According to Biblical commentators, the passage in Matthew 15:21-28 is one of the most difficult to understand. Traveling to the traditionally pagan region of Tyre and Sidon (modern day Lebanon), the farthest north Jesus would travel during his earthly ministry, he is accosted by a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Shockingly Jesus acts dismissive and even mean to this Canaanite woman. We find ourselves asking “Is this the same Jesus? How come he is acting like this?”
It certainly seems that Jesus is acting in a negative, even a racist manner towards this non-Jewish woman. There have been many attempts by theologians to understand what is happening in this text. Here are some of the explanations:
- The story shows an inner struggle of Jesus when he is confronted with the request to extend his mission beyond the Jewish limits in which he had begun it. At first he is reluctant to make the shift in his ministry focus, but upon seeing the faith of the Canaanite woman he grows in his understanding of his mission and changes his attitude.
- The Gospel has Jesus playfully using the diminutive word for dogs (i.e. doggies or puppies) rather than the usual term, thus indicating that Jesus did not really despise foreigners as many other Jews did.
- Jesus is trying to teach his followers a lesson, by mirroring what would have been their attitude towards non-Jewish people, then in a sudden shift showing the disciples how Gentiles should be treated (by responding to the request positively, healing the daughter in an act of love and compassion).
- Jesus is testing the sincerity of the Canaanite woman’s humility and faith by seemingly rejecting her request at first.
- The story was adapted by the Gospel writer from another source not related to Jesus, in order to address the struggle within the early church as to whether the message and powers of the kingdom of God were open to Gentiles as well as Jesus.
Is it possible that we are glimpsing some of Jesus’ human nature here? One shaped by the culture and community he was raised in? We know through other historical documents that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had strong negative opinions about people of other ethnic groups and religions: they did not like the Romans, or the Samaritans, or the Greeks, or the Canaanites. They called non-Jewish people “dogs” and they avoided interaction with them as much as possible. If that is what is happening in this story, it would not have been anything unusual as far as a Jewish audience was concerned. This attitude was normal in the culture Jesus grew up in.
We are all shaped by the community and culture in which we were raised. When I think back to my childhood I remember plenty of derogatory jokes and comments made about “other people” – that would include people of Polish or Ukrainian descent, people who came to Canada from India or Pakistan, Asians were all grouped together in our minds and negative stereotypes were repeated over and over. Most significantly Indigenous peoples were targeted for particularly harsh scorn and derision. Not only were people of different ethnic backgrounds treated with suspicion, disregard or outright hatred, so to were people of different religions or different sexual orientations. I can clearly remember using all kinds of slurs and put-downs for people who I considered different from me. And nothing seemed wrong with such behavior, because everyone was doing so, or so it seemed.
These past few weeks we have been watching expressions of hatred towards people of other religions or ethnic heritage on the news. We have seen the neo-nazi and white supremacists marching with torches and hate filled chants in Charlottesville, Virginia. We have seen people targeted and run over by a van in Barcelona because of religious intolerance and hatred, the terrorists believing that their version of religion is the only legitimate one and all others should be exterminated. Such extreme displays of hating others is upsetting to us, and, personally, I found myself deeply disturbed by all this.
When traveling in Europe this summer we came across other disturbing reminders of our intolerance and unacceptance of others who are perceived to be different. Our group visited Dachau, the site of the first concentration camp established by the Nazis, where political dissidents, religious opponents, homosexuals, and multitudes of Jewish people, were held captive and ultimately executed – for no
other reason that they were deemed “not like us.”
Visiting a museum in Munich, Beth and I learned how the National Socialist Movement (or the Nazis) started, how the movement grew and took hold of power. Munich was the heart of fascism in Germany and where Hilter began his quest for power. In this museum I came across one of the most dis-heartening artifacts from the Nazi era – this red stole, worn by clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, during the reign of Hitler.
From reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I know that there were many clergy, theologians and academics who embraced Nazi-ism with open arms, who welcomed Hilter’s movement as a good thing, and shaped their worship services to reflect this admiration. I wondered “How could pastors and priests not see this was a bad thing?”
This was not the only example of racism from historical Europe we encountered. In Wittenberg, the town that is at the heart of the Reformation, the place where Martin Luther preached and taught for most of his life, in this town, on the Stadtkirche (Town Church), we saw this 13th century sandstone sculpture.
It portrays a rabbi who looks under the sow's tail, and other Jews drinking from the pig’s teats. A plaque at the church told us "In the late 13th century, a relief mocking the Jewish religion was installed on the south-east corner of St. Mary’s Church (also known as Town Church). Offensive reliefs of this kind were widespread in the German Empire at that time and were intended to discourage Jews from settling nearby."
A holocaust memorial below the stone relief was unveiled in November 1988, 50 years after the start of the Jewish pogroms in Nazi Germany. The bronze panel created by sculptor Wieland Schmiedel shows four floor slabs meant to conceal something underneath. This “something” however, cannot be suppressed. It emerges from the joints and stands out in relief, forming a cross. The suffering of those trampled underfoot is replicated in the sufferings of Christ. The text by writer Jurgen Rennert around the monument refers to the inscription on the relief high above on the church building. It reads: "God’s original name, the maligned Shem Ha Mphoras, which the Jews held holy before the Christians, died in the six million Jews under the sign of the cross." Added in Hebrew letters in the beginning of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
The “Jewish Sow” high on the church wall at Wittenberg was a stark reminder of the racist attitudes towards the Jewish people that existed throughout Europe, for centuries before the Nazis came to power.
