Here's today's homily. The Gospel is Matthew 15:21-28.
Today’s Gospel is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and the Canaanite woman is one of my favorite characters in Scripture. She is alone and despised, an outcast, a mother desperate to find healing for her sick child. She is the kind of person we expect Jesus to embrace and include, but when he doesn’t, she thinks on her feet and challenges his rejection of her, his cruelty. She is the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with Jesus. She proves that people can sometimes teach God a lesson.
Jesus is tired, overwhelmed. Fully human, he needs a vacation. He has told his disciples, just as he tells this nameless woman, that he has been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. The frantic mother isn’t the right nationality. She’s from the wrong place. She doesn’t look like him. Her child isn’t one of his children. And so he tries to dismiss her. “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Fully divine, Jesus snaps to. He admits that he was wrong. He blesses the mother and heals the child. From now on, his ministry will be much more inclusive. This moment marks a change in how he sees both himself and the people he has come to save.
The lesson this nameless woman teaches God has been articulated more recently by a man named Paul Farmer, an American doctor who does remarkable work in Haiti, and elsewhere in the world, treating the poorest of the poor. Paul Farmer has written, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” That could come from the Bible, couldn’t it? It sounds like something Jesus might say. It sounds like things Jesus did say, but only after his encounter with the Canaanite woman. All lives matter.
God has learned that lesson, but the world still hasn’t gotten the message. The news this week has been particularly grim and despairing. Stories from Gaza and Missouri, from the Mexican border and from a private home in Tiburon, California, all attest to how easily we fall into believing that some lives matter less. Whether the lives we dismiss are our own or other people’s, the root tragedy is our failure to cherish all of God’s beloved creation. We are all God’s children, whatever the nationality or economic status or skin color of our human parents.
The Canaanite woman taught Jesus this lesson millenia ago. Why haven’t we learned it yet? What will it take to get it through our thick skulls and into our hardened hearts?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have an observation. The story of the Canaanite woman occurs in both Matthew, where we heard it today, and in Mark. In both Gospels, it is preceded by the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand. And in both Gospels, it’s followed by a lesser-known miracle, the feeding of the four thousand. Once again, Jesus is faced with a huge hungry crowd. Once again, the disciples panic at their lack of supplies. Once again, Jesus commands them to feed the crowd anyway, and once again, a few measly fish and some crumbs of bread stretch to feed the multitude.
I’ve read various commentaries on this curious repetition. Some scholars believe that the same miracle is being described twice. Others point out that the differing details -- the numbers of people and fish, the amount of bread -- suggest two discrete events. I think we’re being taught a lesson: namely, that humans have to learn the same lessons over and over again, and that they have to be fed over and over again. We can’t eat just once. That’s why we take Communion, our food for the journey, every week. That’s why we pray to receive our daily bread, the crumbs we need to keep going.
A feminist Catholic scholar named Megan McKenna has pointed out that in all four feeding stories, the two in Mark and the two in Matthew, we’re told that the crowd numbered however many thousands, “not including women and children.” She points out that women with children are usually carrying diaper bags with snacks. She suggests that those measly fish and crumbs stretched so far because the crowd shared what it had, because mothers shared their own children’s food with other people’s children.
If you share with strangers, even if you’re afraid there isn’t enough, you’ll discover that there is. The feeding miracles teach us that; so does the story of the Canaanite woman. God’s healing grace doesn’t need to be rationed. There’s enough to go around.
But we need to be reminded of this, sometimes every day. And sometimes the people who do the reminding need to be persistent, even unpleasant, because that’s the only way to get the attention of the people controlling those crumbs. The Canaanite woman runs after Jesus. Yelling, she chases him down in the street. She’s so noisy and annoying that the disciples tell Jesus to send her away, but if she weren’t that noisy and annoying, Jesus would have kept ignoring her, and her daughter wouldn’t have been healed. The Canaanite woman challenges the notion that only men are entitled to public space, public speech, public advocacy. Among other things, she’s a model of feminist activism.
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, the heyday of feminism, when women in the United States were marching and burning bras and publishing manifestos about how their lives mattered as much as those of men. My stepmother was annoyed by these women. She thought they were obnoxious. My father said, “They have to be. That’s how you get things done. The leaders of revolutions can’t afford to worry about manners.”
That was in the seventies. In 2004, I took a summer course in the Gospels at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Our teacher, a Lutheran, was a famous Gospel scholar who believed that his ideas mattered far more than those of his students. The class met for four hours a day. The teacher lectured for four hours straight. Students weren’t allowed to speak. If we raised our hands, he ignored us. Finally, a small group of us -- both women and men -- started calling out our own ideas, ignoring the fact that he was ignoring us.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I was one of the noisy ones.
One day he lectured about the Canaanite woman, about the two different versions of the story in Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the woman’s less noisy and annoying, more polite. Our teacher said that her abrasive behavior in Matthew is a lesson about how gracious and loving Jesus was to pay attention to her even though she was so unpleasant and persistent, so rude.
After class, I went up to the teacher and said, “Her daughter was sick. Come on: how could anyone blame a frantic mother for trying to get healing for her child? Of course she did whatever it took to get Jesus’ attention!”
The teacher looked at me. He sneered. He said, “Well, Susan, I’m sure you don’t have trouble with obnoxious women.”
He may have been an expert in the Gospels, but he missed the point of this passage.
The point is that we need to be persistent, sometimes even obnoxious, in insisting that everyone matters. We need to be persistent in our faith that there is enough to go around, that even crumbs will multiply to feed multitudes. We need to be persistent in insisting that all of God’s children deserve a place at the table and a generous portion of daily bread.