That annoying Canaanite woman is at it again and not even Jesus can catch a break. Every three years that annoying woman comes along to disturb us. The way the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew tells his story, this annoying woman exposes Jesus for the human being that he was and shatters our illusions of Jesus the god-like super-hero. I know we could just look the other way. We could do what people, all too often, do when someone brushes off another human being with a racial slur; we could just pretend that we didn’t hear it. We could do what, according to the story, Jesus’ followers wanted Jesus to do, when they urged him to: “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us”
It is clear from the way that the story is told that Jesus was trying to ignore this annoying woman’s incessant pleas. But she will not leave him alone. As much as I’d like to ignore her and everything she represents, she just won’t give us a break. Yes, I know that according to the story this woman was worried about her child, but how dare she expose Jesus in this way? Especially now, when we are all trying to cope with a global pandemic. Surely, we have enough on our plates, without rehashing this old story! This one a hell of a pandemic we are living through. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard more than enough about racism during this pandemic to last me a lifetime. I don’t want to have to think about racism or white privilege, while I’m worrying how to stay healthy and protect my loved ones. I want to get away from all the noise about racism and I certainly don’t want to have to think about the fact that even Jesus is guilty of uttering a racial slur. If I still believed in the kind of god who functions like a puppeteer in the sky, I might suspect that this gospel reading didn’t just appear in the midst of this pandemic by chance. Even though I don’t believe in that kind of god, every once in a while, it would sure be nice to be able to blame this reading on some super guy up there. But like I said, every three years this reading comes up in the lectionary and this annoying woman forces us to see Jesus for who he was and always has been, a man.
Jesus was a man of his time; a man who was raised in an environment where women were to be seen and not heard; a man who was raised to believe that his people were superior to other people, a man who wasn’t about to be disturbed by the yammering of a woman who was when all was said and done, nothing more than a Canaanite. Jesus was, after all a rabbi, and a busy rabbi at that. According to the story, Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and walked on water? He was a rabbi who was in demand, the crowds couldn’t get enough of him, Jesus had places to go and people to see. Just who did this woman think she was?
It is clear from the way the storyteller tells this story that she was a Canaanite woman. They were after all in the district of Tyre and Sidon and that place would have been full of Canaanites. Jesus and his disciples had wandered off the beaten track, probably trying to avoid the crowds who couldn’t get enough of Jesus. Well there’s just no telling who you might run into when you wander into neighbourhoods where “those” kinds of people live. “It happened that a Canaanite woman living in that area came and cried out to Jesus, “Heir to the House of David have pity on me! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed.” Jesus gave her no word of response. The disciples came up and repeatedly said to him, “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us.”
Let me just say, some people simply don’t know when to quit! “Help me. Help me. Help me.” She persisted, and persisted, and persisted. It doesn’t matter how much you do, or how hard you work, or how much you give, there’s always somebody who wants more. You have to draw the line somewhere. If you try to help everyone, you won’t be able to help anyone. We’ve got to establish boundaries, clear boundaries.
But there’s always someone, who thinks that the rules don’t apply to them. There’s always someone willing to push you beyond the limits. But Jesus was having none of it. “Jesus gave her no word of response. The disciples came up and repeatedly said to him, “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us.” She pushes, and she pushes, and she pushes. Finally, Jesus turned on the woman, and in no uncertain terms, Jesus made his position clear: “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
That ought to put her in her place. Jesus was after all a Jewish rabbi, who did this Canaanite woman think she was? Bad enough that she is a woman, breaking all the rules of decorum. A woman speaking in public to a man like that, was simply scandalous. If that’s not bad enough, she’s a Canaanite; a Canaanite. My God, “those people” were considered to be the scum of the earth back then. “Those people” were the very people that God commanded the “Chosen People” to kick the hell out of the Promised Land. Sure, the land of Israel may have been Canaan before it was Israel, but that was a long time ago. The Israelites had long since put what few Canaanites that were left in their place and this woman should have known better than to be so uppity.
