There’s a little known translation of Peter’s declaration about Jesus that goes like this: “Now Jesus said unto his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus said to them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “Master, Thou art the supreme eschatological manifestation of omnipotent ecclesiastical authority, the absolute, divine, sacerdotal monarch consubstantial with the Father in hypostatic union with humanity!” And Jesus said unto them, “What?!”
Sometimes we get carried away thinking about Christ as God and forget that he is also a living, breathing, human being. It wasn’t always so clear to the church that Jesus was fully human and fully divine though. In 325 AD, after the Roman Emperor Constantine “converted” to Christianity, he began to hear reports of serious disagreements between Christian leaders and theologians about the nature of Jesus. These disagreements spilled out into the streets; people were literally getting into streetfights about the divinity of Jesus! Constantine feared that the disturbances threatened the unified empire he had worked so hard to create. So he called a council to settle the matter. Over 300 church leaders answered the call and braved the dangerous journey to the city of Nicaea to debate the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. The two main sides were those who agreed with Arius—who argued that Jesus was less than fully God—and those who agreed with Athanasius—who argued that Jesus was fully God. The debate lasted a month and was fierce and ugly at times. There is even a story about St. Nicholaus (yes that Saint Nick) that says he got so offended by one of Arius’s speeches that he walked down from his seat and slapped Arius in the face in front of everyone! The bishops eventually decided after weeks of in-depth debate over scripture, in favor of Athanasius’s view that Jesus was fully God.
Of course, a bunch of bishops agreeing doesn’t really mean that all of Christendom was going to go along without a fight (as many of you know from your experience with conventions in the Baptist world!). Christians continued to disagree strongly about the nature of Christ. 125 years later the church still hadn’t completely settled the question. In 451, another council was called in the city of Chalcedon. This time the pendulum had swung and the major heresy that needed to be addressed was not denying that Jesus was God but denying that Jesus was human! Proceedings lasted almost a month before those in attendance affirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine). The Emperor tried to quell dissent by exiling those who continued to argue against the full humanity of Christ.
Sounds pretty intense right? I mean, were all these theological arguments the church had about Jesus really THAT important? Why does it matter that Jesus is fully human and fully God? It seems like an obscure theological point about which scholars like to argue but that doesn’t have that much impact on the lives of disciples of Jesus……..right? When I read our passage for today about Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman, trying to look with new eyes and get to know Jesus again for the first time, I was struck by one thought: Jesus was human. Sometimes we are tempted to emphasize Jesus’s divinity at the expense of his humanity, distancing him from the things we struggle with as ordinary people. But frankly in this story, Jesus doesn’t come off looking so well, does he? He seems like he’s in a bad mood or something. This isn’t the kind, compassionate Jesus we know and love! He’s ignoring people, setting limits on who gets his attention, calling people dogs… Who is this Jesus? What in the world is going on in this story?
It helps to begin by remembering what has come before this and to put yourself in Jesus’s sandals. Imagine that you have heard about the death of your cousin, your friend, your mentor. You’ve barely had a minute to process your emotions about that loss and what it might mean for your ministry. You’ve gone from place to place healing people and addressing their problems and performing miracles to feed thousands and arguing with Pharisees and other smart folks who want to have debates over matters of decorum while you are trying to fry bigger fish. You finally get to the region of Tyre and Sidon where you think no one will recognize you and you might be able to get some stuff done in peace. But right then a woman comes up and starts yelling at you! What do you think your mood would be in that moment? Would you respond graciously or would you be exasperated? As theologian Sharon Ringe puts it, Jesus seems to be “caught with his compassion down” at the beginning of this story. Have you ever felt like that? Something or someone that normally wouldn’t have bothered you catches you at the wrong time and it takes you a minute to find your compassion buried down there under your exhaustion or your grief or your anger? As a child I was taught to think “What would Jesus do?” in these situations but here we learn that Jesus also had a moment where he was tempted to respond without his typical compassion for the sick and the hurting.
