Racism and People of Faith: Crumbs
Today we’re continuing the hard work of thinking and talking about racism and our life of faith. It isn’t easy, but you’re already doing something meaningful to address racism: you’re here today. I’m not kidding - unless you weren’t here last week, and didn’t know what we’d be talking about today, you’ve already made a choice that’s important: you’re here again, while we engage in this conversation about racism. Last week was hard! Talking about racism can be hard. But you came back! That has meaning, and I’m thankful that however you’re feeling, you were willing to come and be here again.
I had a clear sense of where I wanted to start last week. And I have some clear ideas about what I want to say next Sunday. But for this Sunday, I’ve been struggling. I imagined that I might share with you some statistics or comments about racism today. I was looking up facts to share with you - like how people of color are more likely to receive longer jail sentences than white people for the same crimes, or how people who have “black-sounding” names are less likely to get called for a job interview than applicants with “white-sounding” names, or how people of color regularly get charged higher interest rates on loans than white people of similar financial means. (See, I snuck some things in there anyway.) But, facts, as clear cut as they sometimes might seem, do not usually change hearts. Our experiences change hearts. Stories draw us in and change our hearts. And encounters with Jesus change hearts. As usual, if we stay with the scripture, we’ll find our place and our call to action and transformation.
Our gospel lesson for today is a challenging one. We read that Jesus is traveling to Tyre and Sidon. We’re not given any reason for his journey, and it is out of the way from where he was - Gennesaret - and where he goes - back to the border of the Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were mostly populated by Gentiles - that is non-Jewish folks - and more specifically it was a region populated by people the Bible refers to as Canaanites. Back in Genesis, when God first tells Abraham that he will be a great nation, and that God has a new home for what will become the Israelite people, the land God is talking about is already full of people: people called the Canaanites. The meaning of the name Canaan is a little unclear, but some suggest “to be low, humble, or subjugated” as a possible meaning. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan) When the Israelites eventually occupy the Promised Land, the Canaanites, who had already been living there, are defeated by Joshua and his army, and pushed out. They are never wiped out entirely though, and by Jesus’ time, Canaanites are a large and diverse religious ethnic group that live in close proximity to the Jewish people. Today, descendants of the Canaanites make up a large part of the population of Lebanon, neighbor of Israel. Race isn’t present in the Bible in the same way we would speak about it today. The categories of race that are common to us today are fairly recent ways of thinking about populations of people. But ethnic division was certainly present in the scriptures, along with hatred and animosity based on ethnic differences. Canaanites and Jews had different religions, different practices, different traditions.
So, Jesus travels to a predominantly Canaanite region, far outside of his usual path of travel, for some unknown reason. A Canaanite woman immediately approaches him, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know how she knew to seek healing through Jesus - she must have heard something about him, his reputation. Jesus ignores her. Ouch. The text says, “He did not answer her at all.” But the disciples aren’t satisfied with that - they want Jesus to actively discourage her, sending her away, to stop her shouting. Now, at least, Jesus responds to her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Has Jesus ever before turned anyone down for healing? Still, the woman persists. She kneels before Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answers her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some biblical scholars try to soften the blow, pointing out that the word here for “dogs” is diminutive: “little dogs.” But insinuating that someone is a dog was as insulting then as it is now. Jesus says his work, his mission is for Israelites. And still, still, this Canaanite woman who needs healing for her daughter is not deterred. She doesn’t disagree with Jesus. She just stretches what he’s said, turning his words back. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus responds. And her daughter is healed immediately, and Jesus, apparently accomplishing what he intended in the region, heads back to the Sea of Galilee.
So what is this text all about? It’s hard to read about Jesus in this exchange. It doesn’t mesh well with our picture of his kindness and compassion, his love, his constant work to draw marginalized people to the center. There are two primary schools of thought about this passage. Some scholars think that we get to witness Jesus learning. We get to see his idea of his mission expanding. The Canaanite woman teaches Jesus about the broadness of God’s mission. I’ve sometimes been drawn to this interpretation, even though it is uncomfortable, because I’m hesitant when we try to explain away uncomfortable parts of the scripture, and I think that we have to be careful not to let our interpretation of the text be motivated by our desire to find a way to get Jesus off the hook for the way he interacts with this woman.
