When something happens…anything…we have a tendency to make a mad dash to uncover causality and assign blame. Some times we do so only in order to reinforce our own beliefs and life decisions. Comedian Jim Gaffigan characterizes this well when he says, “I think I might be lactose intolerant because I had four milkshakes last night, and today I feel terrible.”
Too often this tendency pops up around some uncomfortable topics:
- She died of lung cancer, but she smoked and I don’t, so I’ll be fine.
- He committed suicide, but he must have just given up trying. I’ll be fine.
- They got divorced, but I never liked them together anyway. My marriage will be fine.
We hurry to uncover causality and assign blame in an almost instinctive way to protect ourselves from similar fates; in doing so, we often alienate those who would often be greatly helped by human connection and support.
Jesus is traveling with his disciples when a Canaanite woman confronts them somewhat abruptly, screaming, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” To maintain social norms, Jesus ignores the woman—the disciples want her sent away as she keeps shouting. Not only is she a Canaanite and a woman, but she is shouting at this group of respectable men.
Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (only the Jews). She kneels at his feet and begs again. Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” which is a polite-sounding way of saying, “Get off my Birkenstocks, bitch.”
She replies in the best way possible saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In saying this, she accepts the vulgarity Jesus placed on her (dog or little dog) and uses the image to her advantage.
Jesus changes his tune. “Woman, great is your faith!” Take note that the title “Woman” is one of respect, like “ma’am” for a southerner. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
The woman’s daughter was healed instantly.
Can you imagine the moments before the healing what disciples and other onlookers might have been muttering to each other?
“She can’t be serious.”
“He’s not going to help her!”
“OMG, what is she wearing?”
They likely made disparaging comments or had similar thoughts regarding the inappropriateness of her ethnic/religious/gender boundary crossing. Though effectively, toward the end of Matthew’s account of the Gospel, Jesus is not only focused on the Jews—everyone is included in the scope of salvation.
This is a distinctive story of Jesus, I think, because we can relate to him; he’s not “perfect” in the sense that we usually think of it. He’s quite mean to the woman, and he’s simply not attracted to the idea of helping anyone who’s not a Jew. He’s playing along with the very social boundaries that his life, death, and resurrection ultimately tear down.
Jesus almost joins us in the tendency to name causes and assign blame as he too acts in a way that alienates those who would often be greatly helped by human connection and support. And it isn’t merely Jesus putting the woman to a test that she passes that grants her daughter’s healing; it is the process of breaking down barriers by listening, discussing, and listening again.
I don’t imagine that the world’s problems can be solved in one paragraph as this demon possession is solved in Matthew. And it will take time for ours and other cultures and societies to even begin to go beneath the surface of mental health issues, the dynamics of human relationships, and any other wells of conflict and alienation one could imagine.
But perhaps the woman’s persistence gives us some idea of how diligently we ought to try…
…without resorting to simplistic claims of causality and without assigning blame only because we’re uncomfortable and want to move on.
Perhaps stories like these are mean to be causes in and of themselves, spurring us into faithful, deliberate action toward justice.
As Robin Williams’ death served as the inspiration for the mental health example in this post, perhaps it would be best to highlight an aspect of Williams’ life as quoted in The Living Church article, “Episcopalian, Honorary Jew.”
"Perhaps as a defense against the bullying of his WASP [white Anglo-Saxon protestant] classmates, Williams found himself gravitating towards the Jewish boys at the school. They were obvious targets of discrimination because of their background and that perhaps provided some common ground between them. Most of his school friends were Jewish and they proved to be much more accepting of Williams than the other classmates had been.”
The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. He offers reflections on the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday. He keeps a blog at FatherFarr.com.