As many of you may know I am a graduate of the University of Florida. I also grew up in a Gator household and, therefore, I am a Gator. Years ago I had a startling experience.
I was watching the evening news when Bobby Bowden, the storied coach of our archrival, the Florida State Seminoles, came on the screen. My back immediately arched as if I were an angry cat. I clenched my teeth and before Mr. Bowden had even begun speaking I began muttering under my breath all sorts of derisive comments about him.
I was shocked at myself. I consider myself an enlightened, tolerant, gentle man and here I was ready to dismiss another human being simply because he was the coach of a team I didn’t like.
I began an internal conversation with myself: “I don’t even know Mister Bowden. How can I be so rampantly judgmental against him? How can I be so unloving when I call myself a Christian? Where was all this vehemence coming from?” I realized I had been conditioned to dislike the Seminoles and especially their leader. After all, he was the quintessential arch-rival of any good Gator.
Now lest my internal dialogue result in some conversion experience that would call me to go and hug the nearest Seminole, I quickly changed the channel and tried to forget about it.
But this experience has stayed with me because it brought me up short to realized that I was prejudiced against Seminoles (the football team; I have nothing against the tribe)!
I remembered this experience in light of today’s Gospel reading. This is one of the more puzzling stories we have about Jesus because this is one of the stories when Jesus appears to be very much like us, perhaps too much like us.
Let’s recap this story. Jesus leaves his homeland and is traveling among the Canaanites. The Canaanites were not friendly with the Jews. The Jews, after all, were God’s chosen people and the Canaanites weren’t. It was as simple as that. The Jews felt they were better.
Soon Jesus comes into contact with a Canaanite woman who asks him to deliver her daughter from the demon that possesses her. At first, Jesus simply ignores her, probably hoping she will go away. But the woman was not only a Canaanite, she was a persistent Canaanite. She began pestering Jesus’ disciples. Soon they came and asked Jesus to do something about her.
But Jesus states that his mission was to help the Jews. But the woman persists. She kneels in front of our Lord and asks for his help again. He raises the stakes and says rather callously, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
What I find most puzzling, most disturbing is that Jesus calls this woman a dog. Here we see a side of Jesus that looks entirely ungodly. This woman is obviously distressed but Jesus initially seems to have little or no compassion for her. This is the man we call the Prince of Peace?The Good Shepherd? How can this be?
Jesus was raised as a Jew. He was raised in a culture that taught him and formed his belief that he was among God’s chosen people. The Jews were given the divine law. The Jews were set apart from all the nations to be the light of God for the world. All the other nations served false gods and had no access to divine truth.
Jesus grew up hearing these things. Is it any wonder that he believed it? Is it any wonder that he harbored distrust and animosity toward a Canaanite? Is it surprising to find that he had to confront this in himself? Are we surprised that we, too, would have to confront such dynamics within ourselves as well?
Opinions of people unlike us are, more often than not, learned and molded into us by our cultures and families. We can only overcome them when something slap us in the face; when we are confronted by another person who doesn’t fit the mold.
This Canaanite woman, according to Jesus’ culture, was unclean and a heathen and yet she displayed an undying belief of Jesus’ spiritual authority. Try as he might, our Lord could not escape this woman. She would not keep quiet. But she also knelt before him in humility. She confessed his authority by calling him Lord. And she humbly admitted that she would accept even the leftover grace that God would offer her. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she replied to Jesus.
This humility, this devotion, this longing for God’s grace had to have impacted Jesus. This heathen longed for God’s grace, begged for God's mercy. Notice that Jesus not only healed her daughter but Jesus proclaimed, “O woman, great is your faith!” It is very interesting to note that this is only place in the entire Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says anyone has great faith.
Jesus first saw this woman as an outcast, an inferior person of questionable virtue and value, and in the end Jesus proclaims the greatness of her faith.In this we have at least two lessons to learn.
The first is that we all have to confront our deepest fears and darkest ideas about people we believe are different from us. If Jesus, the son of God, the Word made flesh had to overcome such biases, so will we.
Such ideas are insidious and powerful. They can cause us to separate others from God’s love. We must beware of deciding who is unworthy of God’s grace. If I am willing to pass judgment on who is outside of God’s love, chances are there is someone willing to decide that I am outside of God’s love.
The second lesson for us is that Jesus himself had to grow and learn about God’s grace. He was open to see that God’s love is bigger than he was. He was willing to learn that we are vessels of God’s love but not owners of it. He was willing to be formed and reformed by the spirit of God and because of this he was able to offer the spirit of God to others, even those he would have never believed were worthy of it.
I must admit that I still do not care for the Seminoles but after all, it’s just football and God’s love is bigger than football. And in the end that is what Jesus learned from the Canaanite woman and what we all can learn as well: that God’s love is bigger, just plain bigger.