This week in churches all over the world, we’ll hear Jesus call someone of a different race a dog. The Syrophonecian woman appears in the Lectionary this Sunday for the second time in just over a year.
She came to us last year in a reading from Matthew, just as tensions in Ferguson were boiling over. Now she comes to us again, this time from Mark. Still confronting us. Still challenging us. Still laying bare our prejudices.
She has the audacity to keep shouting when the disciples tell her to be quiet. She will not protest on their terms. She will not submit to their notion of respectability. She resists their attempts to control and dismiss her.
The Syrophonecian woman forces us to think about how we treat the “outsiders” in our world today. As we reject the dignity of others in the name of God, as we close our borders and our hearts to refugees from the same part of the world this woman called home, as we try to silence the voices of those who dare to tell us that “black lives matter”— she is there. Still watching. Still waiting. Still exposing our prejudice.
Below is a homily that one of my friends, the Rev. Daniel Brereton, shared on his blog last year. Daniel is an Anglican priest in Toronto and, frankly, he’s one of the best reasons to be on Twitter. His sermon has stayed with me over the past year, so I asked him if I could share it here. May it challenge us to think about who we’ve silenced—through our actions or mere apathy—who we dismiss as “outsiders,” and whether we’re willing to make room for them at the table, just as God made room for us…
Who was she, I wonder? This annoyingly tenacious, desperate woman, with such quick wit and—as Jesus himself points out—such great faith?
She has no name. She’s not an individual—at least, the disciples aren’t looking at her that way. She’s just a label, a representative of an outside and despised group. Easily ignored and easily dismissed… until she refuses to be.
And that’s when this woman becomes a problem. It’s always a problem for the dominant culture when people who differ refuse to stay quietly on the margins, especially when what they say—what they are—offends, challenges, or chastens our prized sense of superiority.
This woman, whoever she was, not only appears in different gospels, but she appears in every age, in every culture, in different guises. You can still see her today: a hand outstretched, trembling with fear at being reviled, or with anger at being mocked, or weariness at being continually silenced. She still seeks a blessing, and she is still told to go away. She is no longer a Canaanite, but she is a Christian being persecuted in Iraq, a Palestinian killed in Gaza, a gay person beaten and arrested in Russia, a black person in Ferguson apparently so threatening to the authorities that the police brought out tanks and tear gas.
All because she still won’t shut up and go away.
Demanding to be heard and seen causes problems, for those doing the shouting and for those who just want them to be quiet and go away. But according to today’s gospel, this steadfast refusal to be silenced also opens the door to healing, not only for the woman’s daughter, nor even just for the woman herself but perhaps most for the disciples, whose vision of God’s kingdom is suddenly expanded, however tightly closed they’ve closed their eyes.
That’s the blessing. But first, the problem:
The woman is a Gentile, so she is automatically “unclean” according to all the religious rules. She is also unaccompanied—no husband, no father, no brother. Any woman who approached a man without a male escort could only be judged as one kind of woman.
Yet driven by concern for her daughter, she strides right up to a man from a people who have despised her and condemned her all her life and implores his help. And then Jesus—our Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace—calls this woman a “dog.”
Now that shocks us. But it wouldn’t have shocked anyone else standing within ear shot. “Dog” was a term commonly used as a label for anyone not Jewish. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Encouraged by the Pharisees, most believed this identity obligated them to honour that status with laws and customs that rigidly set them apart. Jesus fully accepted this. Israel is set apart by God.
Where Jesus differed from the Pharisees was not in the belief that Israel had been set apart, but in his idea of what Israel had been set apart for. For Jesus, Israel was set apart not to hold itself aloof from the world nor to condemn it but to show the world, through its own experience, that their God was a God who was more pleased with pure hearts than with pure sacrifices; their God was a God who remained loyally committed to his people, even when they betrayed him; their God was a God who provided for them out of loving concern, not simply as a reward for good behaviour. Their God would send the Messiah to bring all nations under his just and loving rule.
Yet the only person there who seems to really believe this is not a disciple, but a dog.
Jesus calls her a dog to show that from the perspective of his religion, she’s an outsider. From the perspective of his kingdom, though, she’s the only one there who is actually inside it. Which begs the question for us: are we in Jesus’ kingdom? Or just part of a religion?
It is no coincidence that Matthew places his version of the story immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. In that story, the disciples want Jesus to send the hungry people away to feed themselves and Jesus tells the disciples bluntly: No. YOU give them something to eat.
