Canaanite Lives Matter

Proper 15A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus ignored her and insulted her, calling her a ‘little dog’. The disciples asked Jesus to send her away. Her constant shouting annoyed them. Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite. The label is strange, because, in Jesus’ time, there were no “Canaanites.” Canaanites were ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on any map. It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam!

Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only the “other,” not only the wrong gender, but that she is part of an enemy people. (Barbara Lundbland). A thousand years before Jesus the armies of King David celebrated the slaughter of Canaanites as if they were nothing more than the Orcs we see today in Lord of the Rings movies. There are no people like the Canaanites today—are there?

Love your enemies, Jesus said in Matthew 5:44. But here, in Matthew 15 it’s not so easy, not even for Jesus. This story is difficult for many Christians to hear and seems out of character for Jesus. Maybe we grew up with the idea of a “Perfect Jesus” who is technically human, but his incarnation falls several steps short of actual human-ness. He never messes up, never doubts, never backtracked, and always knows what he is doing. The problem with “Perfect Jesus,” of course, is that he doesn’t exist. The Jesus who appears in the Gospels is not half-incarnate. He is as fully human as he is fully God. Which is to say, he struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes.” (Debi Thomas, “Is It Good News Yet?”, Journey with Jesus, 8/09/20)

In John 4: 1-42, Jesus will meet a foreign woman beside a well in Samaria. Then, he will be graceful. He will be focused. He will break down the walls of hatred, fear and prejudice and invite her to be a servant of the gospel. He will give her ‘living water’ meant for all the children of God, of every race and nation. But here, in Matthew 15, Jesus’ encounters a woman of similar background and rather than receive her, Jesus insults her.

Perhaps Matthew means for us to connect this “Canaanite woman” with the other Canaanite women, Tamar and Rahab listed in Jesus’ genealogy. They were both outsiders who proved to be women of great faith. Like them, this Canaanite woman absorbs Jesus’ insults and turns the other cheek in a creative, nonviolent response to injustice (just as Jesus advised us to do in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39).

Let’s look at where Jesus and the disciples are. They have journeyed 70 miles north and west of where we saw them last week on the Sea of Galilee. They are approximately 50 miles north of the border of Israel, near the cities of Tyre and Sidon in what is now, modern Lebanon. Is Jesus so focused on finding privacy to prepare the disciples for the cross that he is rude to the woman because, very simply, she was not on the agenda? I know I have fallen prey to this time-trap many times.

Yet, far from Israel, news of his ministry had spread. The woman, a Canaanite, and a mother, followed Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,” (Matthew 15:22). Sometimes, this story is referred to as an ‘acted out parable.’ Jesus may not have brought his ‘A’ game, but the end of the story is pure gospel. It challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that divide people into insiders and outsiders –divisions that make us feel safe with some people, and afraid of others. This story invites us to confront our own unspoken and subconscious biases as Jesus does and be ready to be changed by God’s grace.

In this story, it is the woman who provides the grace and Jesus who provides the hostility. Indeed, this unnamed Canaanite woman is the only person in all four gospels to enter a verbal sparring match with Jesus and prevail. Some may disagree, but I am grateful that Matthew didn’t clean up this story. Matthew dares to give us a very human pre-resurrection Jesus and he paints a compelling picture of this woman. Her persistence, perceptiveness, and humility garner the admiration and blessing of Jesus.

“…The Jesus we encounter in this moment is fully human — a product of his time and place, shaped as we all are by the conscious and unconscious biases, prejudices, and entitlements of his culture. Moreover, he is God incarnate, a holy Son still working out the scope and meaning of the divine vocation his Father has given him. He knows he’s meant to share the Good News. But he has not yet learned to ask if the Good News is really and truly Good News for everyone…Even Jesus has to learn how radically good the Good News is. (Thomas)

So, the Canaanite woman schools him. Turning his slur right back at the man who insults her, she replies, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ Her brilliant response cuts to the very heart of Jesus’s boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship. After all, he’s the Messiah who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. He’s the rabbi who breaks bread with sinners. His disciples are the ones who earn the Pharisees’ contempt for eating with unwashed hands. The table is precisely where Jesus shows the world who God is.” (Thomas)

Jesus finally said to her, “Woman, great is your faith.” There are only two people in the entire bible singled out by Jesus for public praise of their faith. One is this Canaanite woman. The other is also a non-believer and outsider: the Roman Centurion at Capernaum (Matthew 8:10). Her “great faith”, coming so closely after Jesus’ pronouncement about Peter’s “little faith,” couldn’t be in greater contrast.

Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the commonwealth of God. Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the voice and in the face of the Canaanite woman. She becomes visible rather than invisible. Jesus looks and listens, and she becomes fully human, a mother, a child of God, because—yes—Jesus realizes, Canaanite lives matter.

This is precisely what the gospel does for us at the Lord’s Table.“…The table is precisely where the outsider, the Gentile, the outcast, the “Other,” calls Jesus out. As if to say, “Lord, where’s my Good News? Where’s my place at the table? When will your goodness be good enough for me and for my daughter?” (Thomas). Is there any way the table we offer here at Immanuel excludes others? Then it’s not the Lord’s Table. If grace isn’t for everyone it’s not grace.

Love your enemies, Jesus says. You might even learn a thing or two from them. This is the way life in Christ works. Through faith each of us becomes a living part of one another. Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? (Brian McClaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 49). Each of us has something precious to give, but even more to receive. We are part of a great family in God that spans the gap between people of every nation—that spans the chasm between friends and enemies. It’s hard to keep an open mind toward strangers about whom we’re afraid. But Jesus has shown us the way. If Jesus could be changed, can we?