(Romans 11.1-2 & 29-32; Matthew 15, 10-20 & 21-28)
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me!’ How many of us have had that rhyme quoted to us by our parents when we came home from school complaining that we’d been called ‘fatty’, or ‘big ears’ or ‘four-eyes’ by one or other of our classmates.
And of course, as we adults now know, what our parents told us then is codswallop, complete nonsense!
Names can hurt people. Name calling on the basis of differences of race, or religion, or sexuality, can wound people deeply, and even drive people to self-harm or to suicide. There are frequent examples in the news of people hurt so badly by names they have been called, especially about their sexuality, that they try to kill themselves to escape from the hurt. Names cause real damage, especially when used against people from minorities, or those whose sense of identity is fragile, or who have a damaged sense of their own worth.
That’s the whole point of calling people derogatory names. It is meant to separate ‘them’ from ‘us’; name-calling is meant to diminish them, to make it clear that ‘they’ are inferior. Name calling says
we are the normal ones
you are the deviant
we are the powerful ones
you have no real power;
if you try to be like us
we may accept you,
….but that depends on us
and on how deviant you are.
Don’t ever say your way is as valid as ours;
We might get worried
We might attack
….. in fact We are who we are
because you are not who we are !
Name-calling is meant to hurt.
Which is why, if we are really listening to the miracle story in the Gospel reading for today, it should shock us profoundly. Although Jesus did not directly call the woman who came pleading for her daughter to be healed a derogatory name, he did so by implication. Now, we British are a nation of dog-lovers, but even so, none of us would dream of calling anyone a ‘dog’ to their face; and any religious leader who compared a woman who came asking for help to a ‘bitch’ would soon find themselves front page news in the tabloids.
In first century Palestine, it was an even worse insult than it is now. Although Jewish households did have dogs, they were working animals, not pets. They were forbidden food according to the Jewish dietary code, and the strictest observant Jews ruled that their presence and touch made people unclean. Yet it was the term Jews regularly used for Gentiles, emphasising that they were outside the chosen people, unclean, of no concern to God.
Scholars who have written commentaries on this passage have struggled to find a way of freeing Jesus from the charge of being insulting and racist. Some have suggested that Jesus rebuffed the woman with a smile, spoke playfully, or referred to ‘puppies’ to make his refusal to help her seem less harsh and discriminatory. But being compared to an unclean animal is still insulting, even if it is said playfully or with a smile.
Other commentators have suggested that Jesus was just testing her faith, while always intending to help her. But as with the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac as a test of faith, the sort of Saviour this ‘testing of faith’ shows us is abhorrent, hardly a being we would wish to worship. We expect divine beings to act with more consideration and love for others than us, not less. And anyway, other passages make clear that Jesus initially did believe his mission was only to the Jews; he made it clear when he sent out his disciples on their own.
So what conclusion can we come to about this incident? I think it shows that, just like all of us, Jesus had to learn, and grow in his understanding of what God expected of him. Just like us, he had to be freed from the prejudices and limitations of his own time and culture. He grew in wisdom, not just during his childhood, but during his adult ministry too. The Gentile woman made him change his mind, his assumptions about who he was and what he was doing.
One of the very disturbing things about this story is that it tells us God used someone his contemporaries would have viewed as a three times over despised outsider to teach Jesus a new truth. This miracle story is recounted only in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. In Mark the woman is a Syro-Phoenecian, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite, a member of the race that the Hebrews had to conquer and displace when they entered the promised land. So, to him and his disciples, she was not just a foreigner, an unclean Gentile, but a representative of the enemy!
Then, she was a woman. All adult women were ritually unclean at so many periods in their lives –when menstruating, after giving birth – that most religious teachers avoided being near them at any time, in order to avoid possibly being polluted by their touch.
Then, thirdly, she had a child who was possessed by a demon, and that would have led her to be shunned too, since such a misfortune would have been believed by many to be a punishment for some wrong-doing on her part. No wonder the disciples tried to shoo her away!
But she was desperate for help, and nothing was going to deter her. She pushed past the disciples, she ignored the insulting language, she found the witty reply to grab Jesus’s attention, and claimed the salvation he brought for herself and her daughter. She challenged the Messiah of Israel to reconsider his mission, and to offer the renewal of life he brought to a despised outsider.
The earlier part of the reading shows that Jesus was already sitting light to some of the ritual laws about washing before meals, that were so important to the Pharisees and those who challenged his understanding of God’s Kingdom. Already, he was judging some laws to be more important than others, and returning to the message of the great prophets, that how you acted, especially towards the poor and the vulnerable, was more important to God than ritual and keeping rules.
But what she taught Jesus was a message the Church has been slow to learn, and is constantly having to relearn, as circumstances change, and we encounter new categories of outsiders to name-call and exclude.
The Book of Acts and Paul’s letters show the infant church in the time of the apostles struggling with the question of whether Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews, and adopting the food laws, and practices such as circumcision. It was something which deeply divided the church community, with the Jerusalem Church under Peter and Jesus’s family holding the line that the Way was only for Jews, and Gentiles who followed it had to convert; while Paul and his allies argued the message of Christ was for all the world. The letters of Paul, and the fact that the story of Peter and Cornelius is told 3 times over in chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, demonstrates what a crucial and divisive question this was.
Our reading from Romans shows that even Paul struggled with the implications of including Gentiles. Did it mean that his own people, the Jews, were excluded, because so many of them opposed the mission of Jesus and were complicit in his execution? Or did God’s salvation encompass both Jews and Gentiles? That question was settled so decisively that many Christians nowadays forget that Jesus and all his early followers were Jewish, and don’t find it strange that John’s Gospel can refer to those who opposed him as ‘the Jews’.
But the Church has continued to try to limit the wideness of God’s mercy. Again and again, it has labelled different groups of people as pagans, or heretics, or sinners and judged them to be unworthy to be leaders or even to sit at God’s table.
The story of the Canaanite woman shows us that those we seek to exclude, people who are different, awkward or disturbing, often have lessons we need to hear. We none of us have all the answers, and we all need to go on learning from others, and especially those outside our own community, throughout our lives as Christians.
So let this unnamed woman, with her desperate need, teach us today to listen to those who demand the salvation Christ brings. We pride ourselves on being inclusive – but whose voices are we failing to hear, whose needs are we refusing to meet, because of the limits of our vision? Who today is being pushed to the margins of the Church, but is still shouting and demanding to be fed even some crumbs from God’s table?
When are we, like the disciples, trying to push people away and shut them up, because what they are asking makes us feel uncomfortable? Who do we treat as dogs foraging for scraps under God’s table, instead of inviting them to share God’s abundance as honoured guests? Who do we dismiss as unworthy, at the same time as we say to God each week that we ourselves are “unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table”? Who do we insult, and label as unclean, instead of acknowledging them as sons and daughters beloved by God?
If even Jesus, our window into God, God’s beloved Son, needed to have his eyes opened and his vision expanded by the persistence of a despised outsider, who is it that call names and try to silence, who is in reality, shouting out God’s truth to us today?