Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” -Matthew 25:21-27
Janaina once told me that she journeys through life with a dark cloud hovering over her head. She is afraid that the people might only see the cloud and not her. I understood what she meant. I have one of my own. Neither of us put it there. It was given to us but not by God. Our life experiences are different. She was an orphan and homeless most of her life. She is 33 now. Years of discrimination and rejection have made her cloud heavy and burdensome. I did not mention to her my own experience. I did not want her to think that we carry the same weight. I have my cloud to bear but it doesn’t mean that I know how she feels. The only thing I know is that it is not her imagination or insecurity that creates this cloud. It is real. People are always going to look at the cloud first and then the person who is carrying it. It is almost inevitable. They will judge her according to it and some well intentioned people might try to pretend that they don’t see anything above her head. In a way, that makes it worse. It is better to say that there is a cloud but we also see the person who carries it. Janaina is a strong woman. No cloud is going to stop her from getting what she wants. It took her a while to discover what she wants. Now, she is going forward.
We can have many names for this cloud. It doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we don’t deny its existence. Jesus did not. He named it and in the process he used an ugly term. The gospel narrative tells us about a woman, not unlike Janaina. She was a woman who bore the label of being a Canaanite. In the land of the Jewish people her heritage was a symbolic reminder of their disobedience to God. Her society wished that the people she belonged to did not exist anymore. Despite the prejudice and hatred, she was in the presence of Jesus. She wanted charity and our Lord wasn’t in a charitable mood. The story portrays a very different Jesus. The disciples made it clear that she was not welcome among them but only Jesus could send her out. She was His visitor. He did not want her to leave and yet He kept silent. His silence was not a consent to his disciples’ request. He was waiting for the right moment to speak. Not all silence is equal. There is such a thing as a cowardly silence and there is silence that listens first before speaking out the precise word. There was something that needed to be addressed for the sake of everyone present. When He spoke, He said the words that should make our modern ears cringe and usually this is often preceded by a thoughtful silence. He called the woman a dog which was the derogative term for Gentiles. The racial slur was intentional. I have heard some commentators try to soften this text by claiming that Jesus was using it affectionately. In Jesus’ time, dogs did not occupy the place in society that they do presently. They were despised and considered to be like overgrown rats. Calling someone a dog is still an insult in these parts today. Jesus spoke quite harshly to this woman, at least in appearance. He was merely naming what was in the hearts and minds of his disciples. It was the thought of the time that her heritage did not make her worthy of God’s grace. Jesus did not say that He agreed with this. It was just the belief of the time. We may not like what Jesus said but Jesus is not obliged to act according to our preferences.The woman did not waver. She knew what she wanted and she was sure that Jesus wasn’t going to negate her plea for mercy. She was going to get what she wanted despite the huge cloud hovering above her head. Something gave her the strength to stand up against Jesus. She knew that He was the only hope for her daughter and she wasn’t about to allow verbal insults to hinder her from receiving God’s grace. She trapped Jesus in His own words. This was something that the religious leaders dreamed about doing but a lowly Canaanite woman is the only one in the all the gospels to win an argument wth Jesus.
The Jesus in this gospel story is perhaps not the kind of Jesus we want to read about. He sounds like a racist. He is actually a very realistic person. He wanted the woman to exercise her faith in a hostile context and she did. In modern times, it seems like people think that ideal circumstances are a prerequisite for efficient faith. It is not faith in an idea or doctrine or utopic imaginings. It is faith in the person of Jesus. Believing that His love is strong enough to overcome the barriers constructed by generations of hatred. Her faith was in the compassion of Jesus. She knew that His love would overlook her burdensome cloud of being a Canaanite woman. Jesus drew out her strength when she was confronted with His harsh words. Perhaps we might think that this is strange pedagogy. Well, we are not the Teacher. His method worked for her.
All our children and teens know that they are born with a cloud hanging above their heads. They can’t shake it off. They have to go through life with it and there will be many that would say that it is just their imagination. However, we cannot say anything meaningful about the gospel unless we recognize the reality of their clouds. Jesus did not pretend that his community did not consider Gentiles to be like dogs. He did not pretend that his society did not believe that they were excluded from the blessings of God. However, the story is not about the appalling attitude of the people but about the power of faith in the Love of God. This kind of Faith has the power that no political entity or social movement can achieve.
I have a cloud above my head but I am where I want to be exactly. Janaina has a tough life but she is not going to allow that to hold her back. The Canaanite woman thought that she was going to get the scraps given to dogs but Jesus gave her a honored place in the gospels. Her faith is remembered today. She is the only person in the gospels that won an argument with Jesus. Her faith overcame all the odds that society stacked up against her. Her story is the story that is going to give hope to those who are forced to carry the cloud around for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps some would say that we should find a way to remove these clouds. It is a wonderful thought but it is not realistic. Education and persuasion are not going to remove these clouds. Hatred and discrimination will always exist until the Kingdom of God is established in His plenitude. It is God’s Kingdom and He will establish it at the perfect time. For now, we know that even when things appear to be hopeless, faith is still powerful to overcome the odds.