Shaped by the Margins

Lessons for Proper 15A: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; and Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

I had a friend who had come to the seminary from the field of public relations who commented that as a publicist he probably wouldn’t have wanted this story about Jesus to get around. Having just left  the familiar territory and people of Gennesaret (a small plain extending northwest from the sea of Galilee between Magdala and Capernaum), Jesus ventures northwest into the territory of the Gentiles near Tyre and Sidon. Upon arriving in the territory Jesus is met by a desperate mother seeking healing for a daughter. The woman pleads, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Matthew 15:22). At first, Jesus just ignores her as the disciples try to send her away; but then Jesus rebukes her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matthew 15:24). She is beyond the scope of Jesus’ mission. 

The Persistent Woman on the Margins
Persistent, the woman pleads again, “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:22-25). Jesus’ ignoring and rebuke now turns to offense as he refers to her as a “dog,” a term of scorn for Gentiles. But the resolute woman continues to advocate for what she most needs – healing for her tormented daughter – as she reminds Jesus that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). Finally, on her third vocal plea, Jesus is moved to respond:  “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Mattew 15:28).

On first reading, this story doesn’t exactly paint Jesus in the best light. In our age of sound bites and news cycles, I can imagine this one getting some play. The optics are not good, especially for a rabbi building a movement on “love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The healing narratives in the gospels are often framed with boundary crossing. In Matthew’s gospel alone Jesus approaches lepers, Gentiles, the woman who was bleeding, those possessed by demons, and many others who were kept on the margins, separated because of their status. This encounter, likewise, is framed with boundary crossing: a geographical boundary (Israel/Sidon), a gender boundary (male/female), an ethnic boundary (Jew/Canaanite), and a boundary between sacred and profane, holy and demon-possessed. Now, in the usual pattern of healing narratives in Matthew, Jesus is one who crosses the boundary, who initiates the break in the usual protocol. In this narrative, however, the boundary is crossed by the Canaanite woman whose daughter is demon-possessed.

That’s right! A Canaanite woman confronts a Jewish man. Now, to be fair, Jesus is in her neighborhood, but the customs were still similar. But this woman was so desperate that she abandoned cultural norms, taking a huge risk to cross the acceptable boundary and coming in off the margins. Not deterred by Jesus’ won liberation for her daughter, she also challenged and expanded the breadth of Jesus’ ministry. 

The Quintessential Outsider Expands Jesus’ Ministry
Interpreters throughout the years and across denominations have tried to reconcile and rationalize Jesus’ response. I have read and heard a myriad of excuses: 

  • “The language is not as offensive as it sounds.” – Yes, it is! 
  • “Jesus was tired!” or “Jesus was just having a bad day!” – That’s no excuse!
  • “Jesus was testing the Canaanite woman’s faith.” – While this might be valid in the gospel of John, it is not a usual Matthean trope and there is no indication in the narrative that this is the case.
  • “Jesus’ tone and facial expressions….” – Like you can tell from the narrative! 

The point is, there is a lot of effort poured into justifying Jesus and the disciples’ interaction with this marginalized woman in the narrative which aims to soften the dissonance we hear. This is just not how we want to think about Jesus – perfectly compassionate, always welcoming, and unprejudiced. 

Frankly, though, I am not at all interested in sanitizing the narrative. The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is the quintessential outsider, marginalized by gender, ethnicity, religion, and geography. So, maybe we should just sit with the dissonance, and maybe we can learn through what Jesus learned – through what that outsider knew to be true – that God’s generous mercy and healing love are for all people, even for those beyond the perceived boundaries. So, while a publicist may not like this kind of story, I have grown to appreciate it. The narrative shines a light on how Jesus was formed by his culture, built as it was on racial, gender, and ethnic hierarchy. He thought he understood his ministry to be just to the Jews, a narrow understanding that prevented him from truly seeing the child of God in front of him.

Maybe, just maybe, the demon-possessed daughter was not the only one healed that day. Maybe Jesus is also healed, healed of cultural prejudice that imposed boundaries on his mercy. There is no doubt that Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman changes him and the future shape of his ministry. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus sends out the twelve, Jesus tells them,

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matthew 10:5-6

By the end of the Gospel, the risen Jesus will send those same men,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19

Through this encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus expands his understanding of his ministry to be inclusive and expansive. Throughout the gospels Jesus crossed boundaries and extended tables, but the racism that was in the groundwater of his culture prevented him from seeing fully. But his eyes were open and that made all the difference as a turning point in his ministry. 

Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

Matthew 15:27

Just when we think we know the scope of our concern, the boundaries of our neighborhood, and the kinds of people we care about, the circle is drawn wider. 

Following Jesus to the Margins
Rev. Gregory Boyle, SJ, founded Homeboy Industries in 1998 to help those in his urban LA community fight the cycle of poverty, addiction, and incarceration. In describing community,  Rev. Boyle once said,

“It would seem that, quite possibly, the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than in judgment at how they carry it.”

Rev. Gregory Boyle, SJ

Rev. Boyle and those at Homeboy Industries learn to heal in community by building relationships with one another. They talk a lot about kinship, as in what happens when we refuse to forget that we belong to each other. Rev. Boyle talks about kinship as a way of making God’s dream come true, as a way of enlarging the circle of compassion to include everyone. It’s the kind of kinship that would have us inching ever closer to the margins so that the margins are erased. It’s the kind of kinship that draws us to stand with the powerless and the oppressed, the despised and abandoned. It is kinship that pulls us to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. It is kinship that situates us next to the disposable so that we will stop disposing of people. 

The Canaanite woman stood with Jesus, even if it took a minute for Jesus to stand with her. It is time for us to  commit ourselves, again, to the way of Jesus, to the hard and holy work of racial justice and gender equity, to healing and dismantling every practice and policy that privileges the lives of white men over those of others. As followers of Jesus in this time and place this is our call. This means that we must live and love, show up and advocate for just equitable ways of living together. We know that there should be no boundaries when it comes to God’s all-encompassing love. We have to live and love and show up and speak out and advocate for just and equitable ways of living together. We belong to God and we belong to each other.

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