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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Us And Them

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28

Did you hear the story of a Chinese man and a Jewish man who met each other one day on a New York City street? The Jewish man took one look at the Chinese man and hauled off and slugged him, knocking him to the ground.

“What was that for?” the Chinese man asked, rubbing his jaw. “For Pearl Harbor,” came the reply. “But I’m Chinese,” the man objected. “We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. That was the Japanese!” “Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, they’re all the same to me, the Jewish man said, and walked off down the street.

The next day, the two ran into each other again. This time the Chinese man hauled off and slugged the Jew, knocking him to the ground.

“What was that for?” the Jewish man asked. “For the Titanic,” came the reply. “The Titanic? I had nothing to do with the sinking of the Titanic; that was an Iceberg!” “Iceberg, Goldberg, Greenberg, they’re all the same to me,” the Chinese man replied.

How ridiculous prejudice is – yet, how commonplace! From the earliest days that men and women have walked the earth, we’ve had the tendency to build walls to separate people one from another. Whether they are barriers of race, religion, nationality, or economic status, all of us can claim a share of guilt for maintaining the walls – the walls that separate us from them. In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear of a woman who had the courage to scale the walls of prejudice.

Jesus and His disciples have crossed over into a foreign country, the land of Tyre and Sidon (that’s Lebanon today). Matthew doesn’t tell us why they’ve traveled so far out of their way, but it’s just possible that Jesus and His friends have gone on sort of a vacation or retreat. Exhausted from the demands of ministry – the crowds that won’t leave them alone, the unending harassment from the Scribes and the Pharisees – they just want to get away from it all. But there’s no rest for the weary – not even in Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman rushes up to them, begging Jesus to heal her daughter.

Now, that may not seem at all unusual – after all, healing people is Jesus’ stock in trade – but remember who this woman is: she’s a Canaanite! The rivalry and hatred between Jews and Canaanites is as old as the hills. Way back in Genesis, we hear Noah curse Canaan as “the lowest of slaves” (Genesis 9:25). An entire biblical book – Joshua – is devoted to telling the bloody saga of Israel’s conquest of the Land of Canaan. And that feud survives even today, in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even more extraordinary is the way the Canaanite woman addresses Jesus: “Lord, Son of David.” In using this particular title, she’s making a claim that not even the disciples have dared to make – she’s identifying Jesus as the Messiah. This woman – this Canaanite woman – is the first one in Matthew’s Gospel to publicly identify Jesus as who He is!

Yet, surprisingly, Jesus’ response to her is lukewarm – even kind of rude. He seems to want nothing to do with the woman. Without ever answering her plea, Jesus turns to the disciples and said to them in a loud voice – so she’s sure to overhear – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Now, to our ears that sounds harsh, even cruel. Yet, in order to understand what’s happening here, you have to try to think like a first-century Jew. To a faithful Jew of that day, Jesus’ response to the woman is hardly out of the ordinary. It is, in fact, exactly what a rabbi is expected to say. Virtuous women of that society do not approach men on a public street and speak to them. More than that, this woman belongs to an unclean race, the Canaanites. There was no rabbi alive, in that time, who would give such a woman the time of day!

Yet this woman will not take “no” for an answer. She falls to her knees in front of Jesus and begs Him to help her. The worry etched on her face tells all the story anyone needs to hear. Her daughter is sick, and she has nowhere else to turn. This woman will pay any price, will do anything, to see her well again.

When Jesus finally does speak to the woman, His words hardly sound comforting. “It’s not right,” He says, “to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

It’s this statement of Jesus that’s most difficult for modern-day Christians to swallow. It sounds, for all the world, like a racist remark – and, on the literal level, it is. You can try to excuse Jesus by observing that He’s merely reflecting the standards of His day – in much the same way some excuse certain founding fathers of our country, who conveniently concluded that “all men are created equal” did not apply to their African slaves (nor even to their wives and daughters) – but somehow that’s not satisfying. We expect more of Jesus, the Son of God.

But there’s more going on here than an inconsiderate brush-off. Despite His shocking words, Jesus is reaching out to the woman in an extraordinary way. Remember that, in the Orthodox Jewish way of thinking, a rabbi has no business at all talking to a Gentile woman. In speaking to her on this occasion, Jesus is actually paying her a high honor. He is allowing her to engage with Him in a theological debate, as His equal. Jesus is giving her an opportunity to make a theological case for the healing of her daughter.

And the woman is more than up to Jesus’ challenge. In a clever comeback she responds, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’ table!”

If the Canaanite woman had been debating before a panel of Olympic judges, the cards they turn up would all read “10.” Matthew portrays Jesus as the most excellent debater of the world, yet here Jesus allows a Canaanite woman to get the better of Him!

More than that, Jesus is teaching the disciples an important lesson. Just prior to this passage, He’s been explaining to the disciples that the Scribes and Pharisees’ idea of ritual uncleanliness is nonsense. It’s not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, He’s told them, but what comes out of it. It’s not our adherence to the details of the Law that God notices, but how we treat other people.

According to the Law, Jesus would have done the right thing by ignoring the woman. Instead, He shows the absurdity of the Pharisees’ position by arguing it Himself – and allowing the Canaanite woman to argue the side of justice and understanding. In doing so, Jesus honors her for her faith – and, at the same time, demonstrates to the disciples that all of us are equally deserving in the eyes of God. With that accomplished, there’s nothing more for Jesus to do than to tell the woman her daughter had been healed.

We could all stand to hear that lesson from time to time – about how we all stand equal before the eyes of God. In the eyes of our Maker, there is no race, there is no gender, there is no ancestral pedigree; there are only believing hearts. But, sad to say, it’s so very easy for us to tolerate the walls of discrimination that are so prevalent in our society!

There’s a famous poem by Robert Frost about the walls we build in life. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he writes, looking over at his new England farmer neighbor, who’s heaving yet another stone atop the wall that runs between their two properties. The poet asks his neighbor why the wall is necessary: “My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” But then the poet is led to wonder: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

Prejudice exacts a heavy toll on those who practice it – not only on its victims. How many of us suffer from a sudden twinge of fear as we pass a person of another race on an empty sidewalk? Or how many of us wonder what that person who looks a little different is doing in our neighborhood, and whether he or she is up to no good?

May we all remember that each person we encounter in this life is loved by God so much that He gave His only begotten Son to die for them. There is no Them. There is only Us!


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