“Crumbs Are Enough”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just 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.”
23But he did not answer her at all.
And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)
I don’t have a good answer for the obvious question. While first century Jews did regard Canaanite people with prejudice and contempt, I can neither explain why nor gloss over the fact that Jesus himself refers to a Canaanite woman and her ethnic kin as dogs.
Jesus’ comment is particularly baffling in light of the teaching that comes immediately prior to this encounter. A dispute with some Pharisees over hand-washing before meals led Jesus to rebuke them for paying only lip service to God. When cautioned by his disciples for angering people who had the power to make his life miserable, Jesus says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles. What comes out of the mouth—the words, the attitudes, the bigotry, the meanness—these things corrupt because they reveal the heart. So, what’s in Jesus’ heart when he so rudely dismisses a woman crying out for help?
Over the centuries, Christians of all stripes have sprung into damage-control mode when hearing this text. According to the most common defense, Jesus didn’t really mean what it sounds like he said. He was just testing the woman. He knew how she would respond just like he knew how he would respond. So, while Jesus may appear prejudiced, the whole scene was a carefully-planned teachable moment that Jesus choreographed with spiritually-principled compassion and just a touch of good-natured teasing.
That line of reasoning asks us to accept that God Incarnate looked at this woman and called her a dog in order to make the point that her faith was strong. And he did it to tell us that if our faith is equally strong, our children will be healthy. Our bank accounts will be full. Our nation will prevail. And everyone will get along at Thanksgiving. Anyone who expects that to be the nature of God and of the Christian faith will likely be disappointed into atheism by suppertime. That Pollyanna god exists only on the Hallmark Channel.
Through two millennia of the Christian faith, far too many disciples have also taken Jesus’ words as tacit justification to judge and disdain those who are poor, or whose ethnicity or gender is deemed inferior, or whose sexuality is deemed dangerous, or whose religion or politics are wrong. And it’s okay to treat “those people” like some neighborhood cur.
If that sounds harsh, just remember the arguments the Church made in defense of things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, race-based segregation, the Holocaust. And think about the arguments the Church continues to make in defense of humankind’s appetite for excessive wealth and our profligate use of irreplaceable resources to develop and maintain enough weaponry to destroy this planet several times over.
And remember this, too: It’s not just as disciples of Jesus, but as the very Body of Christ himself that the Church has been doggedly mistreating people for two thousand years. But didn’t Jesus focus his ministry on those very people? On those in the deepest need? On those who are oppressed and forgotten?
Yes, the Church does lots of wonderful things, but it sometimes feels like we allow this one brief instance when Jesus acts more like a disciple than a Savior to define us and to define our mission.
Come on, Preacher! Show us a little mercy! We’re beat down enough as it is. Here we are in the dog days of summer, and from Covid-wrought isolation, to social unrest, to bitter rhetoric in the public square that’s turning us against each other, it’s like…well, it’s like someone we love with all our hearts—someone like our own child—is sick, like she’s tormented by a demon. Where is God in all this? Where is Jesus? Where is our hope, our peace, our purpose? Help us!
Does anyone feel that way? If so, how might you respond if I said that “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? How would you respond if I said that we don’t matter because Jesus came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and face it, you and I, we’re Gentiles? If I said that, would you keep coming to worship?
The woman keeps coming. She hounds Jesus for her daughter’s sake. She knows that this Galilean Jew knows, or that he will at least remember, that she matters, her life matters, her daughter’s life matters, Canaanite lives matter.
The woman and Jesus know that. Jesus’ disciples have to learn it. Having tried to bar the door and keep this “inferior” person away, they are now the ones on the hot seat in this story. And while Jesus’ response is inexplicably slow in coming, he nonetheless says to those who follow him that this woman and her daughter are, utterly and irrevocably, as much children of God as any Pharisee, Sadducee, priest, or ordinary Jewish person back home. Individually and systemically, Canaanites deserve to be seen, heard, welcomed, valued, respected, and protected exactly the same as anyone from Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, or Jerusalem.
It’s cliché to say, but the Church really is in decline. Maybe one reason is that contemporary disciples are and have been experiencing a dangerous contraction of faith, a regression. It’s like the Church is becoming less and less the Body of the resurrected Christ and more and more like the disciples before the terrifying experience of Friday and the transforming revelation of Sunday. And before Easter, the disciples were a self-centered bunch, weren’t they? They argued about who was first and greatest. They tried to shield Jesus from children and blind men, because they just knew, that eventually, he was going to raise a flag in one hand, a sword in the other, and lead the house of Israel in triumph, once and for all, over every principality and power. And as long as that was the goal, the disciples were never going to get enough.
Go away, Canaanite woman, they say. There’s not enough of Jesus for us and for you.
Into the disciples’ fearful bigotry, an outcast, a Canaanite, and a woman at that, broke the door down to say, Brush me off like a crumb if you want to, but crumbs are enough. A crumb from Jesus can restore my daughter.
When the Church proclaims the resurrection of Jesus and still treats certain people as less-than-worthy, when we withhold the holy gifts of welcome and advocacy from people who are lonely and oppressed, we only prove that we have given up on resurrection. When people live selfishly and fearfully, crumbs are never enough. We will always hoard what we have and grasp for more.
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has been raised from dead! In the presence of the Holy Spirit, he is alive! And his resurrection empowers us for living an entirely new life than the life that even Jesus’ disciples lived while they followed him in person throughout Judea, Galilee, and into the Canaanite neighborhoods of Tyre and Sidon. If the tiniest seed and the smallest measure of yeast are enough to reveal the kingdom of God, then crumbs are all we need, and not just for being disciples, but for living as Jesus’ Body, his hands, and feet, and heart in and for the world.
Jesus sees the agony of the Father and the Son in the agony of a Canaanite mother and her daughter. His own earthly life will end violently because of his radical love for people just like them. And yet he lives and loves, fearlessly, for them, for you, for me, for all of us—because Jesus already sees it. He sees that we are all one. And his hunger, which is satisfied one crumb at a time, is for humankind to live in unity and wholeness. His hunger is for us to see ourselves in the faces, in the sufferings, in the joys, in the potential, in the breathtaking beauty of every human being and of the earth itself.
As we begin to see and to celebrate the oneness in the Creation, crumb by crumb, God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is healing us and making us whole.