was somebody who was worth hearing.
I’ve been thinking about this lesson in context of the world that I live in. Congressman John Lewis died last Friday — and he is an example of a person who became the teacher of those who would silence him. I will always remember John Lewis as the young man who registered black men to vote in a place that sought to limit the 15th amendment as much as possible, whether by legal or illegal means. Lewis helped people navigate the obstacles set up against them so they could register to vote. Lewis’s work for his home state of Georgia to honour the rights of their black residents continued, even after state troopers beat him with nightsticks fracturing his skull.
This was not the end of his story though, Lewis lived to give us all a lesson. He was beaten for his cause on March 7, 1965; in August the voting rights act would pass. Lewis would continue to work for the cause of voting rights until he had a voice in the government — first as a government appointee, later as an elected official moving up from the city government to eventually becoming a congressman. Lewis was awarded the presidential medal of freedom to recognize his life of service.
A room filled with white men ‘gave’ black men the right to vote in 1870 — and by 1875 efforts were already underway to make sure that a black man managing to vote would be a rarity. Until men like Lewis managed to speak loudly enough that they were heard, nothing changed. While the world we live in is far from perfect, no one could imagine the change that Lewis and other like him were able to make in this world.
If Jesus would have given the lesson, would we have learned anything? If nobody recognized that the woman had something worth hearing, nothing would change for her because nobody would listen. The best words from those in power still can silence the voices of those they claim to support. If I learn anything from this passage, it is to listen to those that other might call a dog.