Grace vs. White Supremacy: The Canaanite Woman is Our Mother (11th Pentecost / Proper 15A)
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.
“Grace vs. White Supremacy: The Canaanite Woman is Our Mother”
by Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
August 20, 2017 (11th Sunday After Pentecost / Proper 15A)
It has been just over a week since the grotesque white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, that led to three total deaths and over a dozen counter-protesters injured. This ugly underside of the United States has always been there. It has always pressed hard upon the lives of minorities, especially those living in the South. But it has become emboldened in these last days to rear its head and boldly proclaim its hatred of all that challenge the so-called supremacy of the “white race.”
For this I am saddened, but not surprised. You and I know better by now than to be surprised by the depths of human wickedness. We know better than to be shocked that the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are alive and well in the USA.
The media coverage of this event has produced a number of public debates about topics ranging from the merits of Confederate monuments; the legitimacy of rallies and protests; the nature of free speech, hate speech, and civil rights advocacy; what the President had to say (or not to say) about the incident; the meaning of white supremacy; and practical concerns like what the country can do moving forward. Each of those questions have their place in the public discourse for the betterment of civil society.
But each of them misses a key point that I hope we can address together this morning. White Supremacy in all its forms is more than a social or political concern. White supremacy is a fundamentally theological problem.
Let’s briefly define our terms here: Racism is any prejudice against someone based on their actual or perceived “race.” White supremacy is a specific type of racism rooted in the belief that the “white race” is superior to all other races, and it manifests itself both interpersonally and structurally. It is the disease that has afflicted Western civilization since at least the 15th century.
Whether coincidentally or providentially, the lectionary assigned this reading from the Gospel of Matthew today as we try to wrestle with the theological problem of racism and white supremacy. The story of the Canaanite Woman is a key to understanding the racial condition and the Christian’s place within it.
Jesus has retreated from Jerusalem and Galilee, the ancestral homelands of Israel. He travels north and west to the land of Tyre and Sidon. Maybe he goes to this coastal region for a beach vacation.
Tyre and Sidon were thoroughly Romanized parts of the empire, which meant that Jews made up only a small minority of the population. In fact, Tyre and Sidon were frequently enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus and his followers are stepping into a place that is culturally and religiously foreign to them.
He and his disciples are interrupted by a Canaanite woman from that region. By calling her “Canaanite,” Matthew wants to emphasize that she is a Gentile. She is not Jewish. She does not worship the God of Israel, the God revealed in the Old Testament, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Canaanite woman comes begging Jesus for help. Her daughter is possessed by a demon and wants liberation. Interestingly, as she comes before Jesus, she addresses him with the very Hebrew title: Son of David. She acknowledges that he is the Jewish Messiah, related to the great King David of Israel. She recognizes herself as an outsider from the very beginning of their conversation.
The disciples want to quiet her and send her away, but Jesus does not do so. Instead he says to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” What an odd thing to say in this moment! Why assert that in front of a woman who is begging for help. Why remind the disciples of God’s election of Israel in this moment?
Of course the woman speaks up for herself and the conversation continues. Jesus characterizes her as a foreign dog, in comparison to the Israelite children. Then she famously and wittily replies, “Yes, Lord, [for] even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus celebrates her great faith and rewards it by healing the woman’s daughter.
This is a curious story for many reasons, not least of which when talking about racism. But the question I want us to consider today is this: Where do we place ourselves in the story? Who do we imagine ourselves as?
It’s tempting to place ourselves in the disciples’ shoes, looking on, however smugly, as Jesus puts this foreign woman in her place. Those of us who are more humble may even place ourselves in the shoes of the Canaanite woman, who come to Jesus begging for help.
But I contend, that we, the Church, are actually the daughter of the Canaanite woman, the child possessed by the demon. We are a people in dire straits. We cannot speak or advocate for ourselves. We need the intercession of our mother, the Canaanite Woman, to have any chance at being close to Jesus.
