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.
This is much more complicated story than our reading of it may suggest. There is more to it that meets the eye – or in this case “meets the ear.” Matthew has hidden a meaning away inside for us to discover. So, I think it will be helpful if we retell the story – get inside it and understand its contextual complexities. In doing so, I believe we will not only derive Matthew’s intended message, but we will also receive a very clear directive for our lives today.
I've told you before that, one of my biggest frustrations with the Bible is rooted in the culture in which it was cultivated. Women, who were second class citizens at best and property at worse, frequently go unnamed in the Bible. I, for one, feel like when we speak of the main character of this story simply as “the Canaanite woman,” we show her just about as much disrespect as we hear in Jesus’ calling her a dog. So, for the purposes of this story we will give her a name.
Extracanonical tradition, or writings used by the early church but not included in the Bible when it was put together in the year 367 - Extracanonical tradition names her Justa, meaning just or justice. So, in our story her name is Justa.
Justa was Canaanite. Yes, the same Canaanites whose heritage is traced back to Canaan, the son of Ham who saw his father Noah naked. In Genesis 9:25-27, Noah curses Canaan to be the slave of his brothers, essentially cursing Canaanites to be the slaves of Israelites. The antagonism, however, does not stop there. God promises Abraham and his descendants “all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding” (Gen. 17:8). In Deuteronomy, God lists the Canaanites as part of the people Israelites were to kill (Deut. 20:17). Joshua then does kill some of them as he leads the Israelites into Canaanite land. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the name Canaanite is also used as an almost generic term, for designation of non-Israelites (Gen. 12:6; Num. 21:3; Judg. 1:10).
As you can begin to see, it is reasonable to say their religious histories made the Israelites and the Canaanites distrust each other at the least and most probably feed intense disdain toward the other. Matthew’s naming Justa as a Canaanite clearly places her among the hated. She is among people who must stay two arms lengths from a Jewish man at all times and whose homes were considered unclean and therefore off limits to Jews. This hatred even led to the contemptuous, but common slang, of “dog” to refer to the Gentiles.
In short Justa, was an outsider. She lived on the outskirts of town on the border between Jewish and Gentile lands, but she was on the border in so many other ways. She was a woman; she was property. She was Cannanite; she was the enemy; She was from a rural people; she was an outsider. She was a Gentile; she was unclean and a non-believer. She may have been thought of as demonic, after all her daughter was possessed by a demon. In almost every way, she was seen as “less than,” undeserving, an outsider, a person living on the borders of life.
Enter Jesus and the disciples. In an effort to escape a recent skirmish with the Pharisees they headed out to the border land, an area somewhere to the north of Jewish territory. They were probably seeking a little R&R, a little peace and quiet. When they get there they find neither peace nor quiet.
A woman started shouting at them. The Greek texts are actually a little more descriptive and begin to hint at her persistence. They says she kept following them shouting. It gives the feeling the disciples were walking away from her but she just kept right on after them.
At first Jesus just tries to ignore her. We’ve all played that game before, “Maybe if I just ignore her, she’ll go away.” She doesn’t. She begins to get on the last nerve of the disciples and they plead with Jesus to just give her what she want so that she’ll leave them alone. Jesus’ reply seems curious. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Basically, with her standing there pleading, he says, “I’m not here to help her kind.” Any one of us would have felt defeat. Any one of us would have tucked tail and ran. She doesn’t.
Jesus’ words may seem cruel to us, but we have to understand them within a larger Biblical context. Jesus’ resistance to help her is rooted in his messianic identity. In a way, this is another desert temptation. Jesus, after a skirmish with the Pharisees, is presented the opportunity to turn his back on Israel - the ones he was sent to redeem while here on earth. It would have been easy to do. He doesn’t. Instead he is persistent and reaffirms his commitment to God and God’s plan and in doing so he is afforded the possibility to redeem not only Israel but the world as well.
Justa is an outsider living on so many borders. She is rebuked by the disciples. Jesus ignores her and then after being badgered finally says, “I’m not here to help your kind.” Justa should just throw in the towel. She doesn’t. She persisted and responds to Jesus’ words by kneeling before him and crying, “Kyrie, Eleison” – Lord, have mercy. She believes to the very toes of her unclean feet that Jesus can heal her daughter. She persists. What great faith! What a remarkable woman!
In the face of such a great witness, Jesus had to respond kindly. He doesn’t. “It,” he says, “is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Throw it to the dogs? Justa, while groveling in the dirt on all fours, has just been called a dog. She should just pick herself and her pride up and go home. She doesn’t. She persists.
Then Justa uses Jesus’ own words to remind him of something about his messianic identity. “Even the dogs,” she says, “eat crumbs from their master’s table.” In those brief words, Justa gives a sermon. She reminds Jesus that “yes” he is sent for the children of Israel that sit at the table, but that after the children eat so will the rest of the world. In one word, “master,” she reminds him of her own faith – a faith that persisted.
From the moment she approached him she, a outsider, a person on the very borders of life – from the moment she approached him she recognized him as the Messiah, the Anointed One. She called him “Lord,” bowed at his feet, called him “son of David,” believed in him and believed that he could heal her daughter, and in a time of challenge and controversy she persisted. What great faith! What a remarkable woman!
Well, what else was he to do? "Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
What does this story mean for us today? Well, for one, it means that just like Justa, God’s redeeming grace has been extended to us. But what about the deeper more hidden meaning Matthew may have buried in this story for us to find and how does it apply to our lives now? Well, I think that there are two very clear directives we can take with us - one for those of us who find ourselves on the borders, marginalized - and one for those of us who don’t count ourselves amongst that group, that is, one for those of us who marginalize from our places of privilege.
In Justa, we learn about the importance of the persistence of faith for those who are marginalized. Let me say that again, we learn about the importance of the persistence of faith for those who are marginalized.
What does that look like lived out in this life? It looks like Elm St., in Greensboro, February 1, 1960. Four freshmen from North Carolina A&T University defied the segregationist policy so prevalent in the Southern United States by boldly asking to be served at the “whites only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s department store. In the face of the controversy some would say they should just go home. They didn’t. Their courageous act launched the sit-in movement that was a major component of the civil rights movement. They persisted; they demanded to be recognized as equal in the eyes of God. They had been marginalized and pushed out to the borders of society and in the face of challenge and controversy they stood firm in their faith; they were persistent and faithfully claimed they too were children of God.
The life of Dr. King is also shining example of this...this Justa syndrome, this persistence of faith from those who are pushed to the borders of society. Dr. King described what I’m calling the Justa syndrome this way, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Matthew tells us that faith shows itself in the persistence of marginalized people claiming liberation and recognition as children of God.
Dr. King’s words also bring us to our second life lesson from Matthew – the lesson for those of us not marginalized, but privileged. Hear it again, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In Jesus, we learn the importance for those who live in privileged places to reach out to those marginalized and recognize them as equally worthy of God’s grace. Let me repeat that, in Jesus, we learn the importance for those who live in privileged places to reach out to those marginalized and recognize them as equally worthy of God’s grace.
The life of Dorothea Dix is an example of this. Dorothea was gifted from an early age. At the age of 15, yes 15, she started her own private school. It is fair to say that while she was a good person with a good heart, Dorothea came from a place of privilege. One day, later in her life, a ministerial student came seeking advice from her about teaching a women’s Sunday school class. She volunteered to teach the class. The catch was it was at a prison and in 1841, well, it just wasn’t proper for a lady of privilege and place to be seen in a prison. She should have just given up on it and stayed home. She didn’t.
She persisted. When she saw the conditions of the mentally ill inmates she was horrified. In order to help them claim back their humanity she took on the state of Massachusetts, then other states, then US congress. She then traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany changing the way the world saw and treated the mentally ill. She was challenged at every corner and should have given up. She didn’t. Why? In her own words, “In a world where there is so much to be done. I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.” Matthew tells us that faith shows itself in how we respond to Jesus’ teaching of the inclusion of those marginalized.
Our faith that Jesus is the Messiah can be measured, in part, by the persistency of our trust in Christ even during life’s struggles. The Justa syndrome tells us that oppressed groups should be persistent in seeking liberation from subjugation. In harmony with that, Jesus’ response in the story indicates that reaching out to those we have marginalized is part of God’s post-resurrection plan and that we should never perceive those we consider outsiders as somehow more distant from or less deserving of God’s grace. When we can step out into the margins and claim God’s grace for all the children of God, then and only then can we say that we, like Jesus, have learned the power of the persistence of faith. Then and only then can we truly say that we are disciples of God.