I don’t remember all the times I might have been referred to as a dog or better yet, a bitch, but I do remember the first time someone who I thought I love and that I thought loved me used it. It seemed to echo in the air as the word came crashing into my heart and mind and soul. At that moment, I knew that I had become another statistic and my relationship was over.
So the first time I allowed myself to really encounter this text, while in Seminary I was devastated. Devastated because I was reading Jesus responding to a desperate mother, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There it was – there was that bitch word again.
Did Jesus just call that woman a bitch? Where was Jesus’ mother? I know had it been my mother, a shoe from out of nowhere would have come flying, so perhaps she wasn’t there, or perhaps she would not have said anything.
See, here’s the thing. In order for us to talk about Jesus’ divinity, we have to talk about his humanity as well and I mean all of it!
Paul makes it clear in Philippians 2 that Jesus being in the very likeness of God or rather fully God become flesh, took on our form and our condition, becoming a slave, a slave to what? A slave to the human condition with all it foibles and sinfulness, and even yes, even its biases, prejudice, sexist, misogynist, patriarchal, racist and exclusive condition.
Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew, raised by a Palestinian Jewish mother and father, who had their fair share of knowing what it meant to live under great prejudice and racism, and a long history of persecution because of their ethnic identity and so at times in an effort to protect we internalize our own oppression, and we build a narrative of exclusion and fear, of prejudice and bias against the other, especially if that other has been your life long enemy since the days of the Judges.
Canaan was the ancient land that fell under the curse of Ham, the son who looked upon the nakedness of his father, Noah. These where all the people that the Hebrews were told were to be part of the conquering prophecy, the Hittities, Arameans, Moabities, Ammonites, Midianites and Edomites.
They were all descendants of the curse and they were all despised as the enemy. During the time of the Moabites, it is reported how they inflicted a lot of damage on the early Hebrew people after the time of Moses and were responsible for the famine, rape and capture of many of the Hebrew people leading up to the time of Jonah. That’s why its ironic that God would send the prophet to Nineveh, one of the capitals of the Moabites to offer a message of a second chance and mercy. But that's another story. Jesus would have heard the stories of what the Canaanites did, who they were and how unclean they were. Jesus would have heard how good Jewish boys were to keep away from these foreign women. After all we know what happened to King Ahab when he got with Jezzabel, and Samson when he hooked up with the Philistine which was another name for Canaanites, and Solomon’s numerous affairs with all those foreign women and that Black Queen of Sheba!
Jesus was a product of his culture, his environment and the people and community that raised him just like all of us are products of our own community and environment, not all of it was bad and not all of it was good, but all of it was formative.
And yet, when we are sensitive to the Spirit, when we are aware that the one who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it, when we have given space for the spirit to begin the process of a new creation, and we allow the old things to pass away, like Paul says in Corinthians “therefore if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, old things have passed away behold all things have become new.” Paul also reminds us in I Corinthians 15: 45 that the “first man Adam became a living soul, through Adam we all experience death, but the second Adam, that is Jesus we experience life and life eternal.”
This means that there will be times when we are face to face with the worst part of us, all of us go through this—even Jesus, especially Jesus. Why do I say especially Jesus? Well Athanasius of Alexandria, one of our early church fathers, said it best. “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” By this he meant human nature, with its bias and prejudices, all of it has been assumed or taken on by Christ, so that God, in Christ can redeem it.
Its hard to imagine but Heb. 4:15 says that Jesus experienced every one of our sufferings and our temptations – or else the incarnation would have been incomplete – because that which has not been assumed cannot be redeemed. So Jesus assumes it all, even our fears about the other, even the way we demoralize and demonize and bully the other in order to keep our own security and dominance intact.
Calling a woman, a dog has a long racist and sexist past.
It implied and continues to imply property of the lowest kind. Dogs were meant for work, dogs were savage beast that could be tamed for ones’ purposes. It implied that one was without control and for a female it implied that one was likened to a female dog in heat, penetrable and given over to all kinds of lust with uncontrolled passion. It was always associated with promiscuity and for slaveowners it meant that she was hard working like an animal and easily bedded.
We all watch movies, tv and so we are not too shocked anymore to hear this word, in fact woman have used it on other women, so we should not have been too surprised that it has come from the White House, just ask our Native American sisters and brothers, they have heard worse. Its just now its instantly in our faces. It’s no wonder that we have become a little desensitized by its common use. But when we hear Jesus refer to this Syrophoenician woman as a dog, it is not only jarring, it is downright confusing? We ask, Jesus, did that just come out of your mouth?