So the disciples have seen the generosity of God with their own eyes—that there is plenty to go around, that all can be fed for the asking. And now, confronted with someone who is asking, their response is still, “Send her away.” How slow, how blind, how hard of heart the followers of Jesus could be! How slow, blind and hard of heart many of us still are!
Then again, Jesus himself comes across as rather hardhearted in this passage. After the woman calls him “Son of David”—a title that indicates her belief that Jesus is the Messiah—he reminds her that the Messiah has come only for the lost sheep of Israel. At this point the woman could have slunk quietly away, or screamed in outrage at Jesus. She refuses to sacrifice her dignity in either way. She’s come this far. She isn’t going back now. So she kneels at his feet. Its not passive submission I see here, but faith—in Jesus and in herself.
I always thought she simply ignored Jesus’ words. “I don’t care if I’m not an Israelite sheep—help me anyway!” But I wonder. Perhaps what she was actually saying was, “Can’t you see that I AM a lost sheep? Maybe Israel is more than just a plot of land. maybe God’s chosen includes more than just a few tribes. Maybe the kingdom is less about the right genetic code and more about the right relationship with God. And if it is—and if you are the Messiah—then help me!”
I wonder if at that moment, Jesus thought, “Finally! Someone gets it.”
Which is why I don’t think that the harsh sounding question that follows is really meant for the woman at all. Many argue that Jesus is struggling with his own prejudices—that this is a moment of revelation for him, in which he realizes his ministry is in fact to more than just Israel. I don’t agree. I think that while Jesus, being human, must have grown in wisdom and understanding just like anyone, he was also God. So I don’t believe Jesus held the same prejudices. Prior to this he had already healed two Gentiles, so I don’t think he saw this woman as a dog. I do believe that his disciples did, however—and that’s the problem.
Jesus is speaking to the woman, but he’s really asking the disciples: Is it fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs?
I believe that when Jesus asks the question, the answer he wants—the answer he’s looking for—is, “Lord, we’ve been with you long enough to know that in your kingdom, we are all God’s children. She is no ‘dog’ but our sister.”
Sadly I think Jesus is still waiting for his followers to give him that answer.
This woman, who has finally found the courage to speak, is not about to wait for a bunch of men who have called her a dog her entire life to decide whether she’s worthy or not. She knows she is, because she, unlike Jesus’ own disciples, seems to understand who it is she’s talking to. So she says: Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
So much lies behind these words. It is not just a witty retort but a profound challenge:
You guys keep saying that your God is Lord of the world. Are you telling me that your God is any less generous than earthly masters? Is your God really deaf to the cry of a mother, because of her religion or blind to a child’s suffering because of its skin colour? Is your God really so prejudiced as to justify cruelty towards anyone because of who they are?
Does your God really call human beings “dogs”? Or is that just you?
It’s not just the woman’s quick wit that impresses Jesus—her ability to cleverly turn a phrase. It’s her understanding and acceptance of God’s great generosity, something the disciples themselves are still struggling with.
“Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says. And her daughter was healed instantly. After all, that’s why she’s there, putting up with all this name calling and theological debating.
That’s often the way it works, isn’t it?
When it’s only ourselves suffering, we can stay silent. We can justify keeping our heads down and our mouths shut. But when staying silent threatens someone or something we love, suddenly we find the courage to speak. To protest. To challenge even those who claim to speak for God. For the sake of our children and grandchildren and generations yet to be born. As many do today on behalf of all those still excluded by racism, sexism, homophobia, or economic injustice—the Canaanite women and men and teenagers and children that we, in our own fear and prejudices, still want to silence.
Do we, the disciples of Jesus today, respond any differently from those in the gospel passage? How do we keep in mind that there is enough feast to go around? How do we expand the seating to allow for even more to sit at God’s table?
Perhaps it begins with remembering that we—God’s people, the body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—are also Gentiles. And that, brothers and sisters, makes us dogs as well. Dogs to whom God has given far more than crumbs, but seats at the table. Dogs who get to partake in the whole meal. Dogs who are loved, and welcomed and nourished by God because, as it turns out, we aren’t dogs at all, but God’s children.
And if God has made space at his table for dogs like us, who wouldn’t God make room for?
The Rev. Daniel Brereton is an Anglican priest in Toronto. This sermon originally appeared on his blog. Follow him (no, really—do it now) on Twitter at @RevDaniel.