Yesterday's Gospel reading can be disturbing. Several blogs I read last week went so far as to question whether Jesus was a racist. Was He so entrenched in his human situatedness that he unthinkingly called this woman a "dog?" Or in the words of another blogger - was Jesus caught with His pants down? Was He being "just human."
There is a theological problem in these approaches to this text, and in any approach to Jesus' humanity that connects Him to us in ways that excuse behavior that is less than loving as being "just human." The reality is that Jesus came to show us how to be divinely human, to show that a human being is meant to be filled with God's love in a way that is truly glorious. Anything less than this is sub-human.
I am glad for those who are disturbed by this text, however, because Christianity's record on racism is far from unblemished. We don't have to go far back in history to come across Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, who linked ethnic cleansing and Christianity in a horrific way. And even more recently we've seen massacres both abroad and in the States by those who would invoke the name of Christ.
But those of us who read the Gospels carefully see that Jesus is no distinguisher of persons. He takes a Samaritan woman seriously, engaging her in a theological discussion at the well. He heals the servant of a Roman centurion while praising the soldier's faith as greater than any He has seen in Israel. He describes His ministry as breaking the chains of captives, and blesses those who are marginalized. Isaiah says that he will not snuff out a flickering candle or break a bruised reed. So whatever Jesus is doing in this passage, it cannot be saying something demeaning, crushing the spirit of this woman who is desperate to see her daughter cleansed of an evil spirit.
What then to do with this story? First, it is good to remember that the words of Jesus, written down in black and white, have lost their intonation. Much like an email which can be misinterpreted absent inflection, or facial expression, we don't know how Jesus responded to this woman. One wonders if Jesus isn't voicing aloud the unspoken thoughts of His disciples. (Check out Matthew's version of the story in 15:21-28). They have a habit, after all, of wanting to dismiss all sorts of people - remember the mothers who brought their children to be blessed? - and have no qualms about obliterating a Samaritan village with fire from heaven when the residents insult the Messiah.
We do know that Jesus doesn't send this woman away; instead, He engages her in a conversation. Furthermore, He allows her to state her case, setting up a repartee that not only shows her intelligence and grit, but also reveals her faith, which is grounded in a sense of God's plenitude. She assumes that there is more than enough grace for her. Grace for an outsider in need. She's been willing to break barriers for the love of her daughter, and there is a justice and hopefulness in her cause which won't be silenced.
I wonder what the conversation with the disciples might have looked like after this woman headed home to her healed daughter. Did Jesus once again say, "Here is an example of true faith?" Did He inform His disciples, as John's Gospel shows Him saying at one point, "I have many sheep who are not of this sheep pen and I must find (or be found by) them as well?"
We don't know. What we do know is this woman's story can stand as a beacon for all those who want grace, who would settle just for a crumb, who feel outside the system, neglected by those who speak for God. Others may stand in their way, but that doesn't deter them. They will not be turned away, and God will listen.