But there’s too much “set up” for me to rest with that interpretation either. This passage takes place in Matthew’s gospel right after Jesus spends time talking about how it is what comes from inside of us that makes us clean or unclean, what comes from our hearts that defiles, and not what comes from the outside in, external things. It seems strange, then, that he immediately goes from that conversation to a Canaanite region to insist that the woman’s exterior wrappings make her ineligible for God’s healing. Also, in both Matthew and Mark, the other gospel where this story appears, Jesus has already healed people who are not Jewish by the time we get to this story. He doesn’t hesitate in those other accounts or talk about “the lost sheep of Israel.” And again, he goes way out of his way to get to Tyre and Sidon for no reason that we know of other than this very interaction. The whole thing reads like a lesson, a demonstration that is set up for our benefit. Jesus is letting us see the breadth of God’s mission in action. The text may never settle smoothly for me or for you, but hopefully, we can focus on what it is Jesus might want us to learn.
Here’s what I come away with: First, Jesus is intentional about crossing some boundaries, going out of his way to put himself in a place where he can build a connection with someone from a different culture than his own. He doesn’t say that he wants to be in relationship with all kinds of people, and then sit and wait for these relationships to fall into his lap. He is intentional, and enters into spaces and places where he will be the one who is the stranger, where he will be the one who doesn’t fit in, where he will have made the effort to break down barriers. Second, Jesus is open to what he hears from this woman, and changes his actions based on what she says. Jesus, or at least Matthew, apparently wants us to see this demonstration of Jesus having a change of heart, and being impacted by the witness of this Canaanite woman. And third, this brave, bold woman refuses to let go of her place at the table, even if there are only crumbs left to be offered to her. She insists there is room for her in God’s plan, and she’s right. I love the way that she advocates so fiercely on behalf of her family.
I think that we can take these lessons from this across-ethnic-lines conversation and draw on them in our ongoing quest to confront racism. If there was one “learning” action I could get you to take away from this sermon series, it would be to convincing you to read Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism by Carolyn B. Helsel. I found this short book to be extremely helpful, and a great starting place particularly if you’ve found thinking about and talking about racism to be challenging. In her book, Helsel talks about being responsible vs. response-able for racism. She says, “Often, persons sharing their frustrations about racism need you to simply hear them, not to take personal responsibility. You can be response-able, having the ability to respond with compassion and care … Alternatively, responding by trying to explain, rationalize, defend, or otherwise dismiss their experience limits your response-ability, and you are less likely to build a meaningful relationship with them.” (25) She continues, “Building relationships with people of color involves being able to respond to anger without becoming overwhelmed or afraid or defensive … Building relationships with people who have been discriminated against means believing that their experiences of discrimination are real, and that their feelings are what we would feel if we were in the same situation on a daily basis. … We are called to respond by being witnesses, accompanying our brothers and sisters, [our siblings] and supporting them in whatever ways we can.” (28, emphasis mine.)
What do we do to bear witness to racism in the world? I think Helsel’s suggestions sound remarkably like what Jesus does in our gospel text. She says that the spiritual practice of bearing witness involves two key components. First, she says, to bear witness, you have to be aware of the experiences of others, and to be aware of the experience of others, you have to have close enough relationships to witness the things others experience. If you are white, you cannot bear witness to racism unless you have real relationships with people of color. We have to intentionally cultivate relationships with people who have different experiences than we do, something we see Jesus do in the gospels all the time, including today’s text. Second, she says, to bear witness, you have to “bear” something. You have to bear someone’s experiences alongside them. That doesn’t mean, she writes, that “you know exactly what they felt like when things happen, but it means in that moment you are recognizing the pain these experiences caused them, and you are not dismissing their experiences. To bear witness means to sincerely bear what they are telling you, not to suggest how their experiences could be reinterpreted … You are honoring their sharing of these experiences with you.” (114)
We must cross boundaries on purpose, with intention. We are called to listen to and believe the experiences of racism that people are vulnerable enough to share with us. And we must be willing to learn and change based on what we hear, bearing witness. I am thankful for the witness of people who, experiencing the harmful pain of racism, boldly speak up to claim a place at the table, when we’re tempted to insist there is no room. In response, I hope those of us who are white listen, connect, open our hearts to transformation, and get ready to offer more than crumbs. Our God of abundance always has more than crumbs for us. May we offer a feast of love to others in God’s name. Amen.