I don’t know how to explain it. Jesus’ actions that day. Was he hangry? So exhausted that he just wasn’t himself? Was his recent unsatisfying encounter with the Pharisees still playing in his head, throwing him off balance? What was it? We will never know.
What we do know is that our lesson tonight highlights a time when Jesus almost messed up.
For just a moment, Jesus was at risk of doing exactly what he had tried to tell the Pharisees to stop doing—going strictly by the rules.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is one of the most challenging scenes in the gospels. It confronts us with Jesus’ humanity, forcing us ask ourselves “can Jesus still be Jesus, can be still be our Savior, if he teeters on the brink of a mistake?”
Not everyone is ready for this sort of inquiry. A couple years ago I wrote about this passage for the religion page of Montrose Daily Press and promptly received a letter from a reader who was outraged that I would suggest that the Canaanite woman schooled Jesus. That The Teacher needed teaching. Not her Jesus. Not her perfectly perfect Jesus.
Ours is a concerning text and also incredibly timely. I’ll say more about the timely part in a moment.
Until more recently, scholars and preachers have gone to great lengths to explain away Jesus’ initially callous response to the pleading Canaanite mother.
It’s not what it seems, these folks have argued. With his silence, Jesus is only testing the disciples, you see. He is waiting for them to speak up on the woman’s behalf. When they don’t and then when Jesus goes on to liken the woman to a dog, our detractors remind us that the word Jesus uses was really more like “puppy.” And he is winking when he says it, engaging in a bit of pretend sparring because both he and the woman already know he is going to heal her daughter.
Really? I want to ask these people. Is your Jesus so fragile that he needs you to defend him with these wild explanations–and at the expense of an incredibly vulnerable outsider?
Do Jesus and the prophets before him not teach us to stand with and advocate for those among us who are less powerful? The woman and her daughter have no allies in this story. Except for those of us who, as we listen, choose to be in solidarity with them.
At length I could unpack these scholarly arguments that only serve to protect Jesus, and in a dozen other sermons I have, but here’s the bottom line:
if Jesus was sent to show us how to be as fully human as he was, then we need to be helped to see that the worst thing in the world isn’t being wrong. It’s not an affront to God to be wrong. What is an affront is being unwilling to admit we are wrong and then course correct.
Jesus teeters in his exchange with the Canaanite woman but he does not fall. If he had been as stubborn and rigid as the Pharisees he’d just confronted, if he had been as invested as they were in being right, then Jesus would have left this very-much-the-outsider woman unhelped. “I was sent for my people,” Jesus could’ve said sternly while stepping around the woman and motioning for his disciples to join him on the path to the next town.
He would have been right; he was sent for the Jews. But he would have only been half right and not have realized it.
Jesus didn’t move on, though. He let the conversation continue. And when the Canaanite woman pushed back, when she insisted that even dogs, which Jesus had indirectly called her, even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the children of Israel’s table, something profound broke free in Jesus.
In a flash Jesus saw, rightly, that his ministry was not restricted to his people alone but in truth included everyone. Jews and Gentiles alike.
Just before the Canaanite woman found him on her home turf, Jesus had said of the Pharisees that they were blind. That they would not, could not see.
Had Jesus not been willing, had he not had the good sense to let this pagan mother’s urgent pleas and her persistence sink all the way into his heart, he would have had to eventually point the finger of accusation at himself, too.
Instead, Jesus had the good sense, the God sense, to pivot. He let himself be educated by the least likely teacher possible. He let his mind be changed.
Or as the apostle Paul would later encourage believers in Rome, Jesus allowed himself to be transformed by the renewing, the reorienting of his mind.
Our gospel story is ancient and also as timely as can be. It tells us everything we need to know about how to proceed as followers of Jesus living here and now in this great, yet flawed nation.
After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we who are white can no longer avoid reckoning with the reality that we have lived very different lives than our siblings who are Black.
We who are white stand right where Jesus stood when the Canaanite woman rushed up to him and pleaded with him. Like Jesus, we who are white have been confronted with the very real, very human pain of “the other” that is now begging for our response.
