If we are to look to Jesus as a model of what a fully alive human being looks like, then surely this story of his encounter with the Canaanite woman must be included. Contrary to what some commentators suggest, I don’t think Jesus was all-knowing, all-compassionate at every moment and so here he was merely testing this woman’s faith. That seems petty and manipulative to me, and for all the human things Jesus might have been, I don’t think he was either of those things. I think Jesus was a product of his time and place, just like the rest of us are, and at certain times, maybe especially when he was trying to get away for a break, as he was here, maybe even Jesus fell back on the definitions and parameters that his culture proscribed for him. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says in response to this “foreign” woman’s plea for her daughter. But luckily she wouldn’t leave it at that.
The Canaanite woman was “the other” for Jesus. Not only was she outside the nation of Israel, she was a woman. Laws of purity and honor gave Jesus perfect permission to say what he did. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel….It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs…” It was what she said that ultimately got through to him and reminded him of a higher law.
Jan Richardson imagines this woman’s plea to Jesus as a “stubborn blessing”–
“Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
Don’t start with me.
I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
Don’t you tell me no. [Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook for Year A, Pent. + 10]
It is the cry of Michael Brown’s mother in Ferguson, MO, and mothers of African American boys throughout our country. It is the cry of Palestinian mothers and Israeli mothers, amidst the bombs and rockets. “Have mercy on us,” cry the Yazidis fleeing to the mountains in Iraq. “Unclench your hand, your heart,” cry the parents and partners and children and friends of those whose loved ones battle with depression. “I am not – we are not – the other. You and I, we are not so different. Deeply, truly, we are one.
People looking for adequate, decent housing in our community are not The Other. The children who need federally-funded lunches and families and individuals who cannot find decent housing without assistance are not The Other. The permitting process for the Shires Housing Project just up the road from us on Silver St. has revealed a real rift in our community. The “dirty little secret” is not about the number of children in our schools who qualify for subsidized meals–“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said a couple thousand years ago–that’s not a secret. The “secret” is that we’d rather not live near them. It’s not just that our schools are labeled “failing” because we have poor children in them–every school in Vermont except those who opted out of the “No Child Left Behind” standards was deemed “failing.” It is a failure of that program, of the system, not of the kids or teachers.
Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece last Sunday entitled, “Is a Hard Life Inherited?” In it, he tells of returning to his hometown of Yamhill, OR.
“I love this little town, [he wrote] but the news is somber…A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.” [NYT, 8/10/14] It sounds an awful lot like our town, doesn’t it? and a whole lot of other towns in Vermont.
One delusion common among America’s successful people [Kristof writes] is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards, and music lessons…
…Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to make homeruns. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.
Too often “poverty” is not just an economic description it’s a moral judgment. Why can’t those people get their act together? We sometimes ask. Where are the parents? Why don’t they put more energy into looking for a job instead of looking for a hand-out?
“‘Almost a third of the 153.6 million Americans with a job at any time in 2012 made less than $15,000, averaging just $6,100,’ writes David Cay Johnston in Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.” Less than $15,000. Can you imagine feeding your family or finding a place to live for that? “Nearly all of the income growth in our economy has been in jobs paying more than $75,000 a year [cites another source]–about one in eight jobs.” [Julie Polter, “The Rich Get Richer,” Sojourners, Aug. 2014] There aren’t all that many jobs paying more than $75,000 in Bennington, are there?
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she said. “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Robin Williams’ death by suicide, due to depression, this week has echoed deeply into many people’s lives. Mental illness and addiction are equal opportunity employers, striking the poor and wealthy alike. There is no “other” to the demon of depression. Yet the resources for those battling mental illness, including depression, in our community are woefully inadequate.
“She came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.” He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! [Greater than mine, at the moment apparently.(I imagine him realizing) Forgive me.] Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Police walking alongside protestors instead of confronting them in riot gear produced a very different result in Ferguson this week. That’s when the healing began, though it has a long way to go there and throughout our country.
“There are steps that could help [in the crisis of working-class America],” Nicholas Kristof wrote, “including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. [I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to, Kristof said earlier] But the essential starting point is empathy.”
“I am not the other,” the Canaanite woman said to Jesus, and the truth of that resonated in his soul. She is identified as the Syro-Phoenician woman in other gospels, but here Matthew says she is Canaanite. In fact, Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus that includes a number of Canaanite foremothers–Ruth, Tamar, Rahab. “I am not the other,” she said.
If we are to become fully human, as Jesus was, we too, like Jesus, must learn to let go of those definitions and stereotypes of “the other.” It is the final prejudice and it is fueled by fear. In her blog this week [8/15/14], sociologist Brene Brown writes about fear and courage–
When confronted with news of a stranger’s unimaginable pain – a suicide, an overdose, a protest for justice and basic dignity – we have two choices: We can choose to respond from fear or we can choose courage.
We can choose to believe that we are somehow insulated from the realities of these traumas and that our willpower or our strength of character makes us better than these displays of desperation and woundedness. When we seek shelter in the ‘better than – safer than – different than’ thinking, we are actually choosing fear and that requires us to self-protect and arm ourselves with judgment and self-righteousness.
Our only other option is to choose courage. Rather than deny our vulnerability, we lean into both the beauty and agony of our shared humanity. Choosing courage does not mean that we’re unafraid, it means that we are brave enough to love despite the fear and uncertainty. Courage is my friend Karen standing up and saying, “I am affected.”
The courageous choice also does not mean abandoning accountability – it simply means holding ourselves accountable first. If we are people of faith, we hold ourselves accountable for living that faith by practicing grace and bringing healing. If we consider ourselves to be smart and curious, it means seeking greater understanding. If we consider ourselves to be loving, it means acting with compassion.
It’s difficult to respond to the tragedies of strangers – even those we think we know – because we will never have access to the whole truth. In the absence of information, we make up stories, stories that often turn out to be our own biographies, not theirs.
Our choices have consequences: They make the world a more dangerous place or they cultivate peace. Fear and judgment deepen our collective wounds. That rare mix of courage and compassion is the balm that brings global healing.
We have two choices. Let’s choose courage. Let’s choose to love despite the fear.
“Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus finally said to the Canaanite woman.“Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. May our faith be as courageous and as full of grace. So may the healing begin. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark