Not an easy gospel reading this week. It’s the story from Matthew’s Gospel of a Canaanite woman who wants healing for her daughter from Jesus. Jesus, though, doesn’t want to give her what she wants because she is not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He rejects her – but in the end, she persuades him. Two sermons this week as Father Jerry was preaching at our own church while Mother Anne-Marie was preaching at our neighbouring church. And those who manage to read both sermons will see that when we are both preaching we discuss the message beforehand! This one is from Mother Anne-Marie.
Last weekend a quiet university town in the United States, Charlottesville, Virginia, was engulfed in terrible violence and the outpouring of disgusting racial hatred. Emboldened white supremacists took to the streets, carrying offensive banners and uttering vile slogans. The counter demonstrators gathered in a Baptist church for a dawn prayer meeting before taking to the streets to counter the racial hatred. Many ministers and priests of the Christian church were amongst those opposing this outpouring of racial abuse. I have to admit to a sense of pride when I saw pictures of Episcopalian priests (our equivalents in the USA) amongst the counter demonstrators – clearly Christians were on the side of the good guys in all this, promoting racial harmony, integration and equality.
It therefore comes as a surprise to hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to the Canaanite woman directly “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here is Jesus demonstrating racism. His mission, he says is only for the Jews, and using the common term of abuse for the Canaanites, he refers to the woman as a dog.
It is shocking.
In the first half of our gospel reading Jesus says that what comes out of our mouth, the words we speak, come from the heart and show our true selves, and if in the heart there is evil that will come out in our speech and defile us. And then his own words appear to demonstrate that deep in his heart are racist attitudes to the Canaanites.
It is difficult for us sometimes to grasp the humanity of Jesus. He is both human and divine, but his humanity is often portrayed as perfection – that terrible line in the Christmas Carol “Away in a Manger” clearly demonstrates that idealisation of Jesus the man – “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”! Of course, he cried just like any other baby when he was hungry, had a wet nappy or was frightened by a noise. He was fully human. And His humanity extended to having the mind-set of the community from which he had sprung. The Canaanites, the people who were in the land of Israel before the Hebrews came from Egypt, had been conquered and were looked down on as the lowest of the low – “dogs” was the word for them, and Jesus uses it too! It is interesting in the context of Charlottesville to note the comment of American comedian, Tina Fey, to white supremacists this last week, “It’s not our country, we stole it from the Native Americans”. In just the same way the Israelites had stolen the land from the Canaanites.
Now the Israelites call the Canaanites dogs, and Jesus seems to be exposing, that in his heart, he has taken on his community’s attitudes of Israelite supremacy.
But the story doesn’t end with the rejection and insult. This Canaanite woman is such a remarkable person. So remarkable that she changes Jesus’ thinking and challenges his view of his mission. The mind-set he automatically has from his community and his upbringing, is challenged and turned around, because she will not take “no” for answer, and has a punch line to rock Jesus out of his complacent racism. She is an outsider on three counts – a Canaanite, a woman, and has a daughter tormented with a demon. Three reasons to make her an outsider and unclean in Jewish eyes. Jesus just blanks her when she calls out to him for mercy. His disciples go further and ask Jesus to send her away. He doesn’t do that but makes it clear his mission is only for his own people – only for them has he got mercy to show. But the woman is having none of it. I cannot imagine the courage, or perhaps the desperation she feels that she comes in front of this man who has blanked her – dealt with her as a none person – and blocks his way by kneeling right in front of him and pleading again “Lord help me”.
And then she and Jesus have this exchange of words, so important that they change Jesus’ view of his mission. Jesus says, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” and she retorts with the brilliant punch line “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table”. Words so important in Christian history that they entered our liturgy in the prayer of humble access – “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”.
To our modern ears it can seem so deeming that the woman had to accept her status, basically grovel before Jesus and use of herself the term “dog”. But try to hear the courageousness of this woman who was desperate for her daughter to get well, and was willing to override all taboos of her society and get attention from this preacher, this healer, this man Jesus.
To understand and appreciate this story, we have to get into the mind-set of the community in its time and place. And also to understand the community for whom Matthew was writing. His community was predominately Jewish but with increasing numbers of gentiles joining it. He wanted to reassure the Jewish part of the congregation that Jesus did come for them, but he also needed to widen their horizons and help them to be inclusive. It is not so different a situation to that of many churches around us. Last Sunday at St John’s I looked around at the congregation and realised that over a third of the people were black, not white British. This is a huge transformation from the solidly white congregation that was there 17 years ago when we came to live in Caterham. So similar to the changing congregation for whom Matthew was writing his gospel.
The excuse the white supremacists give for marching on Charlottesville is the policy in southern states to get rid of Confederate monuments, and the plan to pull down one of the many statues of Robert E. Lee, which stands in a Charlottesville park – Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate army in the civil war. There has been such a turn round in attitudes since the civil rights movement of the last century, that monuments to honour heroes of the past have become blatant symbols of a white supremacism and enslavement of the black population. They have no place in today’s world. So someone like Robert E. Lee, much admired as a general and a gentleman is now anathema in 21st Century America. Robert E. Lee, a devout Christian, an Episcopalian even, he read his Bible daily even in the heart of battle and was described by Franklin D Roosevelt as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentleman” now has his statues pulled down. Because this Christian gentleman had slaves, had escaped slaves captured and punished, and believed that slavery was God’s will and would end at a time God chose.
Attitudes change, both in societies and individuals. Attitudes changed even in Jesus – certainly in the Jesus Matthew presents to us.
In Matthew’s gospel from this point, although there is still a great concern for the lost of Israel, there is a change of tone. There will be a feeding of the 4000 in gentile territory, unlike the earlier feeding of the 5000 in Jewish territory. There will the parable of the great wedding banquet, where outsiders will be invited in because the chosen, the invited guests, are not worthy. And this gospel will end with the Great Commission, where the risen Jesus, commands his disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations.
If Jesus had things in his heart, which came out in cruel words, how much more must we have things in our hearts which may come out in hurtful speech and actions. What comes out of our mouths reflects what is in our hearts, and if what is in our hearts is prejudice, anger, envy, feelings of superiority – things which maybe are buried deep within us and we do not fully recognise – then what comes out of our mouths will defile us. But we know Jesus too carried the prejudices of his day within him, but was willing to be challenged and changed, so that he brought good news of love and peace and healing, not just to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to all the nations and peoples of the world. Amen.