And as Jesus has shown us, silence may be our first response but we cannot stay there. We must not dare to stay there.
Neither must we grant ourselves permission to disparage or distance ourselves by using less than loving language. To call a Gentile woman a dog is really no different than using the N-word today.
Not everyone is ready to take a step in the right direction. We see this when someone responds to the statement “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” Yes, all lives do matter but all lives do not matter until Black lives matter as much as everyone else’s.
Let us remember that Jesus himself was not prepared to be confronted in Tyre and Sidon. He imagined he would be anonymous there. That he and his disciples would go unnoticed.
And so he couldn’t hear this very other mother at first.
The same could be said for many of us who are white. We do what Jesus did. We go silent. We retreat into habituated thinking. We have a hard time really understanding what is being asked of us.
I saw this happen in 2012 when some of us met to study Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. The Council of Colorado Churches had suggested that communities of faith throughout the state study the book together, a request that was, looking back now, ahead of its time.
Some of us gathered with folks from St. Paul’s. And as the author of our book began to lay out how the abolishment of slavery did not end racism and racial prejudice but only forced it to find new, legal ways to express itself, our group’s response was much like Jesus’ first response tonight. Silence. We didn’t know what to say.
And then very quickly, we resisted and rejected Alexander’s claims. Just like Jesus was initially inclined to do with the Canaanite woman.
No one likened Alexander to a dog but some tried to argue that she was a radical Black with an axe to grind. That she couldn’t be trusted because she was filled with dislike and disrespect for white people.
I reminded the group that the book recommendation was made by a credible, well respected organization and that we would be wise to suspend our judgments so that we might be open to the points our author was trying to make.
This was harder than it sounds. And yet, when our study was done, we all agreed that Alexander was not what we had imagined in the beginning. She was not a radical Black woman bent on bashing white people and blaming us for the pain and suffering of her people.
In the end, we pivoted, acknowledging the hard truths our author was endeavoring to make plain. Which is to say, we managed to do what Jesus did with the Canaanite mother; we choose to believe something bigger, something more liberative than we started out with.
Last night I participated in a webinar that featured Miss Ruby Sales, a civil rights activist whose deep, wide Christian faith has supported decades of racial justice work.
Gentle and eloquent, Miss Ruby spoke repeatedly about the ways in which the culture of whiteness oppresses not only those who were born Black but those of us whose roots are European.
The culture of whiteness oppresses us all, Miss Ruby tried to explain. And in these remarks, I heard a kind of love I have not heard before. “You are much more than you know,” Miss Ruby said in her own way. “You are not the color of your skin just as we who are Black cannot be reduced the color of our skin.”
It was impossible not to hear in Miss Ruby’s message last night the voice of the Canaanite woman who knew, as she knelt at Jesus’ feet, that even he was far more than he thought himself to be.
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” Dr. King observed. “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
This was true the day the Canaanite mother’s love for her daughter compelled her to come to Jesus, clearly the Messiah, but also officially her enemy.
This woman’s love for Jesus was no less powerful than her love for her child, which is why she persisted. For she knew that her daughter’s healing was bound up in Jesus’ liberation from the confines of his limited understanding.
We who are white, in our guilt and shame and overwhelm, largely cannot imagine how the demands these times place on us will serve to free us too. Nor can we fathom the love and forgiveness within the Black community that would genuinely desire our liberation along with theirs.
May we, like Jesus, be open. Open to what the Spirit is saying and doing through the bold actions of those with whom we have long been at odds. May we, like Jesus, be transformed by the renewing, reorienting of our hearts and minds.
Let us pray together:
Grant us, O God, the capacity and will to do the hard work that lies before us. Grant us, O God, the capacity and will to listen closely to what those who are different are asking of us, as well as telling us.
Remove whatever barriers exist in each of us and all of us, that we, like Jesus, might come to see with fresh eyes, liberated eyes, those who stand before us, pleading. Free us to see others not as others but as kin, people you love as deeply and dearly as you do each of us.