She was such a nasty woman! Those bloody Canaanites simply don’t know how to behave in public and when to stop. They just persist, and persist, and persist. I mean throwing herself like that at Jesus’ feet and pleading with him, “Help me, rabbi! Help me!” How could she demean herself like that? Jesus sure told her: “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Every single person who heard him, knew exactly what he meant. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel; Jesus was sent to the children of God. The Canaanites were nothing more than dogs and everybody knew that they were dogs. Jesus, according to New Testament scholars, who are far wiser than I, Jesus called this nasty, uppity, woman, this female dog, Jesus called her a “bitch.”
And just when you think Jesus has put this “bitch” in her place, she pushes him all the more: “True, Rabbi,” she replied, “but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” Talk about nasty! Well I never. The audacity of this woman. Using Jesus’ words against him.
New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg insisted that we should ask ourselves, “Why it is that the gospel writers told the stories they told the way they told them?” Well perhaps, if we look beyond our carefully constructed images of Jesus as some sort of whiter than white, holier than thou super-hero, we might just be able to see Jesus the man; a man who was just as much the product of his culture as any of us are; a man who wasn’t above resorting to a racial slur when he was up against it, a man who from time to time needed to be pushed beyond the boundaries he’d set for himself, a man who could have chosen to hide behind the privilege granted to him by virtue of his gender, his race, his class, and his religion.
The good news is that when confronted by the reality of his privilege, Jesus was able to see that this ever so annoying woman, with her incessant demands has a very good point. “You may think we’re nothing but dogs, you may think you are entitled to call me a bitch, but even dogs are entitled to a few crumbs.” Jesus got there in the end. Sadly, it took this nasty, uppity woman to shame him into seeing the reality of his racism to get him there, but Jesus got there in the end.
Like I said, we are living through one hell of a pandemic. I know we’d all much rather just look the other way and enjoy what’s left of our summer. And still those nasty people keep shouting at us to pay attention to their cries. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” We can’t seem to get away from the incessant demands that we take a long hard look at our own inherent racism. Most of us would rather not look at the boundaries we’ve drawn let alone the reasons we drew those boundaries in the first place. Some of us don’t believe that we’re capable, let alone guilty of racism, or sexism, or classism, and we sure don’t want anybody exposing any hidden truths about our carefully constructed reality.
This being human thing sure isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Jesus and it isn’t easy for any of us. But this being human thing is who we are and recognizing our humanity and the humanity of everyone we encounter is what this life of ours is all about. The truth is that at one time or another we have all been where Jesus was, wanting to be left alone to get on with it, never believing for a moment that we are anything but right, happy to live out of privileged lives. We’ve all been where the Disciples were, encouraging folks to just get on with it, because we’ve got places to go, people to see, and work to do, and we can’t help everyone. Some of us have even been where the Canaanite woman lives, trying to push the boundaries just a little so that we can move beyond them.
This being human is an ever-evolving process and sometimes we have to look closely at things, which we would rather not see about ourselves. Sometimes, we have to erase the boundaries which we have drawn and let some really annoying people move in. Sometimes, we have to be a bitch, so that we can push people beyond the boundaries.
When push comes to shove, this being human requires that we live in community and life in community is messy and it is annoying, but life in community can also shape us in ways which open us to new ways of being human. Our communities are being challenged to move beyond boundaries which some of us have become very comfortable within. Some days it feels like there are dogs everywhere nipping at our heels. Sometimes, we’d all like to retreat behind the boundaries of whatever privilege our communities have granted to us, but those dogs just keep on barking at us. Help us! We can’t breathe! Black Lives Matter! Help us!
If we are to follow Jesus, we too must step beyond the boundaries and open ourselves to new ways of being in the world. When confronted by the reality of his boundaries, Jesus broke all the rules and a child was healed. Do we have the faith to follow Jesus beyond our boundaries so that healing can happen, right here and right now? Let it be so, dear friends, let it be so.