Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman, a Syro-Phoenician woman in today’s Gospel. She gets to him, even though his followers try to get in the way. She finally makes her way to Jesus, who has been ignoring her. She asks Jesus to show her mercy, to heal her daughter, and Jesus first refused. Then he responds: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Did Jesus just call that woman a…dog? In the understanding of ancient Israel, dogs were not pets. They were not “fur-babies” Dogs were scavengers. Most orthodox rabbis still won’t keep dogs. Cats yes, but not dogs. This Gospel is difficult. It’s a mess. How do we interpret what Jesus says, what Jesus does?
Last week I asked the question: where do you find yourself in the text? Today I want to ask another question of the Bible: “What lens do you bring?”
We all bring lenses, consciously or unconsciously, to how we read the Bible, to how we read everyday life. Let’s start with current events. A great deal of the coverage concerning COVID-19 has taken on the lens of “war.” We talk about the “battle to contain the spread.” Even “front-line” workers is a wartime image. But the language of warfare might be misplaced, problematic, because no weapon will stop the virus. You can’t blow it to smithereens.
It’s interesting we talk about an actual pandemic using the metaphors of war, especially given the way we’ve been talking about “twin pandemics” this summer. We use the language of disease to talk about racism. Racism is “in the air.” It infects.
For most of us, this is our first literal pandemic, and it’s tough. We’ve never had to behave this way before. The symptoms in an individual are often almost undetectable. So if individuals only act on their own behalf, if I insist “I am symptom free, I am fine to go about in public,” If all of us behave this way then the community is doomed.
We have to think systemically. Out in public, I don’t wear a mask for my safety, but for yours. The only way to stop the spread is for all of us, all of us, to act like we are potentially infectious. The lens matters. We won’t fight our way out. We won’t “win.” We will only survive together. We will only make it through to the other side by practicing compassion, by putting our neighbor’s needs first. The lens of war doesn’t get us there. That language demands enemies we can confront. The language of compassion, mutual care, and sacrifice needs a different lens.
We all carry lenses with us, as we approach our day to day lives, and as we approach scripture. One read of this Gospel story is that Jesus is challenging his disciples. He is challenging their biases, this story is a rabbinic teaching method, a trick. He’s playing their game. At first, following the disciples, he’s tries to ignore this woman (but only to show them what they’re doing. He knows she’ll keep after them). Then, he plays on their biases with his language. He’s exposes the xenophobic and misogynist lens with which they view their neighbors.
Maybe that’s how it really played out. I’m not sure Matthew’s Gospel gives us enough evidence, but maybe. You often hear this argument from folks who want to defend Jesus. The church can hand us some pretty thick lenses for Scripture as well. Since at least the fifth century, the church has taught that Jesus was fully divine which means, as St. Paul puts it, Jesus is without sin. If Jesus can’t sin, then he couldn’t have used a racist epithet. Jesus couldn’t have treated this woman with sexism. Looking at the scripture through this lens, I guess you just blur out the words from Jesus’ mouth.
You can tell I don’t find this argument compelling, partly because I think it misunderstands the nature of sin. If we understand the sin of racism only through the lens of individual actions, only through the use of racial epithets or violence, then we say things like “I don’t know any racists.” If we see racism through the lens of systems, we can see that black women are paid on average 40% less than white men. August 13 marked “equal pay day for black women” this year. For the average black woman to earn what the average white man earned in 2019, she had to keep working all the way to Thursday. It’s structural. That’s racism and gender bias at work. And it’s really hard to point to any individual action that made it true, any individual decision. And it’s still sinful.
Lenses matter. If you don’t look at our society through a structural lens, a systemic lens, you might think that Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement ended racism. You need a different lens. Without the structural lens, you might not see the way sin is still operating.
In college I was given a lens for Scripture, and the gift has been precious. Black Womanist and Latin American Feminist Theologians ask us to read Scripture with the “option for the poor,” the “option for the marginalized.” They say if you want to understand what is happening in Scripture, look to the poor. God seems to be working, across the length of the Bible, for the liberation of the least, the lost, and the left-out.
Through this lens we can see this woman for the powerhouse she is. What is redemptive in this reading, what is powerful is this woman’s persistence. She ignores the disciples shooing her away. She pushes past Jesus’ silence. She redirects his language. She persists. She keeps pursuing Jesus until the healing comes. This woman is the center of the story. She is the hero.
I would argue it’s not a coincidence that she reminds us of another character in the Gospels. Jesus once told a parable of a persistent woman who faces down an unjust judge. Jesus tells his followers to be persistent in prayer because how much more will a just God hear those who persist?
I never answered the first question, about whether Jesus called this woman a dog. The question itself makes me deeply uncomfortable. But I think that has to be the case.
Because, when you look through the lens of systemic injustice, there is no denying that the Church, that those of us who claim to follow Jesus have contributed to and benefited from the exploitation of women and people of color. What Jesus says in this story is uncomfortable because still today women’s cries are ignored and dismissed. What Jesus says is uncomfortable because race and ethnicity are still markers of whether someone is more likely to be paid unfairly, denied access to education or the vote, or killed in police custody.
In the face of these realities the only lenses that help us see clearly are those that help us see this woman claiming the center of this story. The path forward is relentless persistence, until God’s healing comes.