Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

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To listen to today’s reflection as a podcastclick here
Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    
Officially, there are no Untouchables in the nation of India.
The so-called “caste for people who are unworthy of being in a caste” was banished by the Constitution of India in 1950.  Since then, the nation has slowly made progress in elevating the Dalit people (traditionally known as Untouchables) into the fullness of Indian society.  Things never seemed more hopeful than when K.R. Narayanan was elected president in 1997 – India’s first-ever Dalit chief executive.
Unofficially, however, extreme prejudice against the Dalits remains alive and well.
For generations, Dalits (a name that means “broken” or “scattered”) have been trapped in a vicious circle.  Honor and respect in India are associated with the dignity of one’s job.  The Dalits have long been compelled to carry out the most repulsive societal tasks – cleaning public toilets, unclogging sewer pipes by hand, disposing of dead animals, sweeping the streets.  They are forced into such work because they are despised, and despised because they in fact do such work. 
Such bias may be softening in larger cities, but the Dalits remain “untouchable” in most rural areas of India. 
Dalit families are routinely denied access to public housing, education, and even the village well.  According to one study, 79% of Dalit schoolchildren are forbidden to touch the food that other children might enjoy for lunch, and 28% are required to use specially marked plates (reserved for those who are “unclean”).
It’s estimated that somewhere between 40 and 60% of Dalit households are exclusively engaged in sanitation work.  It’s hard for kids to imagine a different pathway into the future.
One child who made her way to a better life is 38-year-old Yashica Dutt Nidaniya, a freelance journalist whose book Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir of Surviving India’s Caste System has spotlighted the plight of the Untouchables.  Her family traditionally cleans public latrines.  She writes, “You spend your entire life trying to overcome that lower status that’s been foisted upon you.”  She notes that even the name Dalit has become a slur – “the worst epithet you can hurl at someone.” 
Such prejudice has existed as long as people have been jockeying for dignity and respect. 
During Bible times, the struggle for honor was a zero-sum game.  Whenever somebody won, somebody else had to lose.  If one person climbed up the ladder, somebody else had to be kicked down a few steps.
All of that is on display in one of the most unsettling of all the Gospel accounts, which we find in 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.
This does not seem to be an inspiring Bible bedtime story for kids.  At first glance, Jesus comes across as a racial bigot and an unfeeling chauvinist.  Dogs don’t seem to come off too well, either. 
But there is much more here than meets the eye.  Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian scholar who spent most of his life studying the traditional village culture of the Middle East, points out that Jesus is actually giving an exam.  He’s testing two parties: his band of disciples and a woman in great distress. 

When he hands out report cards, the disciples flunk, while the woman gets an A-plus.
We know of just a handful of times that Jesus traveled outside the boundaries of Israel.  This is one of them.  Tyre and Sidon, a pair of ancient communities along the Mediterranean coast, were deeply despised traditional enemies of the Jews.  This woman is a Canaanite, someone whose idolatrous ancestral religion is denounced throughout the Old Testament.
For all intents and purposes, she’s regarded as a Dalit – a messed-up, broken Untouchable carrying a spiritual infection that no self-respecting son of Abraham would ever want to catch.
She brings nothing to Jesus except her great need.  “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  These are words of genuine respect and overwhelming desperation.
What does she get from Jesus?  Crickets.  He says nothing.  How are we to account for this unnerving silence – and for the over-the-top insult he seems to throw her way just a few sentences later?
The answer may surprise you. 

That’s where we’ll pick things up tomorrow.