Homily: Aug. 17, 2014
Proper 15, Year A: 17 August 2014 "It is not fair to take food away from the children and throw it to the dogs." "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." This is, for me, one of the most fascinating exchanges in all the scriptures.
I also find it a very challenging text, and the first question it raises, if we are not too pious, is why is Jesus acting like such a blockhead!!! Why have we preserved this passage in our holy text, anyway? Here is the Anointed One of God demonstrating that he is not only a xenophobic bigot, but an ill-mannered one to boot. Here comes this woman, clearly in need, clearly vulnerable… first he ignores her, then he insults her with an epithet not fit for polite society. What is this all about?
Well, consider that Jesus has been taught, like every Jewish child, that Canaanites are dogs. And the dogs we're talking about aren’t pets; they are scavengers. Unclean animals, like vultures or buzzards. "Dog" was a word you used to describe someone who was ritually unclean, therefore outside the bounds of good religious people. After centuries of conflict and alienation, to Jews all Canaanites were dogs; and the Canaanites felt the same way about Jews. It was part of their cultural conditioning. So why, after all, should it be different for Jesus? Bigotry is a toxin that poisons all it touches and it leaves nothing untouched. As a product of his culture, it’s there inside Jesus. How could it not be so? Something about this encounter changes Jesus, however, changes him forever, and changes him for good. That is what happens when we allow God to move in our lives, to let God push us backwards when we need to be pushed backwards, and, yes, it can even happen to the Savior of the world, who saves us as much by being human as he does by being God, however you understand that. Some just can’t take the idea of Jesus being this human, this flawed, as human as you and me, and so they have elaborate explanations about Jesus testing the woman, etc, etc, and not really being that cold and unfeeling, but just pretending to be so. But, frankly, it’s not there in the text, this idea, and we ought not try to rescue Jesus from this moment, by explaining his bad behavior away. Gerd Theissen, a German theologian, asks this question: “Perhaps you will say ‘Can we still believe in such a Jesus, a Jesus who is not perfect, a Jesus who is put to shame by a foreign woman towards whom he has behaved inhumanly?’ I think that this is the only Jesus we can trust. a Jesus who allows encounter with another to draw him out of his prejudices. Only in such a Jesus do we recognize a human face.” Indeed, as I’ve said before, what I love most about the stories of Jesus is the humanity that is so poignantly expressed there, the humanity of God, if you will. If God is like this, then this is a God I can believe in. To be in relationship with God is not to always grovel and beg, and throw one’s sense of self away— in fact, that is never what it means to be in relationship with God. To be in relationship with God is to be changed by the relationship; and, for God, in Christ, to be in relationship with other humans is to be changed by those relationships. Of course, we have to be open to that, to those powerful encounters with God, through others, through unexpected others, and that is a tough thing, to allow God to work with us and in us that way, as evidenced by even Jesus’ resistance to the power of human relationships, in this story. But like Jesus in the story, God will not allow us to sit in our neat, simple world, where our boundaries are like walls, keeping the world out. God will keep pushing and pushing, and though many, and maybe most of us, will spend our lives resisting that encounter with God, God will keep going at us, as this woman does with Jesus. So when this Canaanite woman says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," Jesus hears something that is out-of-sync with the way he always thought things were. Her comment catches him by surprise. It is not the comment of a dog. It is a profoundly human comment. More than that, it is a word of faith. His ears are always open to the possibility of a word of faith, even in unexpected places. He looks again at this woman whom he had been taught was not worthy of notice, and he recognizes that she is a child of God. Instantly, without hesitation, Jesus throws away a lifetime of cultural conditioning and responds to her with divine compassion. If you think I’m reading too much into this, you need to know that right after this story, Jesus goes even deeper into non-Jewish territory, and gives the people there the same gifts he has been giving to his own people -- healing them and feeding a multitude. Never again in this gospel does Jesus distinguish between outsiders and insiders as he mediates the abundant extravagance of God's grace to all people.
I’ve been talking to this point about what happens to Jesus in this encounter; what about this remarkable woman? What happens to her? Look at her. She comes to this foreign man and his retinue. She asks for compassion, placing her daughter's plight before them. She meets stony silence. She hears his followers tell him to send her away. Then the man politely declines her request. She could have left at that point and kept her dignity. Instead, she will not take "no" for an answer, and kneels before him, begging. He responds, "It is not fair to take food away from the children and throw it to the dogs." She knows what that means. Notice what she doesn't do. She doesn't resist; she doesn't retain the insults; she doesn't react emotionally. "Dogs! Are you calling me a dog? Let me tell you what you are..." She doesn't reconfirm her own cultural conditioning and leave reinforced, "My mother told me about you Jews. She was right." "It is not fair to take food away from the children and throw it to the dogs." I imagine some time elapsed, as she let the insulting stuff pass through her. I can feel the silence before she turns, and with dignified humility says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." What a disarming response. This is an "ego-less" response. It is what Eckhart Tolle calls an "out of ego experience." Listen to what Tolle offers in his popular book A New Earth:
“A powerful spiritual practice is consciously to allow the diminishment of ego... For example, when someone criticizes you, blames you, or calls you names, instead of immediately retaliating or defending yourself -- do nothing. Allow the self-image to remain diminished and become alert to what that feels like deep inside you. For a few seconds, it may feel uncomfortable, as if you had shrunk in size. Then you may sense an inner spaciousness that feels intensely alive. You haven't been diminished at all. In fact, you have expanded. You may then come to an amazing realization: When you are seemingly diminished in some way and remain in absolute non-reaction, not just externally but also internally, you realize that nothing real has been diminished, that through becoming "less" you become more. When you no longer defend or attempt to strengthen the form of yourself, you step out of identification with form, with mental self-image. Through becoming less (in the ego's perception), you in fact undergo an expansion and make room for Being to come forward. True power, who you are beyond form, can then shine through the apparently weakened form. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Deny yourself’ or ‘Turn the other cheek.’” Beneath all of the ego self – the false self that we build up defensively around us, cooperating with the cultural conditioning that tells us who is strong, who is right – beneath all of that we are all in our essence God's children. We are all created in the image of God, filled with divine life, and one with every other creature in the universe. That's our true condition. Whenever we can dis-identify with the ego-self, the cultural self, the false self – we can simply be. Needing no defense; needing no defending. At one with all life, including the one who might appear as enemy. The woman is evidently able to step into this place of ego-less identity, enabled by her love for, her relationship with her suffering daughter. And so she presents Jesus with a new reality than he has seen before. Immediately two miracles happen. The woman’s daughter is healed, and Jesus sheds the cultural conditioning of a lifetime. This story offers us a path to both inner peace and outer reconciliation. The divine presence that is our true self is also the divine presence that is the deepest reality of every other self. Can we open our eyes to see God within our Being and also to see God within every other being? As the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me."
At the beginning of the story, the foreign woman is undeserving of Jesus’ time or attention or compassion. Then he listens to her. She insists on being heard. She becomes his equal, his teacher, and indeed his redeemer. She becomes real to him. Jesus needs to meet the Canaanite woman as much as she needs to meet him. Through their encounter this woman becomes real to him, and because of this, he confronts the barriers of prejudice, power and privilege, and enters more fully into his divine purpose. She is necessary to his ministry, the work he is called to do.
So let us do the work we are called to do as people of faith, seeking and serving Christ in all persons until grace is our only refuge, and until love is our only purpose. May it be so.