Monday, August 21, 2023

The 'Dog' who Opens Jesus' Eyes


Matthew 15:10-28

Proper 15 / Year A

Some biblical commentators – perhaps most – refer to the second half of this morning’s gospel reading as “The Testing of the Canaanite Woman’s Faith”, contending Jesus’ rudeness is merely a method to assess her worthiness. They just cannot bear or believe Jesus could be so cruel and insensitive.  Does he really give her the silent treatment?  Does he really refuse to help her?  Does he actually call her a dog?  Can he really be so blind that she must open his eyes in order for him to see her humanity?  Well, the answer is either it is all a ploy to test her faith or yes, he really did these ugly and insensitive things.

Our doctrine holds Jesus is perfect, sinless.  His sinlessness is essential if he is going to atone for our sins.  But Jesus is also human and a product of a particular culture and ethnic heritage.  As such he is raised, as we are, in a society which has particular ideas about such things as the role of men, the status of women, and the value of children.  We find Jesus comfortable with the language of slave and master.  And, at times, he expresses his culture’s bias against foreigners. 

As a product of his culture, Jesus consistently elevates the dignity of every human being: defending a woman who listens to his teaching rather than working in the kitchen, criticizing his disciples for trying to shoo away children who want to be blessed, reaching out a touching a leper… I could go on and on.  But here, in this one instance, Jesus manifests the limitations of his cultural upbringing. 

His silence and then his insulting dismissiveness are ironic considering his teaching in the first part of the reading.  Religious leaders from Jerusalem pay a visit on Jesus in his hometown.  They are checking out what he is all about.  They question why his disciples are lax about some of the purification rules before eating.  Jesus answers it is not what goes into the body through the mouth which makes a person unclean, it is what come out of the mouth – the words from your heart – which defiles.  While typical of how Jesus consistently reinterprets the rules of his religion to deepen them spiritually, he himself violates this in the very next paragraph of the reading. 

He leaves his home – most likely to get away from the nagging and nit-picking religious leaders – and heads to the district of Tyre and Sidon; two coastal towns on the Mediterranean in present day southern Lebanon.  Then, like now, it is home to a lot of people outside of the Jewish lineage.  Jesus must know he is going to encounter foreigners while there.  

Yet, he seems taken unawares by his encounter with the Canaanite woman.  He appears to be put off, annoyed, maybe wondering if there is anywhere he can go just to get away.  His behavior reminds me of how I react when I encounter a panhandler outside a store.  I want to look away and pass on by.  I feel irritated and guilty at the same time.  Do I really have to do what this person wants me to do for him?  Let’s just say, these encounters seldom bring out the best in me.

And Jesus’ encounter with this woman doesn’t bring out the best in him.  When the disciples encourage him to send her away Jesus articulates his mission statement: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  It is not clear from the text if the woman is privy to his comment or not, but regardless, she kneels before him and begs for help.  He responds with his comment about not taking food from the table and feeding it to dogs.  She responds with what I might call The Harper Rule (Harper is my Jack Russell): “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table” (and thank God for this in my home!).

It is at this moment Jesus’ eyes are opened and he see before him not a foreigner, and certainly not a dog, but a mother… a desperate mother who possesses a deep, resilient faith.  Hers is a faith so strong, it upends a cultural limitation and assumption Jesus has absorbed since childhood.  Jesus wakes up and in a profound way he progresses more toward living out God’s dream for all people.

It might sound odd to think the Son of God has work to do on himself, that he makes discoveries about himself along the way, that he more and more grows into the person God desires him to be.  And to be honest, I feel a little bit like I am flirting with heresy here.  No wonder so many commenters elect to say Jesus is merely testing her faith, even though there is not a single shred of evidence in the text to support this. 

And as odd as it feels, there is something very powerful and encouraging about looking at this passage in this new way.  If Jesus can grow and change and develop, then so can we.  And most of us can and do.  I suspect none of us are the exact same person with the exact same views we held when we were – pick an age – 10, 15, 25.  We have all been walking a path of faithfulness with the intention of getting closer and closer to God’s dream for us and for all people.  Today we learn Jesus walked this same path.  We pray he will be our companion and guide along the way.