“It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.” This is what my preaching professor at Gettysburg said when we encountered this text in her preaching class. “It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.” This text is uncomfortable for us because it challenges all of our ideas about Jesus always loving everyone and welcoming everyone to be with him. It’s hard to like Jesus when he calls the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the good religious folks in Jewish society at this time, blind guides who are leading the blind. And it’s hard to like Jesus when he throws his hands up in the air and asks Peter if he’s stupid. It’s hard to like Jesus when he names the sins that come out of our hearts. And, finally, it’s hard to like Jesus when he calls someone a dog. Today’s Gospel is part of our Scriptures, and we must deal with it. But how? Was Jesus just having a bad day? Or is there, perhaps, something more going on here? Because this text is so difficult for us to understand, there are several different ways that interpreters have looked at it. Each way of interpretation raises questions even as it answers some. Today, this is the way that I choose: Jesus is dealing with human-made boundaries in this chapter, and he is saying, “Every time you set a boundary, I will move it.”
So, let’s back up a minute and try to understand a little bit of Jewish culture at this time so that we can have a better perspective on what’s going on here. Matthew 15 starts with the Pharisees and the scribes coming to Jesus and asking, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” Remember that hand washing here did not have to do with hygiene; instead, it was a ritual cleansing, so please keep washing your hands before you eat! Jesus then fires back with a question of his own about why the Pharisees break the commandment to honor your father and mother so that they can follow a human-made tradition, and he calls them hypocrites. He then continues with what is our text today, talking about what makes a person clean or unclean. Most of us today, I think, can understand the idea that what you eat is not as important as how you behave. And, since we confess our sins every week, and since most of us have an understanding that we do wrong things all the time, we can acknowledge that what Jesus says is right, even if it makes us squirm to hear Jesus name our sins so specifically. But it is what comes next, in the encounter with the Canaanite woman, that makes us really befuddled. Let’s just get it right out on the table: Jesus calls this woman a dog. And even though we try to soften it—yes, the Greek word for “dog” here can mean “little dog,” like a lapdog or a puppy—it’s still pretty bad. Think of this: even though our culture loves and spoils our dogs today, so that they are members of our family, we still have a very insulting word that we often call people which means a female dog. I ask your forgiveness and indulgence here, but Jesus has just called this woman a bitch. There is no getting around this insult, and there is no getting around the fact that it has come out of Jesus’ mouth.
So, let’s remember this story in light of what has just happened. Jesus is talking about what makes a person clean or unclean, and it is not what you eat, but how you behave. At this moment in my faith journey, I am going along with those interpreters who suggest that Jesus is using this encounter with the Canaanite woman as a concrete example of what he has just taught. You know how you can hear the theory, but sometimes you don’t really understand until you see the theory put into practice? That’s what’s going on here. The Jewish culture was a very tight-knit culture, and if you were not Jewish, you were called a Gentile. While Jewish people might have had to deal with Gentiles in their daily work, Gentiles did not get invited home for dinner. And the Jewish people at that moment in history looked down their noses very condescendingly at Gentiles, and yes, they called Gentiles “dogs”— because Gentiles were not enlightened with God’s Torah, ate unclean foods such as pork and bacon, and generally were not God’s chosen people. So Jesus, when first he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and then when he calls the woman a dog, is giving voice to the prejudices of the disciples and of his people. And he is asking the disciples, “In the face of this woman’s desperate need for help, are you still going to believe that all Gentiles are dogs who are not worthy of having a relationship with me?”
But what about the Canaanite woman’s response to Jesus’ insult? If someone were to call us a dog not worthy of their attention, would we respond by agreeing with the person that we are dogs? Or would we just walk off with the seeds of hatred and resentment growing in our hearts? Here the woman chooses to agree with Jesus that she is a dog and to say that she will take whatever crumbs of help he gives her. She is saying that she believes Jesus is not only the Son of David, sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but also that he has a mission to the entire world. And indeed, she has greater faith in Jesus than many of his own people have demonstrated. This vivid demonstration of what Jesus has been teaching about clean vs. unclean has worked better than any sermon Jesus could have delivered on the matter. His mission is indeed not only for the Jewish people, but for Gentiles as well.
In those days, there was a boundary between the Jewish people and those who were named as Gentiles. What are the boundaries between people today? Here’s one example: we like to tell ourselves that we live in a post-racial society. We fought the battle over civil rights in the 1960s, we say, and the young people today no longer have the prejudices the older folks have. But then, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, a white policeman shoots an unarmed black teenager, and riots break out. I’ve read many things online this week about how black people, especially young black men, are unfairly targeted by police and receive harsher prison sentences than white people do for the same offenses. What is this boundary that we still have based on the color of a person’s skin? Do we look at a person of a different race than we are and automatically assume that he or she is guilty simply because of who they are? Even when we think we are not prejudiced, if we examine ourselves deep down we will find that we do have deep seated prejudices against people who are different than we are. These prejudices are not some kind of natural instinct; they are learned behaviors. And it doesn’t matter if you learned them based on what you’ve heard family or friends say, or because you had a bad experience with one person who was different than you and somehow translated that into all members of that particular group of people. The behavior is still learned, and it needs to be unlearned.
This is what Jesus did with the Canaanite woman in a rather dramatic fashion. He exposed the prejudices of the disciples for what they were and helped them unlearn it when the woman responded to the test with a greater persistence and faith than many of the disciples had. And Jesus continues to break those boundaries down even today, sometimes in a dramatic fashion and sometimes in ways that are not so dramatic. When I was in North Carolina last week, there were other groups at the conference center besides the Biblical Storytellers group. And at the last meal of the conference, I was joined at the table by three young ladies who were part of one of the different groups there and they were African American. I felt like I didn’t have much in common with them and I was uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to talk about, so I listened to their conversation quietly while I ate my food. And it turns out that they had pretty much the same concerns that I had—the conversation revolved around what kinds of food each of them liked and didn’t like. And then when the gentleman at the next table burst out in loud laughter, the four of us women started laughing with him, even though we had no idea what he was laughing about. It turns out that I had more in common with these three young women than I had originally thought. And Jesus uses these small acts of listening to one another to show us what we have in common. And collectively, those small acts can lead to us working together to seek God’s justice for all people, regardless of those differences which may divide us.
Breaking down boundaries can be frightening as we discover that what we once thought was taboo really isn’t, and that we can come together in our common humanity. It’s something like this scene from the movie, “Keeping the Faith”.
Not everyone will be able to embrace the breaking of boundaries, and in some cases it will be okay to take things slow. It is important to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. But there are other times when the boundaries that we put up are those that are human-made and that need to be smashed in a dramatic fashion. In those cases, we can pray that Jesus will forgive us when we move too slowly and that he will stay with us as we work through our discomfort, tear down the walls that divide us, and participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. After all, the meaning of the song we just heard is “There is none like our God,” and that is something that all of us, despite our differences, can sing together. Amen.