“It is not right to take children’s food and throw it to dogs.” These words of Jesus to the Sidonian woman, a non-Jew, are shocking to our ears. Is this the same Jesus who will say at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to all creatures”? Is this the same Jesus who said about the pagan soldier who asked his help because his servant was dying, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel as this man’s”? Why does Jesus first ignore the pagan mother’s pleas for help for daughter and then respond with what was probably a commonplace putdown of all non-Jewish people: referring to them as “dogs” or religiously unclean.
We know that it is easy to ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like, don’t agree with, or find too challenging. Did Jesus always skip over the text from Isaiah that we heard in the first reading today because he didn’t agree with Isaiah:
Foreigners, too, who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants—all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them, too, I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Somehow we just can’t imagine Jesus ripping this ancient and beautiful promise out of his bible. So where we go with this story of Jesus and the pagan lady. All the stories of Jesus are in the Bible to teach us who God is and who we are meant to be. How can the story of the Sidonian mother and Jesus help us to know God and become more truly human? What lesson did Jesus hope to teach his disciples that day on the border of Israel and modern-day Lebanon?
Let me propose that Jesus used a common place racial putdown – “non-Jewish dogs” to wake his disciples up to what people must sound like to God when we hurl epithets and ugly racial slurs at one another. Were the disciples shocked to hear that putdown on Jesus lips? I think so. Would we be shocked to hear Jesus call someone a faggot or a black person the “n-word”? At one time these words were commonplace in American life. I heard them many times when I was growing up as a boy.
Would we want to hear Jesus say to anyone, “You’re not a Catholic. Get lost!” I think not. That is not the Jesus we know, the Jesus who let his blood be poured out for the whole world. Why then do we think it’s okay for us to call one another ugly, derogatory names? I think that when we hear this expression of racial prejudice on the lips of Jesus we are shocked. “Wait a minute, Lord. That’s something we would say, but not you.”
And how does God answer our prejudice and our attitude of smug superiority? In the gospel today he answers in a way that even the disciples, prejudiced as they are, can understand. For they have children whom they have nursed through sickness. Parents don’t care if a doctor is a Muslim or Catholic when their children are in danger of death. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. She does not care who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!
“Please, Lord. Even dogs eat the food that falls from their master’s table.” What determination! What humility! And what trust!” She trusted that if the Prophet from Nazareth is half the person she had heard about he will have a heart for a sick child. She will not let religious prejudice stand in her way. And so she gets what she needs. “Oh, woman, your faith is great!” Jesus tells her.
And the disciples? At least a few of them must have realized that they, too, are sick and in need of healing. They would have sent the woman away. But then Jesus helped them to see her faith. A faith that they should have had in the boat during the storm just a few days earlier. Through the Sidonian mother’s faith Jesus has cracked the hard ground of prejudice and religious superiority to plant the seed of the universal Church in his disciples’ hearts. A Church that will one day reach out not to just one nationality or one race but to all God’s children.
Can we listen carefully to ourselves this week? Does what we’re saying reflect the mind and heart of Jesus. Is our vocabulary permeated with his mercy and care for all people? Are there words we use that we may have used when we were growing up but don’t belong in Christian conversation because we would want them on the lips of Jesus?