Why is the Church the daughter of the Canaanite Woman? Well because the Christian Church today is overwhelmingly comprised of Gentiles -- non-Jews, non-Israelites.
God has scandalously elected Israel. Israel was chosen among all the peoples and nations of the earth to be a “priestly kingdom,” which communes with God, and intercedes for the rest of the world (Exodus 19:6). Israel is given a privileged role in salvation history: God blessed the world through blessing Israel (Genesis 12:2).
It is scandalous because almost all Christians are not “elect.” God decided to bless Israel even though they didn’t ask for it or deserve it. And God chose to use Israel as the means for saving the rest of the world. Jesus was a Jew, born to Jewish parents because Israel is God’s Chosen People. That means that Jesus came first for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and not for Europeans and Americans and Africans and Caribbeans.
All the rest of us are not natural-born children. Instead we are adopted into the family of God through Jesus’ Israelite flesh. The Holy Spirit joins us to God as “sons” through the Son Jesus Christ. In so doing, the Holy Spirit also joins us to every other person who has been adopted into God’s Family. The Church is now a ragtag group of Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, black and white.
The hard part for us is remembering that at our core, none of us deserves God’s love. In the famous words of the Prayer of Humble Access, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” (BCP, 337). God’s love is always a complete and utter gift to us. None of us are good enough on our own. And more than that, none of us Christians can claim any kind of spiritual superiority because all of us Gentiles are adopted into the fold.
This is not bad news meant to disparage us, but God’s hopeful yes to us. Instead of allowing us to wield our power, privilege, status, or skin color over one another, God calls us to treat every Christian as a sister and brother.
The Family of God is the new community of believers who are bound by something far greater than violent, tribalistic allegiances like blood relations or national identity. We are bound together as one Body of Christ by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We are bound together by grace!
For this reason (among others), white supremacy in all its forms is heresy. It is a theological falsehood because it denies the truth that the Canaanite Woman is our mother and our kin. It denies the truth that God's grace is the only leg we have to stand on.
White supremacist Christians would have us believe that white Christians are the “new Israel.” They imply that God replaced Israel with the Church through Jesus. They imply that God’s promises to the people of Israel were not permanent. They imply that God is somehow an untrustworthy liar. They reject St. Paul’s words: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:2a, 29).
The central lie of white supremacy is the arrogant claim that a chosen few (the amorphous group called “white people”) are worthy of God’s love, while everyone else is not. The thing that American Christians so often forget in talking about race is that white people are not and have never been the chosen people. “White” is not even a category in the Bible. There are Jews and Gentiles, and most of us are Gentiles.
Somewhere along the way, White Europeans forgot that they were Gentiles. They began to act like they were the Chosen People who had earned or deserved God’s love. They came to the Americas with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, using the Gospel of Jesus Christ as justification for their conquest of these rich lands.
We inherit a world shaped by the idea that white people accomplished this because they are inherently superior, and that they are inherently superior because they are chosen, because they are Christian!
This is a deeply evil lie. It has twisted and mangled Christian truths in support of systemic human sins - greed, violence, and domination taken to the extreme.
The Christian story has always been a scandal. No one is worthy of God’s love, yet God gives it freely. No one is worthy to be chosen, yet God chose Israel. No Gentile can ever assume kinship with this God of Israel, yet Jesus Christ makes it possible through adoption.
We must remember our Gentile heritage. We must remember that the Canaanite Woman is our mother, and that we needed her intercession to draw close to Jesus. We must remember the greatness of God’s grace to us in adopting us through Jesus. We must remember that God’s favor is an unmerited gift and hold tightly to this truth. For without grace, we can never fully resist the evils of racism.
May God have mercy and grace on us all. Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
-----. “Overhearing the Shema.” Lecture, Christian Identity and the Formation of the Racial World from Duke Divinity School, February 2, 2015.