Just prior to that, we hear Jesus say “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart is evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defiles a person.” (I think this should be the criteria for using Twitter these days)
So then, what gives Jesus…by using this phrase are you showing us what is in your heart? I think it’s hard for us to imagine, but for this historical, real flesh and blood Jesus, who walked our streets and lived in our neighborhood, the answer unfortunately is YES!
But watch what she does? She has been here before. She plays his game and puts back in his face the very name she has been called, so that he can hear it. “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Its like she said, “A dog (bitch), oh yes I am, when it comes to my family, hell yes I am! When it comes to my dignity! Yes I am! When it comes to protecting who I am and my community, yes I am!”
You know that saying, Hell knows no furry like a woman scorned, but when that woman is a mother, you best believe something is going to happen.” She said, “Oh, no, not today Satan!” This is why we hear of women who have overcome great adversity, who were probably called a bitch every single day of their lives and yet did not let someone define who they were. Women who overcome domestic abuse, who overcome economic abuse. Women who work twice as hard and get twice less pay. Women who were beaten and thrown into prison but came back again to demand the right to vote. Women who have been dragged on the street, attacked by dogs, had food thrown at them but return the next day and sat in a lunch counter. Women who continue to cross the border, who stand up to ICE and demand justice for their children escaping poverty and violence. Women who speak up about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace even after they lose their jobs.
Women who hustle everyday of their lives in order to put food on their table. Women who hear the words of society saying that they are not enough to raise kids in a single household, and that if there is no father involved that child is less than. Tell that to Barak Obama.
For all we know, this Syrophoenician woman was a single mother, protecting her daughter because in her society, were female children were not valued, no one else but her would be able to protect her. If you have not had a chance to read a good book this summer I invite you to read Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime. For all intended purposes his mother was the Syrophoenician woman.
Behind her answer to Jesus, stood countless of women and she was determined to stop Jesus in his tracks. And she did.
And this is what Jesus’ teaches us. We can change!
Jesus hearing the words of the woman responds: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Jesus teaches us that we can either be trapped by our prejudices, biases and fears, by our sexism, misogyny and bullying behavior or we can allow the Spirit of God to strip away the past, the chains that bind us, the blinders that we have over our eyes and hearts and begin to see people for the spiritual sacred beings that they are. Jesus recognized that this woman, who represented all that he ever knew about Canaanites, she was a person, a mother, a woman of faith and that “no” was not an acceptable answer for her.
Throughout the Gospel, this is what we see of Jesus. Jesus teaches us how to respond to children, in appropriate, safe ways not as a predator, unlike what we have recently heard in the news.
Jesus teaches us how to respond to those who are sick. Jesus teaches us how to respond to those who are struggling with disabilities. Those who are poor, those who are marginalized. In fact, the Gospel is not so much about how we get saved and how we get to heaven, but rather how we live here on earth and what are ways that we respectfully respond to all.
And Jesus teaches us how to say, “I am wrong, I need to change”. Jesus teaches men both in his day and in ours, that you do not need to respond with bullying and become louder and more vociferous when you are in the presence of a strong, confident, intelligent woman. They are not a threat to your masculinity, they are very foundation of any functioning community and your greatest ally. Jesus teachers us, how to change our way of thinking and respond to faith that has no cultural bounds – faith that reaches and surprises us by challenging us to reconsider our implicit biases, thoughts and actions.
After this encounter, both Matthew and Mark have Jesus change his message, it becomes a message of inclusion and for all nations. In fact, Matthew ends his Gospel with the great commission, making disciples of all nations! Could this woman have made that change in Jesus?
Maybe this woman, with her tenacity and persistence, her moxy and her consistent presence taught Jesus a valuable lesson that day that changed his life: She taught Jesus that Syrophoenician Lives Matter!
If you’ve forgotten who you are…take some advice from the Syrophoenician woman.
If you’ve fallen prey to the temptation of sexism, chauvinism, misogyny…take some advice from Jesus who allowed himself to be transformed.
For any of us who find may yourself victim of the names, victim of the slander, a victim of those who only respond to your very existence with fear and hate, I say embrace it! Embrace all of it! And the next time someone or the world calls you a dog or something similar, maybe we can rise up and say “hell yes I am! Deal with it cause I’m not going anywhere!”