How many of you would help a stranger on the street?
How about someone who came to the door of your home? Someone who asked not just for some change or directions, but for a serious favor – a home-cooked meal in your kitchen, driving them into the city to visit a hospitalized relative? giving them something important that belongs to your own child?
Raise your hand if the decision gets more complicated here.
Then one more factor: what if the person asking for your help felt really strange, or a little dangerous?
A tall, heavy black man at twilight?
A stranger with a turban and an accent in the airport?
Someone with a robe and pointy white hood?
Do you drop everything to help this person? Or do you hesitate, think about why it’s not your responsibility, or try to quietly slip away?
Regardless of what you’d do, what do you think Jesus would do?
Maybe we find out what Jesus would do in this situation in the gospel story we heard today:
Jesus is in Gentile territory, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he meets a Gentile woman. A Caananite woman – member of a race that have been enemies of
deep into history – shows up asking – no, actually, demanding – his help to save her daughter.
And Jesus ignores her.
Ignores her until his disciples have had it, and complain that she’s driving them crazy with her protests and demands. Then he tells them he’s not responsible for her. She’s an outsider, not entitled to the help that belongs to the sheep of
But she bursts through the defenses, kneels at his feet, proclaims his power, and begs for his help.
And Jesus insults her.
He calls her a dog, and denies her access to his abundance.
How are you feeling about Jesus, now?
Honestly, this story makes me squirm. This isn’t what Jesus is supposed to do!! Isn’t he the one who keeps pointing out that we’re supposed to care for the needy, the sick, the stranger….? Isn’t Jesus supposed to help the people we can’t help?
But here’s this gospel story, where it’s perfectly clear that Jesus isn’t nice.
In fact, in this story, Jesus is racist.
It’s blunt and obvious when Jesus calls the Caananite mother a “dog.” Many of us would object immediately if we heard a white person say that to a black or Hispanic woman; we recognize that as racist and rude.
But in that exaggerated form, Jesus is just expressing the common, subconscious expectations of his people of
– that Caananites want what belongs to us, and shouldn’t have it. They’re dangerous to our well-being –
It’s a little bit like the way our
community has been trained to think of militant Islamic groups, or “illegal
immigrants.” We may have personal
sympathy for individuals, or want to be non-judgmental and open, but our
dominant culture creates a general expectation that there’s something vaguely
Perfectly normal, and still racist.
That word is a deeply uncomfortable one. Few of us are eager to think of ourselves as racist, and the word seems to have a slippery, ambiguous definition, depending where it’s used. But “racism” – or the euphemisms we use to get around the uncomfortable word – is getting a lot of play this week with the newscoverage of the death of Michael Brown in
and the waves of protest
and response that have followed. Ferguson,
A black teenager is shot by a police officer. That happens. One study suggests that a police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante shoots a black man every 28 hours in the
In some of those cases, the community protests. Sometimes neighbors stand on street corners with signs, and start to make noise on the internet and the evening news, calling for peace, justice, freedom and fairness.
Occasionally, it becomes national news, and the racism flag gets raised.
The problem with that flag, of course, is that the way racism mainly affects us isn’t really the way it’s portrayed in the news: stark black and white, protests and incidents of violence.
It’s another side of racism that mostly gets us. The not-so-obvious root of the incidents is the cultural expectations that convince us that we have something to lose when people who aren’t quite like us have something to gain.
That’s the form of racism that affects most of us. It’s not the only thing at play in
He tells her that the children of
will lose if he gives divine healing to her daughter.
And she tells him he’s wrong.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She tells him there’s enough to spare. That your children don’t lose because mine gain a little. She doesn’t bother with the insult, with the overtly racist remark. She cuts to the heart of the quiet, vague racism that afflicts us all, the kind that binds the people who don’t want to be racist.
There’s enough, she says. You don’t lose because I gain.
We don’t lose because Mexican and Central American people cross the
looking for a safer life with more economic opportunity. People who believe in the dream and are
driven to succeed make this country better for all of us.
We don’t lose because some black teens like rap music and some black mothers need help from the government and the community to be secure enough to raise healthy, happy, hopeful children. We don’t lose when white or multicolored, multi-lingual teens and mothers do the same. We win when all our kids are safe, and strong and can express their creativity and power.
That’s what the Caananite mother told Jesus.
And she’s right.
So right that Jesus proclaims her faith and pours out healing, transformed by what he hears.
It’s a hard story to read, this story where Jesus is mean, even racist.
But we read it because of the Caananite mother’s persistence.
She isn’t shut down by being ignored, shoved aside, or insulted.
She keeps praying, and she’s not afraid to argue with God, to make the case for abundance and grace, when even God seems to forget about that.
And we read it because God listens to her, and in that listening the subtle, uncomfortable racism loses its power. It cannot stand against her persistence and God’s true listening, and the barriers break in favor of healing and grace.
This uncomfortable story is incredibly timely. So I’m going to ask you to pray this week with the strong, dogged persistence of the Caananite mother.
Pray for the people of
. Pray for protesters and police. Pray for people whose neighborhood and homes
have become a public battleground and a media circus. Ferguson,
Pray for the people of
Pray for them when the news media leaves, and the streets go back to a normal that leaves black teens scared of the cops who are supposed to protect them, and white neighbors scared of the black teens, just because.
Pray for the places all over our country and the people close to home who are affected by that unconscious, vague fear and discomfort about people-not-like-us that makes racism work – and makes racism so hard to fight.
But most of all, pray to be transformed.
Pray for me, pray for you, that we can listen like Jesus; listen and truly hear the experience and the wisdom of those not like us. Pray that that listening challenges us and changes our cultural comfort with division, moves us immediate action, to healing, to grace.
Pray to remember that God listens to all God’s people. Pray for abundance and grace and the end of that subtle, vague fear that divides and binds us.
Pray all that, and listen long and deep, and we’ll be living the gospel.
The gospel which is bitter sometimes, but powerful beyond measure, and healing with a grace that breaks every barrier down.