After the disciples urge Jesus to send her away (probably because they were annoyed and offended by her), Jesus finally speaks and says “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” Only? This line always jumps out to me because even though I understand that salvation came “first to the Jew and then to the Gentile” as Paul says, it seems like Jesus is limiting the scope of his ministry here. It seems like Jesus was tempted to view his own time and ministry through a lens of scarcity. But the woman persists. She gets on her hands and knees in front of Jesus and says “Lord, help me.” This is the point of the story where I think to myself, “Okay, here we go. There’s no way Jesus will continue to brush this woman off. When has Jesus ever not had compassion on someone when they begged him like this?” But instead of healing her daughter, Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Not cool Jesus. The word for “dogs” here was a common slur that Jews used for their Gentile oppressors. At this point, if I were the woman, I probably would have gotten angry and said “What did you call me?!” But instead she persists again and says, “Yes lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” She takes the insulting metaphor that Jesus employs and turns it around, showing him that she believes in the abundance of the kingdom he has been preaching. There is enough for everyone, even for a Gentile like her. Finally, Jesus seems to snap out of it. We can imagine his downcast expression breaking into one of surprise and delight, after which he says, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you!” Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed instantly, but I also like to imagine that everyone involved in this encounter is changed. The disciples stand dumbfounded as they begin to put the pieces together. Jesus’s vision of God’s inclusive kingdom has been renewed. The woman has her faith and her life affirmed. All are made whole, not just the woman’s daughter.
This exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is really remarkable. Usually, Jesus is the one who intervenes to teach people that God’s mercy is wider than they have previously imagined. Here it’s Jesus that gets reminded! The story also features the crossing of multiple boundaries that will sound familiar to people of the 21st century. First, ethnic and religious boundaries are crossed. Matthew calls the woman a “Canaanite,” signaling that she is a Gentile from the land that God promised to Israel. It’s a strange, anachronistic term for Matthew to employ because no one identified as Canaanite at this time in history. Matthew uses the word Canaanite intentionally to recall their long and fraught history with the ancient people of Israel and to emphasize that this woman was a cultural and religious other. The second boundary crossed is gender. The fact that she approached Jesus and began shouting at him shows us that this woman had extraordinary gumption and determination. This is not the way women typically addressed men in this society and may have something to do with Jesus ignoring her at first! Finally, class boundaries are crossed here. When we read this story, we sometimes assume that this woman was poor. But in Mark’s version of this story (on which Matthew’s is based), the woman returns home to find her daughter sitting on the bed, healed. The word for bed is not the typical straw mat that is used elsewhere in the gospels but the word for reclining sofa. Mark signals to the reader that this woman, whose story was passed down and told in the early church, was actually wealthy.
Matthew also gives us a clue as to the tensions at play in this encounter when he says that the woman is from the region of Tyre and Sidon. The city of Tyre was a wealthy coastal port on an island that had very little farmland. Tyre had to get all its food from a nearby rural area—Galilee. The wealthy, urban Gentiles of Tyre exploited the land and labor of the poor Jewish region of Galilee for their benefit. Knowing this, Jesus’s response can be seen in a new light. When he says “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” he is actually saying “First let the rural Jewish poor and hungry be satisfied. It is not right to take poor people’s food and throw it to rich Gentiles in cities, as has been the case for so long.” And when the woman agrees with him but insists on God’s abundance providing crumbs even for dogs, perhaps she is acknowledging what Jesus has pointed out: that she has been party to the unjust policies and lifestyles that have been a source of suffering for her poorer, Jewish neighbors but that if she is willing to accept the leftovers, she believes that God will provide. She is willing to relinquish her position of privilege and move into the place where the poor have always been. She is accepting that in God’s kingdom, the first will be last, but all will have what they need.
Rather than being disturbed by the picture of Jesus we see in this story, I would invite you to see good news in the human face we see. Jesus was human, which means he was born into a culture and society that was full of inequality. It means he was raised with cultural biases and prejudices just like we are. But if we remember that Jesus was fully human and fully God, this story shows us that we have a God who is willing to engage the totality of our human reality and struggle with its complexities. We follow a Jesus who was willing to allow this woman to draw him out of his temptation to fall back on the prejudices he was taught by his culture. We see that Jesus had the openness and the humility to move past his initial hesitations, to move beyond the limitations he thought his ministry should have, and begin to enact the kingdom where all who desire salvation and peace and healing are welcome and made whole. And we see that this woman had the faith to forsake her pride and her position and prostrate herself at the feet of a poor itinerant Jewish rabbi, persisting in the face of the bitterness between their peoples so that she and her daughter might be made whole. She reminded Jesus when he was tempted to view his own ministry through the lens of scarcity, that the healing and provision of God’s table is abundant enough for all. By being willing to accept the leftovers as someone who has benefited from exploitation, she opened up the possibility of a world where her daughter AND all the poor and lost children of Israel could be healed.
