Sometimes the lectionary hands you a gift. This is one of those days. About two years ago, we were in Year B in the 3-year lectionary cycle, when we mostly read the Gospel According to Mark. On September 22, I preached on Mark’s version of the story that we encounter today in Matthew. Occasions like this give you a chance to revisit your thoughts and spend more time contemplating the scripture and what it means. I hope that I have a couple of new insights since then.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This area is northwest of Galilee, near along the coast. A woman runs up to Jesus and the disciples and shouts at them, asking for help. The scripture says her daughter is tormented by a demon. I won’t go into whether it’s really a demon or if there is some psychological problem, but in the long run it really doesn’t matter. The daughter needs help, and the mother is desperate.
Matthew describes the woman as a “Canaanite.” Mark calls her a “Syro-Phoenician.” The main point is that she isn’t a Jew. Maybe she was one of those Gentiles known as “God-fearers,” who actively worshiped the God of the Jews but did not take the steps to convert fully to Judaism.
The disciples want to get rid of her, and Jesus seems to go along with them. He tells her, basically, that she’s a dog and he came strictly for the Jews. I’ve seen commentators who say the Greek word that’s translated “dog” here really means “puppy,” This may be true – my Greek isn’t that good. But I’m not sure it makes a difference. I kind of feel that they’re assuming that people at the time felt the same way about puppies that we do, inserting their own cultural bias into the reading. I think it was still an insult. Maybe Jesus was tired and hungry. Maybe his blood sugar was low. He was human, after all. Tyre and Sidon would have been out of his normal territory, so maybe he was hoping for some rest and relaxation. Mark, in fact, says this was the situation. On the other hand, maybe Jesus was trying to shock the woman to get her attention. I don’t know. The scripture doesn’t say.
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ barb, the woman doesn’t miss a beat. She bounces right back.
“Even the dogs get to eat what’s left over from the meal.”
“I may not be a Jew,” she says in essence, “but I still matter.”
This woman may not know that she is speaking to the Son of God, but she obviously knows she is speaking to someone with a great deal of power, someone with the power to cast out demons, and yet she throws his slur right back at him, a mother pleading for her child in the face of a powerful man who has dismissed her as not worthy of his attention.
He tells her that her refusal to be marginalized by his cruel words has saved her daughter.
The woman refuses to accept Jesus’ apparent dismissal, and her daughter is healed.
Jesus relented. How often do we relent after we dismiss those in need?
I mean, we really don’t like to help “those people.” Oh, we may dress our attitude up in righteousness. Those people don’t need our help, we tell ourselves. Not really. They could help themselves. There are others who need help, too. We’ll go help them first. Strangely, we never seem to help them either.
Even worse, we think “Those people don’t deserve our help.”
You see it’s easy to dehumanize people that aren’t like us. When a Jew referred to a Gentile as a dog, he was in effect saying, “You’re not even human.” And when someone isn’t human, you can treat them like an animal. Civilizations throughout time have done it. There are ancient records of people referring to those outside the pale of their civilization as “beasts.” There is always a group we can call “those people.”
For the Greeks and Romans, it was the “barbarians.”
For Second Temple Jews, it was the Gentiles. And the Samaritans.
Later, for many Gentile Christians, it became the Jews. In the Epistle reading for today Paul is writing specifically to the Gentile Christians in Rome, explaining to them that God has not rejected his chosen people. Paul first proudly claims his own Judaism, then goes on to explain that God doesn’t break covenants. As he says, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Who is it for us? Who do we consider “those people?”
How often do we react to someone’s need by placing them in a group and judging them all together? How often do we look at a person’s color or religion or social class or politics and use that as a basis to decide whether or not we will help them? How often do we dismiss and marginalize those whose experience is different from ours?
If only they didn’t dress that way.
If only they’d behave the way we think they should.
If only they believed the same things we do.
If only they voted the way we think they should.
If only they were more like us.
Then they would be human.
Then we could help them.
Of course we do it. People have always done it. Sometimes our attitudes are so automatic that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Sometimes we have to honestly, painfully examine our motivations to see that we’ve done it. I’ve done it. I still do it, though I know I shouldn’t. And when I realize that I’ve treated anyone as less…I’m ashamed. Of course, we don’t like to feel ashamed, so we tend not to examine our motivations too closely, afraid of what we will find.
Even Jesus did it. Whatever his motivation, Jesus told this woman, full of need, that she was less than human. And when that she stood up to him, he rewarded her for it.
If we are being completely honest with ourselves, we all do it. But we can try not to.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?
Not all persons that look like we do.
Not all persons that dress like we do.
Not all people that were born in the same country as we were.
Not all persons in the same political party as we are.
Not all persons that believe the same as we do.
Not all persons that think like we do.
All persons. Period.
Can we seek and serve Christ in all persons? Can we stop making excuses for ourselves? Can we look past the clothes, the color, the religion, the politics…and see the face of Christ?
When we’re asked that question in the Vows, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Because we can’t do it, not by ourselves. Only with God’s help can we begin to break through our human desire to segregate, to label people not like us as “other”.
Whenever someone is in need, we can help them, no matter how different the are from us, with God’s help.
With God’s help, we can see Christ in everyone, and serve them as we would serve him.