This is the First in a Series on Invisible Women and the Say Her Name movement
“…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 15:24-27 (excerpt from the NSRV).
I remember hearing a Presbyterian minister preach on this passage. The only thing I remember about her sermon was the tone of her words: “Did Jesus just call her a dog?” Jesus usually acts as a champion for children, lepers and other downtrodden people. Throughout the gospels he generally treats women well. What’s going on with the Syrophoenician woman?
This is a hollering, ethnically undesirable woman. This woman was a Gentile, not a Jew. She was a woman who was making her presence and her need known. Loudly. Not politely. And then Jesus, our love thy neighbor Jesus, rejects her with the statement that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Essentially, he tells her to step off.
As I ponder, the first question I ask is, did Jesus heal any other Gentiles in Matthew, particularly before the account of this incident. In Mathew 8:5-13, Jesus healed the centurion’s servant. In this passage, Jesus praised the centurion for his great faith in trusting Jesus to heal the servant from afar. So, the difference in treatment cannot be based on Gentile status alone. The centurion was a Roman male with status. In the context of the time when this incident takes place, the centurion would have represented the empire and a high social caste. Perhaps this difference mattered to Jesus, or at least to the evangelist.
Back to our Canaanite woman. She was a woman (meaning low status). She was drawing attention to herself and causing a great commotion (meaning a woman behaving badly.) We know this didn’t sit well with the disciples because of their complaints.
But what did Jesus think? What was his priority at that moment? First he did not answer at all. He treated her as if she was invisible. Then, when he is compelled to respond he tells that he was “sent” only the “lost sheep” of Israel. Why were they lost? In their status as an occupied people and with a desire for a savior king, these were people who Jesus felt needed him. Their oppression was well known to him. It was why he was sent.
Then, Jesus call this woman a dog, a slur against Gentiles during the time of the gospel. He belittled her, he insulted her and he was being bigoted. She has gone from invisible to chastised.
I do not want to think of Jesus as someone who would neglect and insult a marginalized mother in need, especially using a slur. I know that as a black woman in 2015 America, I may appear to many as a loud,ignorant, uppity black woman if I were in a situation where I needed to loudly advocate for my child. Jesus’ response is unkind and seems to be indicative of his status as a 1st century, Jewish male. He carried the same prejudices as others. At least this would be the case for those with a low Christology.
Then, the woman responded to Jesus “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (verse 27). If I were in Jesus’ shoes, that would sting. This woman, advocating as a mother, was willing to wear Jesus’ slur and still humbly ask for help. At the same time she may have been shamed, there is also a sense that in her response she took back some power from Jesus. She challenged him, she was likely aware that her response may sting and she was unwilling to be turned away from this man of power, the Lord himself. In this passage, Jesus goes from a challenger to the empire to a representative of a new empire himself.
The low christology idea that Jesus was fully human means that Jesus himself had human feelings and biases. He was a Jewish boy born and raised in 1st century Palestine. Jesus was the Son of Man, and he was sent to liberate a people, his people, who were bearing the weight systemic oppression. Even so, there were some, like the syrphoenician woman, who were even more oppressed, abused, ignored.
Today, as we know, there is a critical situation going on with police brutality and murder against black males. Like the long suffering Jews of 1st century Palestine, we know this narrative well, and we know that we need to shout Black Lives Matter. But what about the women? Black women are also systemically made victims of police brutality, sexual abuse and murder. Shouldn’t they count under the cries of Black Lives Matter? Well, yes, they should. But the question is, do they? If even Jesus encountered one even more socially oppressed than the Lost Sheep of Israel, we need to take a serious look at those whose abuses are invisible.