Like most folks, there are certain parts of my identity about which I’m particularly proud; lots of these things are hard to conceptualize or to name in a succinct way. Others, however, can be shown by a simple picture or a few short words. On my laptop, there are several stickers that highlight the things that I am and the things that I love. Some are obvious, like the Episcopal Shield sticker or my “y’all means all” sticker which highlights both the love of my southern heritage and my uncompromising stance on inclusion. I think my favorite sticker, though, is the simple black and tan coonhound sticker on the bottom right. I love my dogs; I am a dog person, and my two hounds, named after two of my favorite theologians and writers: Sarah Coakley and Mary Oliver, without a doubt make me a better person. But the truth is, whether you are a dog person or not, the way our society on the whole regards dogs is far different than how they were perceived in the Middle East in the first century; and though I am proudly a dog person, I would not be a fan of being called a dog, much less a female dog.
Often in our gospel accounts, it is the disciples who act in contradiction to what Jesus has advised, but what we have here is an example of Jesus not being cast in the best light, and in fact acting in opposition to the advice of holding intentions with the words we use that he just gave to the people. This is not an easy passage to read for those of us who proudly wear the name Christian. This unnamed woman, a Canaanite, is deep in the throes of panic and grief over her daughter, and though she is an ethnic outsider in this region, she still hollers out after Jesus and his disciples in hopes that her daughter would be healed. And, if I was telling this story from memory, or if I was pulling on what I know and believe about Jesus, I would have said that he would, of course, have compassion and heal her daughter, but instead Jesus compares her to a dog, reminding her that he was not sent to her kind of people. Now, to call someone a dog in our day and time would not be a compliment, but in Jesus’ day it was an outright slur.
This unnamed woman, this Canaanite woman who is one of only two people to be said to have great faith in the whole of the book of Matthew, does not let the fact that son of God just called her by a name deter her uncompromising intention to help her daughter; it does not stop her, but rather she leans in. She does not respond with anger, though it would have been justified, instead she responds by reminding Jesus that though he may see her as a dog, even a dog is allowed to eat scraps from the table. She responds by reminding Jesus of the table, by reminding Jesus that the thing that was most central to his ministry is not just about who is at the table, but that the abundance of God’s grace and love is available, even to those who may be left off the guest list. In this brilliant example of her great faith, Jesus is moved to grant this woman’s request and her daughter is healed.
I wonder if in that moment when the woman leaned in to Jesus comparing her a dog if Jesus was keenly aware that though he was fully divine, that he was also fully human. I wonder if he regretted his choice of words, and in a split-second thought of what his powerhouse of a mother might have said, had she heard him call this woman a dog. I wonder if after he healed her daughter if he thought about all the Canaanite women who were part of his own lineage, and how though his life and work were oriented to the outsider, he was still a product of time and culture, biases and all. I wonder if the disciples gave a bit of side-eye at how Jesus’ ethnic slur contradicted what he had just said. I wonder if this woman of great faith pulled back in shock, or if life had continually knocked her down so much that even these words, even from the son of God didn’t surprise her. I wonder.
It is not hard to draw comparisons from our world today to this exchange between Jesus and the woman of great faith. Whether it is social or political or cultural, we draw lines around ourselves and others all the time, and, honestly, every election cycle it gets harder and harder to not call each other names. What does it look like for us to embody the roles of this text? I think I often identify more with Jesus or the disciples in this passage than the woman; far too often I’m more likely to condescend than to hear, far too often, I’m more likely to send away than to draw near. This woman, and her great faith, speak powerfully in our world today. And it’s important to name that her faith is not great because it was acknowledged by Jesus; her faith was great because she persisted, seemingly in spite of Jesus; because she believed that there was hope for her daughter, and she would not let prejudice or circumstance stop her from doing all that she could to help Jesus remember the table.
Whenever I come to a text with the intention of preparing a sermon, one of the questions I ask is why does it matter? How are we going to be different tomorrow because we spent time thinking about this passage of our holy scriptures? Why does it matter that we hear this story of Jesus holding back healing, making assumptions, and calling this woman of great faith a name? I think that the answer lies not in looking not just toward Jesus and the role he plays in this story, but to the woman. It matters because we see her relentless faith, even in the midst of great and consuming grief. It matters because through her pain, she calls out “Lord, have mercy!” a cry that I’ve used so terribly often over the last year. It matters because she leans into who she knows she is and calls Jesus to remember the table. And it matters because Jesus does just that; Jesus does not double down and call her a more amplified slur, but instead sees and hears her as she reminds him of the table.
Perhaps the lesson that we take away from this passage today is not how to have great faith, or that Jesus was fully human, but rather that in our darkest moments, we are better when we remember the table. Because it’s at the table that all our welcome, that all have their place. It’s at the table that God’s abundance is well known and the world of scarcity falls away. It is at the table that we remember that we are built for connection and are called to see, to really, fully, completely see others as they are: created beings loved and made in the image of God.
When we go about our week this week, and if last few months has taught me anything, it will without a doubt have hurled slurs and frustrations and deep griefs, I think that we will do well to heed the call of this woman of great faith, to remember the table, and to remember that like Jesus, when we mess up, we can come back to the table, we can come back to who we want to be. This passage matters because of the woman of great faith, and I’m so grateful for this woman, for the way she persisted and for the way she called Jesus back to the table, because to remember the table is to truly remember who we are. So, remember the table.
A sermon for Proper 15A, August 16, 2020 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via livestream on Matthew 15:21-28.