C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater hated each other when they first met in 1971. Ellis was the Grand Exalted Cyclops of Durham’s chapter of the KKK; Atwater was an outspoken Black activist in Durham’s civil rights movement. Both were chosen to co-chair the steering committee for a 10-day, community-wide meeting to address Durham public schools’ racial policies as they faced court-ordered desegregation. Ellis was put on the committee by some of his fellow Klansmen in city hall in order to disrupt the proceedings and hopefully keep integration from happening. Every morning before the proceedings, Ellis stood in the parking lot and showed city councilmen the machine gun he had in the trunk of his car. He used it as a way to intimidate the Black citizens of Durham and to back up his position with the threat of violence. But Ann Atwater was not easily intimidated. In a recent interview she said: “I would walk past C.P. into the school building every morning with my Bible in my hand and say, ‘We’ll see whose God is the strongest, my God or your god.”
Even though Ellis came to the proceedings with hatred and disorder in his heart, something began to happen to him. Atwater had scheduled a gospel choir to appear at one of the meetings and she noticed Ellis tapping his foot and trying to clap along. She went over and helped him clap on beat. Then one day, as they listened to story after story of the children who were hurt and impoverished by segregation, Ellis and Atwater both broke down and cried together. On the final night of the 10-day meeting, Ellis stood up in front more than 1000 people from the community including some of his fellow Klansmen, and ripped up his membership card to the Klan saying “if schools are going to be better by me tearing up this card, I shall do so.” He renounced the Klan shortly thereafter and never went back. Ellis’s former friends in the Klan called him a traitor and a sellout and on more than one occasion, his life was threatened. Atwater’s friends were also confused that she had become friends with a person they knew as a white supremacist. Atwater and Ellis remained friends until his death in 2005 and because of their transformative relationship, Ellis became a civil rights and union organizer. In order to make this transformation possible, Ellis had to renounce his loyalty to his race and his ideology, listen to this woman who was radically different from him, and open himself up to responding to her story and the story of the children of Durham. And Ann Atwater had to be brave and fierce and loving, trusting that her God was stronger than the god of fear and hate and violence that C.P. Ellis initially worshipped.
Despite the fact that we have seen Neo-Nazis and the Klan disturbingly reenter the national stage, we would be mistaken if we assume that the virulent racism of the Nazis and the KKK is the only kind of racism worth rooting out and eliminating. There are much more subtle forms of white supremacy at work that have led us to this point. In the same way that Jesus was raised in a society that taught fear of the other, that taught that the rich could plunder the resources of the poor, that taught that women shouldn’t challenge men in public, we have also been raised in a culture that teaches those things. Racism is in the air we breathe in America. You don’t have to be in the KKK to tacitly support structures that maintain oppression. Simply by virtue of going about our lives in this world, we are all guilty of absorbing the effects of this subtle form of racism and sometimes benefiting from the arrangement it sets up. As a predominantly white church that has benefited from the injustices of our history, we have to ask ourselves: Do we have faith like the Canaanite woman? Are we willing to accept the truth of the situation, to listen to the bitterness of those who have been forced to eat crumbs for so long, and to relinquish our strangle-hold on power so that all God’s children might be made whole, even if it means we eat crumbs to make it possible? Can we, like C.P. Ellis stand up in front of our communities, tear up our allegiance to race or party or nation or safety or security, and say “If it makes the lives of God’s children better, I will be transformed and never look back?”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said this about this passage: “The good news is that in forsaking her own identity for the sake of her daughter, the Canaanite woman becomes an insider. Submitting herself to the leadership of one who is strangely other, the Canaanite woman becomes one with Christ. Wrestling with the God of Israel in the man Jesus, she wins by losing—just like Jacob, whom God called Israel. Her witness helps us all to see the humility required to be God’s people in the world. This woman must betray her identity as a Canaanite. But in doing so, she becomes a sign for us of the New Israel, where all the peoples of the earth can find their true identity in Christ. This is the heart of reconciliation. But forsaking one’s people to become part of God’s people is an experience so radical that it tests the limits of human language. Maybe Jesus said it best: You must be born a second time.”
Reconciliation is our calling as people of the reconciling God. But there are things we must do and loyalties we must abandon in order to make reconciliation possible. We must be willing to hear the truth without trying to blame those who have borne the brunt of the injustices we seek to eliminate. We must be willing to build relationships with each other and with people who are radically other so that we can face honestly the bitterness between us and find a new way forward. We have to be willing to tear up all the membership cards we hold that keep us from fully committing to God’s vision of inclusion and justice. As people of privilege and wealth transformed by our relationships and born anew as God’s people, we must be willing to be last, to eat the crumbs, so that the way the world has always operated can be turned upside down by God’s abundant mercy.