Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Rembrandt, circa. 1650. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But 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.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
– Matthew 15:21-28

We are learning from Matthew how to do great Kingdom things. Beginning with the story (Matthew 14:13-21) of Jesus feeding the 5000, noted that a similar event takes place at the end of Matthew 15. The two events bookend a series of events in which we learn how to do what Jesus does. The first step was the crossing of the sea (Matthew 14:22-33) in which we learned the importance of working through internal self-doubt to discover faith. Step 2 was the confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes in which we learned that to do what Jesus has in mind, we have to be willing to break a few rules.

Step 3 takes us into a foreign land – Tyre and Sidon. And, for the exposition that follows, I’m greatly indebted to Simon Harak.

Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his own people and he ends up in this northern region. Some suggest that this is a popular vacation spot, and Jesus is still trying to get some time off after having heard of John the Baptist’s death, the event which set this whole chain of stories in motion. And, while it may be plausible that Jesus is looking for a little R&R, it’s also true that, even if for now the people in general are receptive to Jesus, his demonstration of sympathy for the common folk is beginning to garner the not-so-welcome notice of the authorities.

This fact of Jesus’ rejection is the key to understanding the exchange that follows with this Canaanite woman. But first some additional background:

  • In this culture (as is still true of many cultures throughout the Middle East today) an honor code dictates who can interact with whom and on what terms. We see this same honor code in play in the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:9). This same honor code would dictate that a Canaanite woman shouldn’t be approaching a Jewish man and speaking without first having been spoken to, let alone making requests of him.
  • Faced with this breach of propriety, Jesus can (according to accepted convention) do one of two things. He can either pretend it didn’t happen or he can point out her inappropriate behavior. At first, he attempts the first option: “But he did not answer her at all.” But when she continues, the disciples, embarrassed by the behavior, want him to send her away. So he attempts option 2: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This response clearly identifies the nature of the breach in protocol in a manner that allows the woman to correct her behavior without embarrassing her.
  • Rather than correct her behavior, however, she throws herself at her feet, signaling that he must deal with her one way or another. There will be no easy out for either of them.

This is the situation when Jesus speaks these words that trouble so many pious Christians: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Under the circumstances, it is the only remaining socially acceptable response.

But here is where the key fits: Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his people, those who have the say-so about what is available on the table for those who call themselves God’s children. So she says, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus has called her a dog, and she in turn, takes him down to the level of a crumb cast off the table, as if to say, “Well, crumb, here you are: you may once have been a Jew, but now you have fallen to me, and I will have my right.”

This is when Jesus says, “great is your faith.” One of only two people Jesus ever says this to. (Contrast this with the scene on the sea with Peter and Jesus saying, “Oh, you of little faith.”) This woman, the enemy, has great faith, the self-assuredness we spoke of in Step 1, great enough to approach Jesus, toe to toe, and confident enough to realize that she was going to have to break the rules to do what was needed for her daughter (contrast this with the Pharisees attitude toward taking care of family members). And she was ready to treat Jesus, not as a pious icon, but a real person, bound by the same cultural constraints as the rest of the world, so that in speaking the truth she became the instrument of his salvation as much as he was the instrument of hers.

So, by the end of this encounter, they are no longer bound in unequal relationship by the cultural constraints of their time and place. They are equals: each the savior of the other. The enemy has become a friend. How? By the recognition that just because someone is an enemy doesn’t mean they can’t have great faith, and that great faith, no matter who wields it, holds the capacity for liberation.

Finally, we have all three steps necessary to return to Galilee and to care for and feed the multitudes again. They are:

  1. Confront the self-doubt within and come to a place of faith in your own capacity to do what’s right;
  2. Stand up to those who make rules and criticisms aimed at distracting you from doing what’s right; and
  3. Recognize that in the enemy and other there is the possibility of redemption, not just for them, but for yourself.

What’s next?

Jesus returns to Galilee to heal and feed the multitudes again. The disciples still haven’t learned, and question where they are to get enough bread to feed everyone. But, hopefully, we who are looking on have learned what Jesus is trying to lead them to do.

What enemies have you had the courage to engage with lately? And, have you been able to recognize in your enemy any liberating truth about yourself? Could this be why Jesus said it was so important to love your enemy? Could our enemies really be the instruments of our very salvation?

Step 2 – Don’t Let the Rules Get in the Way

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father.So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
– Matthew 15:1-20

This is the second step in Matthew’s account of how to care for and feed multitudes. The first step, Have Faith, was worked out in the disciples’ crossing of the sea with the winds against them. But now, safely on the other side, the disciples see that the healing of the people will immediately bring opposition from those who want to enforce the rules.

The Pharisees and scribes are supposed to be taking care of the people in their charge. Instead, they are looking for excuses to criticize those who are doing the work while they hide behind rules they have invented to justify their own position and advantage. Notice that though the work had been Jesus healing (Matthew 14:34-36) the Pharisees and scribes open their opposition with what at first seems a totally unrelated issue: they criticize Jesus’ disciples for not following the rules about washing their hands before eating. Again with the eating! Remember, this is about feeding people.

Jesus’ answer brings the point home: they are letting the rules get in the way of what needs to be done. Specifically, Jesus sites an instance where the Pharisees use the rules to exempt themselves and others for providing for the needs of fathers and mothers. The commandment applies so long as the “honor” is understood in the abstract. But another rule applies when something substantive must be done. The same is the case for washing of hands – a ceremonial washing. (Germs and personal hygiene in the sense we know it today hadn’t been invented yet.) If you take up all your time and resources (water) trying to get the ceremony right, you’ll never get around to what’s important – doing the work, feeding the people. It’s this stalling, beating around the bush with ceremony, standing on traditions, that keeps the disciples, then and now, from doing what Jesus is calling them to do. And it’s the continuing hesitation to stand up and call out the rule-enforcers, who still today stand on the pretense of abstractions, that holds modern disciples back from doing what they need to do.

Against the sticklers for rules, Jesus wants his disciples to be able to focus on whose rules? Are these really God’s rules? Or are they someone else’s? And who do these rules in question benefit? Jesus says you’ll know whether someone is holy or damned by what they do for the good of others, not by how meticulously they follow procedure all the while stepping on others to get ahead and to look good themselves.

To care for and feed multitudes, disciples must ignore the rules people will always be making up to distract them from doing the actual work. Multitudes can be fed, but someone needs to actually roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and feed them. And you can’t get your hands dirty if you’re constantly going back to wash them.

Caring for and feeding the multitudes is bound to raise the hackles of the rule-makers. They are bound to come up with reasons to make you think (and make others think about you) that you’re doing the wrong thing. Jesus demonstrates that the second step, after addressing your own self-doubt, is to have the courage to break the rules that others have made and called sacred, especially when those rules are unjustly skewed to the advantage of the rule-makes and to the disadvantage of those in need.

Time and again, the greatest things have happened because someone decided not to follow the rules. This was behind the civil disobedience and non-violent resistance of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is what was behind Gandhi. The care and feeding of multitudes is possible for the average disciple, but it will always make people in high places angry.

Your turn:

Whose rules are getting in the way of your doing what Jesus needs you to do? What rules are you hiding behind? And what would it take for you to break them? The disciples point out to Jesus that the Pharisees are offended at what Jesus said. Are you willing to risk offending powerful people to do what is right? Are there some rules you would not be willing to break? Why?

Tomorrow: Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend