Matthew 15: 21- 28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
I remember a story told to me by my friend Smitha Nair who has a passion for narratives and short stories. It goes this way. A man called Mahesh is washing his car on a Sunday morning. He is whistling and singing when he sees a man who is in a ragged outfit. He looks exhausted and absolutely out of sorts. He was walking in the direction where Mahesh was washing his car. So Mahesh assumes that this man is a beggar and is coming to beg. He debates with himself “These are lazy people who do not work, why should I give them my hard earned money? These people are the real nuisance of this society.” But in a split second there is another voice that says “It maybe not his fault that he is poor. What will he eat if everybody thinks like me?” And when the man comes quite close Mahesh takes out some change from his pocket and asks “Hey, do you want some change?” The man sheepishly replies “Don’t we all want one” and walks away.
This passage in the Bible puts me in a very awkward position. We see Jesus just not in a foreign land. The term ‘Canaanite’ woman points to something more than just the geography of the place. Canaan is the land founded by Noah’s son Ham – you remember Ham, he was the one of Noah’s three sons who was shunned by his family after he saw Noah one night, drunk and naked. Noah cursed Ham, whose name he changed to Canaan, and vowed that Canaan would forever be cursed and that his descendants would always be slaves to the descendants of his brothers. Thus, in ancient Israel, the people of Canaan were thought of as cursed and were felt to be beneath the lowliest of Jews.
It is here we see a Canaanite woman who comes crying out for her demon possessed daughter. She cries out saying “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (vs 22). The expectation would be that Jesus would melt with compassion and heal her. But oh oh. No. He is absolutely silent. That is when disciples urge Jesus to send her away as this woman is a nuisance. If one remembers before the miracle of Jesus feeding the Five thousand, the Disciples use the same words “Send them away” as it would be inconvenient and painful to feed the multitude. So it is to them that Jesus rationalizes that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Vs 24). But the woman does not quit but knelt before him begging to help him. If His silence was embarrassing, then surely now the reply He gave was shocking. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (vs 26). There are many justifications to this statements. The greek word for stray dogs is Kuon and for a pet dog is Kunariois. So it is not that offensive is what one says. But I would not like to dilute it. The Church believes that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. When he was on this earth he was conditioned by the prejudices of His time.
“Therefore he was obligated in all things
to be made like his brothers,
that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest
in things pertaining to God,
to make atonement for the sins of the people.
For in that he himself has suffered being tempted,
he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2: 17)
So it may look embarrassing to say Jesus had prejudice but then the Bible portion does not dilute it or spiritualize it.
We too have drawn circles where we define “us” and “them”. We too have prejudices that label people different from us. We have deep disrespect for their choices. We manage to draw the boundary of our mission and the scope of our churches. Tradition and heritage becomes a great excuse to exclude people and to send them away. Let me confess that I have prejudices against women, against people with different sexual orientations, people of different race and religion. I try to deny it or just to be silent about it. But this text shows that in the midst of constant groaning around us, we do not have a choice. What would our response be?
In the meanwhile let us look at what the woman had to say to Jesus. “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (vs 27) She played to the logic of Jesus and says that we too have the share of the table even if it is just crumbs that fall from the table. Jesus had out smarted and outwitted many Pharisees and Scribes. People were amazed by His answers. But clearly the ‘Canaanite’ woman had outwitted Jesus here. The point is Jesus is ready to change here. He is ready to enlarge his circle. He says “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (vs 28).
Let me also reiterate one phenomenon that is very popular in ‘New Age spirituality’. The question is are you a “Born- Again”? I have been stumped by this question. It is an attempt to make Jesus and his scope restricted to a select few who have some fire insurance against the fire in the hell. It is drawing a very small circle with ‘us’ and ‘them’ clearly defined’. Chapter 15 starts with a conflict between Pharisees and Jesus as Pharisees loved to manage the idea of who is pure and who is not. Church today has reduced itself to indulge in this petty business of managing the holiness of who is in and who is out. Jesus corrects the Pharisees where disciples feel intimidated and say “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Vs 12). But the beauty of this chapter is that Jesus is corrected by the outsider ‘Canaanite Woman’. And Jesus is not offended and He is ready to enlarge the circle. He agrees ‘We do need some Change.’
Let me quote some historical facts from the page of Nalloor Library.
‘Slavery was a social evil which prevailed all over the world including what is now the state of Kerala in India. According to the 1836 census there were 164,864 slaves in Travancore vis-à-vis a total civilian population of 12,80,668.
Slaves were treated like animals and the cost of one slave was that of an ox, cost of an ox was 5 (big para) measures of Paddy or Rs. 10/- only. Slaves were chained and sold like animals in markets.
Kottayam, Changanasserry, Thirunakkara, Alleppey, Kayamkulam, Kollam, Attingal, Chirayinkizh, Kaniyapuram, Pettah and Kovalam were the notorious slave trade markets of the time. Churches in Cochin were used as godowns for the slaves except for Sundays. Slaves were exported out of the kingdom. There was no one to speak on behalf of these unfortunate people.
With the arrival and the teachings of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) missionaries, people became aware of this social evil. In 1819, Munro Island was given to the missionaries, by the then Travancore Government along with the slaves residing there on the Island. Munro Island is located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River, in Kollam district, Kerala, India.
In 1833, England passed the Slavery Abolition Law. CMS missionaries, Benjamin Bailey and Joseph Peet made a historic declaration on 8th March 1835, giving freedom to the slaves in Munro Island.’
If you read carefully Churches were used as go downs for slaves. Church Missionary Society (CMS) challenged this. If one remembers, CMS played a very important role in the Reformation of the Church that we call the Mar Thoma Church. Rev Baiju Markose says that before the reformation the Church practiced untouchability and indulged in social evils. It was more of an ethnic exclusive club. But the Reformation challenged the boundaries of the circle of the Church. That is how we started getting involved in mission fields and started working among ‘untouchables’ first time among the ‘Vetons’ in Othera. So then the meaning of reformation is to constantly expand the circles. But as many of my friends have pointed out we over the years are becoming more conservative by demarcating our ethnic boundaries. People outside the walls of the church are challenging us to expand our circles. But we are busy managing holiness. Lent is a time to realize that we need, not just some change, but a whole lot of it, if we are followers of a Saviour who humbled himself to be corrected. May the Triune God break open the circles where we are busy resisting the change.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church
(Dear Friends, this is to provoke a debate. So rather than just’ likes’ please feel free to agree, disagree, challenge, oppose, criticize what is written. Also you can add your vision and inputs. Would really appreciate it.)