21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15: 21-28)
Let me tell you a trade secret: we preachers, theologians, and Christian bloggers have no idea what to do with this story. None. We spend hours every week trying to find ways of using the Gospel text to convince you that Jesus is awesome, Jesus loves you and wants you to know that, Jesus is God and worthy of worship and praise and, as much as we sinful little humans are capable of such a thing, emulation.
And then Jesus has to go and do this absolutely jack*ss thing, refusing to help a poor woman with a sick daughter—all because she isn’t an Israelite? Seriously, Jesus?
Honestly, we’ve tried everything to explain Jesus actions in a way that makes him look good—but our logic just comes back to bite us. All our attempts to use theology, what we know of Jesus’ historical or cultural context, or Biblical exegesis fail to explain his dismissive and cruel behavior. At the heart of the problem is that Jesus is God and God is not supposed to be total jerk. But Jesus is unquestionably acting like a jerk here, and behaving in direct contradiction to the teaching he just gave about false words defiling us far more than ignoring rules of ritual cleanliness. Well done, Jesus. We’re stumped.
And quite frankly, during a week when the world is seemingly falling apart and we need a kind, peaceful, justice and fairness-loving God, Jesus has seemingly failed us, too. Gaza is in shambles—again. Another unarmed African-American man was shot to death in his own neighborhood and the protestors rightly angry at his death were met with a show of weapons, artillery, and civil rights violations that would have made a tyrant proud. Thousands of Central American kids and families continue to cross over the US-Mexico border, seeing asylum from grinding poverty and endless violence. Ebola. ISIS. But Jesus turns to a desperate woman whose daughter needs healing—a mother just like the Palestinian mothers whose children are filled with shrapnel, or the African-American mothers whose children are riddled with bullets, or Central American mothers whose children are walking thousands of miles across the desert to escape violent, merciless gangs, or the mothers of Iraq who are fleeing the ISIS with their children in their arms, or the mothers whose children just tested positive for Ebola—and calls her a dog.
This woman may have knelt before Jesus, but did not just sit there and accept Jesus’ insinuation that she and her daughter were not worthy of help because they were not of the house of Israel. She turns the tables on Jesus, cleverly and forcefully suggesting that she may be a dog, but she is the kind of dog that is worthy of respect. Jesus may come out looking like a half-decent guy after healing this woman’s daughter. The real hero of this story, however, is not the Lord and King of the Universe. It is this Canaanite woman whose name has been lost to history.
In fact, this woman is isn’t just a hero—she is a prophet. Like Abraham who argued with God to spare Sodom and Moses who convinced God not to destroy Israel after they forged the golden calf and worshiped it, this woman joins a short but unforgettable list of Biblical figures who had the gumption to stand up to the Ruler of the Universe.
And she is a prophet for us, too, because she points us at the question behind all the questions that we are all asking ourselves this week amidst all this violence, terror, uncertainty, and rage in the world:
Why are some lives more worth more than others?
For as we debate whether Israelis or Palestinians or Iraqis or the ISIS or Central American refugees or Ebola patients deserve our help or do not deserve our help (and what kind of help they deserve), whether they deserve to die or deserve to live, this brave Canaanite woman forces us to ask, who do we consider human, really? Who do we consider worthy of life, which lives do we rank in value above others, and which of our values or resources do we rank above human lives?
Is national security worth a few lives? The end of ISIS? The end of Hamas? Are these 50,000 Central American lives worth the $3.7 billion dollars President Obama purposed to help them? Less? More? Is an African-American life worth the same as a white person’s life? Less? The same? The same only if the African-American in question has no criminal record and was pursuing a college degree?
This is the conversation we are having, whether we realize we are having it or not.
Jesus perhaps thought that what was at stake in this woman’s request was the reach of his ministry, what it meant to be a Messiah, or his role as a Jewish religious leader in an Roman-occupied territory that contained people groups and faiths other than his own. But this woman pointed out the truth: these are not the real questions, the real issues, the real concerns.
The question is: Who lives and who dies, and who gets to decide? This woman had the courage to answer this question in the most radical way possible, to courageously look Jesus in the eye and say, “My daughter’s life is worth something.”
She had the courage to look Jesus in the eye and say, “All lives are worth the same.”
Israeli and Palestinian lives are worth the same. African-American and Asian-American and Native American and white American lives are all worth the same. Central American and Iraqi and West African lives and North American lives are worth the same. All lives are worth the same.
Let us stare into the abyss of the world, fellow Christians, and face it with the same boldness as this woman who sought her daughter’s healing—and let it help us to find paths to healings our own. Let us declare, once and for all, that all lives are worth the same.
Furthermore, let us sit down and have real conversations about what it would mean to declare all lives to be worth the same, what it would mean for the unjust socioeconomic systems we support, for the systems of racial or gender or national privilege that we benefit from, for our national security and foreign policy, for our churches, for our governments, for our communities.
If there’s something to emulate about Jesus in this story, it’s the quickness with which he realizes his mistake and does the right thing, offering this woman both her daughter’s healing and something much greater: an acknowledgment that a Canaanite life is worth as much as a Jewish one, or at the very least, is worth a whole lot more than nothing.
It seems that Jesus learned something from this woman. After meeting her and healing her daughter, Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, healing wherever he goes. Those who were healed, it is written, “praised the God of Israel” (v. 31). Could it be that those he healed were not Israelites? That they were of other peoples? That they came to praise the God of Israel because the God of Israel had, with the help of this woman, learned to reach out beyond his own people, having learned that all lives are worth the same?
May we learn from Jesus. And may we learn from this woman, a prophet in her own time—and in ours.
All real change starts with relationship, all real relationship starts with real conversation, an all real conversations regarding systemic violence or injustice start with informed, empathetic people who want to understand the roots these issues.
Ready to have a conversation about #Ferguson and racial justice and reconciliation in America? Search for #Ferguson in Twitter for up-to-date news and read this amazing piece by Black Girl Dangerous. If you want a longer read that is absolutely worth it, read this piece from The Atlantic. Or just read everything on this list under #Ferguson.
Ready to have a conversation about Central American refugees? Read my previous blog post and the articles cited.
Ready to have a conversation about Israel/Palestine? Try starting here.