The enormous challenge of changing our mind  

Genesis 45.1-15

Psalm 133

Romans 11.13–32

Matthew 15.21–28

©Suzanne Grimmett

Dogs are a part of our lives, but whether an irritation or beloved family member depends on your point of view…and perhaps on the dog! Every household tends to have different rules for their pooch. In our household, dogs are not allowed on beds and are not to be fed from the table. In ancient societies rules differed as well. I have read that in ancient Jewish households the dogs were not allowed inside. If they were to be fed the ‘children’s bread’, the householder would have to go outside the home to where the dogs were kept. In contrast, in many Gentile homes the dogs were a part of the family life and could be fed scraps from the table.

We have in the Gospel today, a conversation which includes comments from Jesus which many find to be out of character and unsettling. Jesus, when a mother accosts him to beg for healing for her daughter, tells her essentially to go away because his mission is to Israel. The Canaanite woman, recognising who Jesus, is gives him both titles- Lord, and Son of David. To her, Jesus is both Lord of all humanity but also specifically comes from a particular lineage of kings and religious culture different from her own. Jesus’ response seems harsh;

‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

It is a reading that cannot be softened or explained away, particularly as it occurs in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel. While in Mark the woman is named as a Phoenician from Syria, Matthew chooses to identify the woman as a “Canaanite”, despite this not being a usual ethnic identifier of the time. It would perhaps be a bit like me looking out upon you all and saying the church is full of Anglo-Saxons. The Canaanites historically had been colonised by Israel- they were the Indigenous people of the land. This means they shared a complex historical past and the same geographical space, but with the power dynamic of the coloniser over the colonised. Archaeology has confirmed that Hebrew is a Canaanite language. Yet despite story and the ancient origins of language in common, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make it clear that this woman is an outsider; someone who would be expected to be beneath the notice of most Jewish men. Jesus shared the exclusive cultural views of his time where there was separation by race, religion, gender and class; all of that can be discerned in his reaction to this bold woman. It would have been so easy for the Gospel writes to redact this story from the narratives because it uncomfortably challenges our understanding of the nature of Jesus. The fact that they did not suggests it was considered an important and authentic account by early Christian communities.

When Jesus tells the woman that he has been sent ‘only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, she adapts her address, dropping the Son of David and addressing him simply as Lord, so reminding him of the greater breadth of his responsibility.  Despite the offense of referring to her, a Gentile woman as a ‘dog’, this mother’s single-minded focus on getting help for her daughter perhaps gives her the calm clarity to respond;

“Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  

The Canaanite woman is drawing attention to her place not outside the house, but there in the house where bread is broken.  She is arguing that he need not have to go outside to find her and offer crumbs. She is not waiting begging at the door but is there with him in his household because he is Lord of all. She demands that he see her daughter’s need and expand his vision of who is to be included in the hospitality of God.

We can fall unthinkingly into the habit of excluding others. Every culture gives greater importance and influence to some groups or individuals, while overlooking or neglecting the voices of others. This limited and prejudiced vision is part of the human experience that even Jesus, it appears, shares. What is vastly different in Jesus, is his ability to see past his human and culturally limited vision to recognise the voice of the one he calls Abba Father, speaking through the voice of this desperate woman. Jesus pays attention and his self-understanding and the understanding of his own mission on earth is enlarged by the wisdom and grace of the woman’s response. Instead of seeing her as a dog taking the children’s food, he addresses her formally saying;

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Jesus shows his disciples that they are to act as he acts; teaching, healing, proclaiming good news and bringing peace. We, too, are called to be followers of his way. If Jesus can recognise his cultural blindness and be converted to a new way of seeing by a woman who was both stranger and Gentile, then we too need to be prepared to be challenged in our assured views by those who are different from us, those whose ways are foreign to us or difficult to understand. 

Sometimes our greatest learnings about the nature of God and God’s mission is found when we rub up against those whose culture, experience or situation in life is vastly different from our own. Churches with well organised mission action plans and a sure strategy of how to achieve goals can find themselves disoriented by the disruptive power of God present in the voice of the stranger. Our ability to love and offer genuine hospitality grows only as we allow ourselves to share our life with those who are different or ‘other’. This is why ministries which reach out to diverse groups within the wider community are such a gift to the people of God. The Spirit speaks in the voices of those who plea to be heard and understood; voices around us calling for justice and healing. We are called to the same humility as Jesus who offered all his attention to this woman…this Gentile…. who then showed him the way of healing and reconciliation and a more expansive vision of the love of God.

The text tells us that the woman’s daughter was ‘healed instantly’. But that is not the only witness to healing and reconciliation we find in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. This encounter is nestled between accounts of Jesus healing various ailments amongst gathered crowds and the two great feeding stories; the five thousand fed where there were twelve baskets of bread and fish left over, and the feeding of the four thousand where there were seven baskets of bread and fish remaining. Numbers are significant in scripture; twelve is representative of the twelve tribes of Israel and seven is the number of completeness. The expansion of Jesus’ ministry that is triggered by his encounter with the Canaanite woman is demonstrated in the second miraculous feeding where the wholeness and completeness of the kingdom is made visible; not just the twelve tribes, but all of creation and humanity is to be reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus the Christ. Matthew is showing us that this was made possible by a woman’s courageous faith and the God-man Jesus who was able to humbly attend to both stranger and Spirit to see and respond to the new thing God was doing.

There is a wondrous truth revealed starkly here in the vulnerability of the God who would entrust Godself to the weakness of humanity with all its blindness and prejudice. This is revealed in the man Jesus who, in his full humanity, shares with us the limited perspectives of any single human life. God surely then takes an even greater risk through the Spirit in entrusting the mission of the kingdom to us -with all our capacity for discrimination and bigotry – to be Christ-bearers in the world. If there is to be hope for us, it surely is good news that Jesus too struggled with localised prejudices and yet was not ruled by them. His deep listening to the Father prompted him to pay close attention to the world and its people, seeing and hearing clearly where God would speak through the oppressed and ignored. When contradicted, he did not become defensive and maintain his power, but in humility listened…and changed his mind and direction.

We have that same ability to attend with humility, discarding our will to power. We have the same access to the presence of the Spirit, prompting us to recognise the expansive hospitality of the kingdom where all are invited inside the household of God. We are invited to slow down and pay attention so that we may notice and question our reflexive prejudices. And we are given the assurance that as we awaken to our own sin and ignorance, Christ will not condemn, but leads us to repentance and grace that we may change our minds and learn what it means to truly love one another.