In every museum display talking about Martin Luther and the Reformation that we saw this summer, there was an acknowledgement of Luther’s antisemitism. Sadly, this amazing man of God also had a very negative side to his personality and work. Early in his career as a theologian and pastor Luther supported and defended the Jewish people, however by the end of his life he had come to see the Jewish people only in a negative and hostile light. Some of his final writings were anti-Semitic books
and pamphlets. The most infamous one being his book “On the Jews and Their Lies”, written the final year of Luther’s life. Adolf Hitler used Luther’s book to give support to his own antisemitism.
Why Luther changed his attitude towards the Jewish people has been cause for much speculation, and no clear answer. I also discovered in my reading these past months that Martin Luther was not the only reformer to publish antisemitic works, others such as John Calvin and Erasmus of Rotterdam also wrote or spoke against the Jewish people. Thus even those who knew well the command of Christ to love others as we love ourselves exhibited racist attitudes. It seems as if cultural biases took precedence over Biblical imperatives.
We are all shaped by the cultures and communities we have been raised in, and we are all susceptible to unconscious biases, or to put it another way, we are all to some degree racist.
When we hear the word “racist” certain images come to mind – but racism goes beyond the stereotypical image of the guy with a shaved head and “White Pride” tattooed across his shoulders, the one who drives around with a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his jacked-up truck, and
tosses empty beer cans out of the window. Then we think "We’re not like that, we don’t blatantly hate any groups of people." Thus we conclude that we’re not tainted with racism. However, once and a while we get a glimpse of our unconscious biases, our prejudices, and if we’re honest we need to admit that we find it easiest to paint a group of people with the same brush.
Tieja Thomas of the Someone Project said in a recent interview on CBC radio:
"Everyone makes judgements based on race. So [by] saying that everyone is a racist, I'm trying to make light of the negative impacts of hateful forms of racism, but I think we all make judgements. We're all innately judgmental beings."To be fair, this impulse to judge others based on some identifiable characteristic – their ethnic group, their sexual orientation, their social status, their education level, and so forth – to categorize and characterize others makes it easier to navigate our way in the world. This is why it is such an easy thing to fall into. The world can be an overwhelming place, and anything that simplifies our understanding of how people function in this world is something we would naturally gravitate towards. But just because it is easier doesn’t make it right.
I try hard not to harbor any racist attitudes I sometimes catch myself thinking or even speaking a negative stereotype of another ethnic group. In my interactions with indigenous people I have found myself being patronizing, or over-simplifying their problems, or worse, simply disregarding them. I am not proud of this behavior, but I need to acknowledge that I can also slip back into racist attitudes I learned from my community and culture as a child.
Scientific research has shown that it takes time and effort to overcome our unconscious biases, our racist attitudes, our judgmental behavior. But it can be done. It begins with becoming aware, making unconscious biases conscious. It takes serious reflection, it takes honesty and humility. I believe it also takes prayer. And finally it takes practice, meaning we need to be intentional in getting to know those who we identify as “others.”
This means listening to indigenous people share their stories. It means getting to know a Muslim neighbor. It means participating in ecumenical dialogs, such as the one we hope to have this fall between the Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans of our area.
Let us return to the Gospel reading, moving past the initial behavior and words of Jesus to the conclusion of the story. Here we find Jesus suddenly proclaiming the worth and value of the Canaanite woman. This un-named Gentile woman is the only person in the Gospel of Matthew said to have “great faith” (in contrast to the disciples’ “little faith”).
In this way, this story is similar to that of the Roman centurion in Matthew chapter 8, both stories of Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people prepare us for the universal mission charge with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes (28:19-20). "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you."
The other day I came across a Statement of Lutheran Clergy Rejecting White Supremacy, Terrorism, and Violence. It begins by quoting from Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!
Then it continues:
We the undersigned, as Lutheran pastors and leaders who believe that God’s grace is for “all tribes and peoples and languages,” publicly condemn white supremacy as well as terrorism of every kind.
I applaud the people who put that statement, but if we only paid attention to the obvious forms of racism and hatred we will miss the call of the Holy Spirit to look deep into our own hearts, and to begin the transformation to a world of peace by starting with ourselves.
One final image to share with you.
Here we see hands of many different hues placed on top of the cross. This specific cross is on the Norwegian flag. When you think of Norwegians I’m sure you imagine blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned people. One time my Dad was in a store and overhead people speaking fluent Norwegian. He rounded the corner and saw two black men engaged in conversation using perfectly pronounced Norwegian. Had he not heard them first I’m sure my Dad never would have thought they were from Norway, the world is filled with surprises like that. Surprises such as a Canaanite woman who shows more faith than even Jesus’ disciples. May you be open to the surprising people that God will give you opportunity to get to know.
As we strive to accept and love all people, truly and fully from the depths of our hearts; as we seek to allow the love of Jesus to transform us, and to change any lingering sinful attitudes into fruits of the Spirit; then we will be united as in the vision in Isaiah 56, united as the whole people of God, a family created by the love and grace of God.