There are not many times in the bible when you will find Jesus being the villain in a story. In fact, today’s gospel reading may be the only time it happens. In it, Jesus displays the full bigotry of his people when he dismisses a Canaanite woman’s plea for help. The Canaanites were descendants of Noah’s grandson, Canaan, who was cursed because of his father’s sin. The bible portrays Canaanites as being a wicked and idolatrous people who occupy a territory along the Mediterranean from current day Lebanon to Egypt. God promises this land to Abraham and several of the early books of the bible describes the Israelites’ conflicts with the Canaanite people.
By Jesus’ day, Canaanites lived in small towns and communities in and among the people of Israel. Even though they are native to the land, they are treated like third class citizens. Israelites consider them to be no better than dogs, a dehumanizing status dripping with contempt.
One particular Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and begs him to pray for her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Jesus has been exercising demons since the beginning of his public ministry and he understands “binding Satan” to be an important part of his work, but it is a work he has only done for his people. The woman begs and pleads, but what does Jesus do? Nothing. He does not even respond to her. He ignores her. Eventually, some of Jesus’ followers become so annoyed by her they urge Jesus to get rid of her. Jesus answers them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He cannot be bothered with her because she is not one of his people.
Hatred and bigotry are not new, but they certainly are on our minds as we gather to worship this morning. My heart broke last weekend watching what transpired in Charlottesville while I was on vacation in Montana. I can tell you what happened in our Commonwealth deeply affected the people I met in that state.
I look for much good to come out of what happened. At every baptism we renew our covenant with God to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being. Seeing the opposite of this vow on display makes concrete for me who I am and who I choose to be. I reject the hatred and bigotry we saw last weekend and embrace more firmly and with deeper conviction the vows I made at baptism. In one way or another, I sense the overwhelming majority of our citizens doing the same thing. Our common commitment to equality and decency has grown by leaps and bounds by witnessing its opposite.
Earlier this summer a family was invited to come to our church. It was Memorial Day weekend, so we had a cookout and pony rides. St. Paul’s was for them St. Paul’s – a place where they were welcomed and made to feel at home and the mother told me they would be coming back – and they have. For the purposes of understanding this story, you need to know the family is Pilipino. The mother saw where another church in town was advertizing a Vacation Bible School open to everyone in the community. When she went to sign up her children, the person at the registration desk asked her bluntly, “Are you really her for the bible school, or do you just want free babysitting for all your kids?” Another mother said, “Keep those Mexican kids away from my children.”
I tell you this story not to shame that church, not too prove hatred and bigotry are alive and well right here in Suffolk, and certainly not to embarrass the family. I tell you this story because when I heard it I said to myself, this will not happen here at St. Paul’s. My own spirit became more generous and more determined to welcome every single person who comes to this place. We are not privileged members of an exclusive country club admitting only those people who are “like” us. We are children of God, deeply loved and profoundly forgiven. And through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are uniquely empowered to share God’s love and forgiveness with every person, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or sexual orientation.
And speaking of God’s love, let’s get back to Jesus, who on this day is not doing a very good job of manifesting it. He ignores the Canaanite mother’s pleas for help and refuses even to acknowledge her presence by speaking to her. But she will not be dismissed so easily. She kneels before Jesus and cries, “Lord, help me.” Finally he addresses her, but in the meanest way possible: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Wow! So in Jesus’ mind, Israelites are sheep and children and Canaanites are dogs. What he says is as offensive as using the “N” word is to us today and, sadly, it shows us just how deeply entrenched Jesus is in the mindset of his day. Now, some preachers will not see it this way. They will say Jesus is only testing her because they cannot accept he had such an abhorrent personality trait. After all, Jesus is supposed to be perfect. But this is not a test. As embarrassing as it is to say, this is just Jesus being ugly.
But thank God the Canaanite woman is not finished. She responds, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus is stunned. Instantly he sees past her ethnicity and recognizes in her something uniting them as human beings. He sees her faith. He understands the Canaanite woman’s motherly concern for her daughter is no different from an Israelite woman’s motherly concern. Jesus heals the girl in that very moment and never again will differentiate between those from the nation of Israel and those outside of it.
Jesus changes in a profound way, and so can we. He forsakes his cultural heritage of bigotry and hatred for something grand and beautiful – the kingdom of God where love, peace, and righteousness reign. Each of our readings this morning highlights God’s desire to welcome and embrace all people and all nations. First Israel, and now we as Christians have been called not for special, exclusive blessings and rarified status above all others, but to be witness bearers of God’s love for all people.
While we respect the dignity of every human being, we denounce every ideology and any movement seeking to make one group or class superior to another. We will speak out against any and every effort to diminish the potential of human flourishing for all people and act if necessary to insure equal rights and equal opportunity for all.
For me, it begins right here, right now, in this place. St. Paul’s will continue to be an expression of what we know and hold true about God’s love for every person.