“Names and Labels,” Matthew 15:21-28

 The great American cowboy philosopher/comedian, Will Rogers, once said he had never met a man he didn’t like.  Most of us can’t make that claim.  Most of us are subtly or consciously conditioned to be uncomfortable with people who are different than ourselves. 

 Rodgers and Hammerstein captured that human proclivity for prejudice so well in the lyrics to “Carefully Taught,” in their musical “South Pacific.”

 “You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Ever been uncomfortable around a person in Muslim dress?  Or someone driving a much nicer car than yours?  Or the tech support person in India who speaks a different kind of English than we do?  Or are we ever like the little girl staring at a priest with a clerical collar, wondering why he was wearing it?  When he noticed her curiosity he took off the collar to show it to her and she noticed some words on the inside (which were cleaning instructions).  When the priest asked the little girl if she knew what the words said, she replied, “Yes, it says ‘kills fleas for 6 months.’”

We all have foot in mouth disease at time and say things that we regret.  Even if we feel that “political correctness” has gone too far, at our best we don’t want to offend others or embarrass ourselves.  And we certainly expect Jesus to be a super Will Rogers.  Jesus surely wasn’t prejudiced.  He never met a person he didn’t love.   He welcomes children to his lap and carries the lamb in his bosom, heals lepers, eats with sinners.  He had compassion on all those people who forgot to bring their picnic lunch to his revival.

But what about this incredible story in Matthew 15 where Jesus dismisses a hurting, desperate mother begging for help for her tormented daughter?  This Canaanite woman reminds me of the haunting pictures we see of starving mothers in Somalia pleading for scraps of food for their children.  Who could refuse to help?  But not only does Jesus tell this woman to bug off, he adds insult to injury by calling her a ‘dog’ because of her religion and her nationality.  Say it isn’t so Jesus!  He tells her, “You’re not my problem, lady.  I’m just here for the lost house of Israel.”  Don’t you just love it when you can pass the buck and ignore a difficult situation because “that’s not in my job description?”  Quite a different story though when “customer service” people pull that one on you though, isn’t it?

Sure, it helps that Jesus changes his tune 7 verses later, but that judgmental, uncaring behavior is so out of character for Jesus that it boggles the mind.  We expect that attitude from the disciples or the self-righteous Pharisees, but Jesus?  Jesus first just ignores the woman, doesn’t even acknowledge she exists, and then he shocks us by agreeing with the disciples when they ask him to send her away because she’s annoying them.

Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day.  We all have those, and Jesus certainly had plenty with the disciples and his own people.  Maybe he was angry at the people of Israel for rejecting him and his teaching.  If those descendents of Abraham and Moses didn’t get it, how in the world could he expect this “heathen” woman to?  Or maybe he was testing the woman’s persistence and faith.  We have no way of knowing.  But the question this story raises for us today is that if Jesus is capable of this kind of exclusionary, judgmental behavior, what hope is there for you and me to get past our preconceived notions about other people?  What hope is there for ever having peace in our ever-shrinking global village if even Jesus builds walls instead of bridges?

During the build up to the first Iraq war a young fighter pilot, barely old enough to drive was asked about the young men in Iraq who were also preparing to go to war.  The young pilot admitted he hadn’t thought about them, but when he did, he said, “I guess they’re fighting for what they believe, just like we are.  They only know what they’ve been told.”  What a tremendous insight, especially if we realize that we are in that same boat and need to examine our own taken-for-granted beliefs and attitudes carefully if we ever hope to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a great opportunity to examine what happens to people and relationships when we resort to using labels instead of names.  The woman in this text is never called by name.  At best she is referred to as “a Canaanite Woman.”  In that culture, that’s already two strikes against her.  At worst she is called a “dog.”  Names are very personal.  Labels are cold and lump people into categories.  We label our “enemies” all the time so we can kill them without too much guilt.  It is much easier to kill “gooks,” “Krauts,” “Japs,” “Commies,” “Savages,” “Queers,” “Infidels,” than it is real human beings with names and families, hopes and dreams.  That demonizing and depersonalizing is even more dangerous today when many battles are fought remotely with drones and missiles so we never see the fear and humanity in the eyes of the “other.”  We do the same thing when we stereotype political rivals and create polarization that makes rational debate and compromise on issues of critical importance to the common good of our nation and the world almost impossible. 

It is far easier to dismiss a class or race of people before we get to know one of “them” as an individual.  To personally know a relative or friend who is gay or lesbian changes our perspective on gay rights.  Why?  Because now he or she has a name and not just a label.  One size does not fit all when it comes to human beings.  We are all unique and special and cannot be tucked into generalized categories if we ever want peace in our diverse and multi-cultural world.

How much better for all of us if we can learn to accept and affirm our differences and celebrate our common humanity like two young girls, one Jewish, one Christian.  Hannah, the former, says, “I’m Passover; she’s Easter.  I’m Hanukah, she’s Christmas.  But I’m glad we’re both Halloween.” 

Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman also teaches us to look for genuine faith wherever we find it, not just where we expect it to be.  True faith is too rare to risk missing it because of what we’ve been “taught to hate and fear.”  Jesus didn’t expect to find faith in the Canaanite woman, but he gets surprised.  Jesus is actually converted in this story.  We don’t expect Jesus to need conversion do we, but that’s exactly what happens.  He is turned around by this woman’s faith.  He no longer sees an annoying, nagging, needy “dog,” but opens his eyes to see a frightened, hurting mother who is filled with persistence and faith and love.  She is so full of love and faith that she is willing to risk humiliation and rejection herself to try and save her daughter. 

And the result of her witness and courage is that Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  “And her daughter is healed instantly.”

That’s a great miracle but wait till you hear the rest of the story.  This encounter marks a dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry.  The converted Jesus no longer limits his mission to the House of Israel.  He begins to promote the universal gospel proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures, where Abraham’s covenant with Yahweh is to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).  Isaiah echoes that vision of God’s servants being “a light to the nations” (42:6), and Jonah’s big fish tale is all about God’s sending him to preach salvation to Israel’s hated enemies in Nineveh.   That message reaches its climax at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus exits stage right with the challenge to all of us disciples that we know today as the Great Commission:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” 

We cannot fulfill that commission if we let labels blind us to who people really are – children of God, our sisters and brothers.

An anonymous author puts it this way:

A pilgrim asked a sage, “When can I tell the difference between the darkness and the dawn?  Is it when I can tell a sheep from a goat, or a peach from a pomegranate? “

“No,” said the wise one.  “It is when you can look in the eyes of another person and say, ‘you are my sister.  You are my brother.’  Until then, there is no dawn, there is only darkness.” 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s