Have you ever had the experience of shaking hands with someone and they were already looking for someone else before they let your hand drop, as if you were obstructing their view? I remember visiting a church on a vacation and as soon as the pastor found out that we were not prospective new members, he began to glance around the room as if there were shiny apples to pick, while we stood there like a tree whose fruit had already dropped. I was tempted to stand there and ask a question that would require a long answer, “Tell me the history of your church,” or “How do you organize your committees?” but instead I let go of the dead-fish handshake and shook the dust off my feet on the way out.
No one likes to be overlooked. Imagine being overlooked all the time because of what you look like. You are passed over for a job interview because of the color of your skin, you don’t get the promotion you deserve because you are a woman, no one will give you a chance because you are too old or too young. If you have been written off or overlooked when someone doesn’t even know you or the content of your character, you can understand the plight of the Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew. I imagine being overlooked is a way of life for her. Even in the Gospel lesson she does not get a name. In Mark’s Gospel her origins are hyphenated as a Syro-Phoenician. If you have to say you are Native American or African American or Italian American, then you already know you are feeling out of the mainstream. People who feel in the mainstream don’t feel the need to say they are a British American or White American.
For this woman to even approach Jesus, she has broken several social taboos. She is a Gentile approaching a Jew. If you grew up Protestant like I have, do you remember the first time you went into a Catholic church? The strange smells of incense, the sudden moves from standing and sitting, the awkwardness of having to kneel, feeling the painful exclusion of not being able to participate in communion, all these symbols of feeling like you don’t belong. You may have grown up in a Catholic or Protestant home where attending the other church or inter-marriage would lead to being disowned, out of the will or even eternal damnation. The boundaries between Jew and Gentile in Jesus day were pronounced, possibly like the boundaries between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the mutual suspicion between the two faiths in 19th Century America as leading Protestant preachers stoked the fear of the Pope in their sermons. (Hopefully we have made a little progress now.)
This Canaanite was also a woman approaching a group of men. We are far removed from the male-female boundaries of Jesus’s day. But we do know some about how rigid male and female boundaries are in much of the Middle East and Islamic nations today. As we read stories in Newsweek of women in birkas, constricted to the home, we may get some idea of what the Canaanite woman risked to talk to Jesus in public. She was the first of many woman to break that taboo and seek Jesus out of desperation. Remember the woman that touched the hem of Jesus garment? She didn’t dare call out to Jesus and was fearful when he came back to see her. Normally, the husband of the family would go out and make such requests. Where was this woman’s husband?
Race, nation and socio-economics also intrude. Jews were wary of the residents of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. The inhabitants are described by the Jewish historian Josephus as “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” In that day the poor rural Jewish peasants of Galilee grew food for the rich Gentile cities like Tyre and Sidon. We do not know the social class of this Canaanite woman, but she would have been seen as coming from the culture of Jewish oppressors. Imagine a white, Anglo Saxon Protestant American going and begging an Imam at a Mosque for help with their situation.
Everything seems to be working against this woman-gender, race, religion, class and nationalism-to find help for her daughter. It must have been quite the spectacle to have her throw herself at the feet of Jesus. Disciples and spectators alike must have been embarrassed to have her there. She must have been driven by desperation. Maybe now we can better understand Christ’s original negative response, when he says, “Let the children be fed first (referring to Jews) for it is not fair to give the children’s bread to the dogs.” There is no getting around the fact that Jesus has just “dissed” her. Jews considered dogs to be scavengers and unclean animals. Every reference to dogs in the Bible is negative (much to the despair of dog lovers like me!).
For a moment she is turned away by a great spiritual leader, which to many would feel like they were being turned away by God. That’s why it is so hard when our feelings get hurt in church. We expect to experience the sacred grace of God when we come to church or approach a minister, and if we are hurt or overlooked for the moment, then it effects our core spirit. Where else will we find the sacred in our lives? This is what disturbs us in this Gospel Lesson. How could Jesus compare anyone to a dog or say a thing like that? This story hits us in a place of fear that maybe God finds us to be really annoying. We don’t belong, we don’t deserve the bread, others are more important.
The great thing about this woman is that she seems unfazed by everything working against her and quips back at Jesus, “Yes, but even the dogs under the table deserve the crumbs.” This is a woman who understood the power of God’s grace, a woman who believed so much that she knew a crumb from Jesus would suffice. And imagine, she wasn’t even on the church membership rolls! This is the only place I can find in the Gospels where someone won a theological argument with Jesus. He tied the wisest biblical scholars in knots, but not this woman. Maybe that’s what Jesus wanted her to do all along. If he had just healed her daughter at her request, the disciples would have been appalled and probably missed the point, but how much more dramatic to lose a theological argument to a Gentile and then heal her daughter. This unnamed woman gives us a wonderful example of how to approach God with both humility and confidence, deference and boldness, a grounded trust in God’s grace despite all the human obstacles that stand in the way of relationship.
This text prepares us to come to the communion table. How do you come to this table? Do you come as a confident insider like the disciples and simply assume God’s favor? Or do you come wondering where you stand with God, longing for the divine presence, yet feeling like an outsider?
We come to the table as God’s children. We are getting the bread on top of the table, not crumbs off the floor. When you receive this morsel of bread handed to you on a silver platter, do you know the power of what you hold in your hand? This bread is a gift of grace that says God has not overlooked you. No matter what your gender, race, political affiliation, ethnic background, sexual orientation or any other human boundary that divides, God still searches your innermost thoughts and loves you. Eating of this bread is accepting this wondrous gift of God’s love and believing that it will heal your life just as surely as the Canaanite’s daughter was healed.
And if this bread heals your life, who else might it feed? Does God’s grace stop when we overlook someone else? Do we give other people crumbs when we should be inviting them to the same table where we get our spiritual sustenance? This bread of life is not a scarce commodity to be jealously guarded or eaten only in times of crisis. God’s banquet table is abundant, there is enough for you and more than enough left over to invite others. Come to the table now, receive this bread and be reconnected with God, receive this cup and be reconciled and whole with one another.