Several years ago, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, two of America's great comedians, developed a routine using baseball terminology. It is now very famous and most people have seen it time and again on Television. It is called ?Who?s on First?? There is only one problem with this great routine. In order to understand ?Who?s on First?? you must be in the in crowd; in other words, you must know something about baseball and something about the nature of the English language and about language in general. Life seems to be that way too. You are either in or out. You belong or do not belong.
Jesus was brought up in a very exclusive community and religion where clear lines of division were set and you were either in or out. Through Judaism's history there were major arguments about who was really in. Ezra and Nehemiah were writers who believed that God only favored the people of Israel. We can understand that perspective in light of the return of exiled peoples to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the temple. On the other hand books like Esther, Ruth and Jonah along with several of the prophets present God as one who loved Israel first but then, through Israel, would love the whole world.
When Jesus came to dwell among his people he lived in a country occupied by the Roman forces. The guidelines for who is in and who is out become hardened when one is in the midst of war. Judaism had split into several sects, most of which are mentioned in the Gospels, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots. Not mentioned in the Bible but discovered, later were the Essenes who preserved the scrolls that were discovered around the Dead Sea only this century. All of these sects were very exclusivistic, only the chosen few could belong to them. Jesus, undoubtedly, heard and overheard people talking is us-them terms all the time he was growing.
It is understandable why when he is visiting the foreign cities of Tyre and Sidon, perhaps in an attempt to get away from the many people with needs that were always looking for him, he reacted the way he did when a non-Jewish woman asks him for a favor. Pious interpretations of our text read into the Scripture that Jesus was perhaps testing this woman. I prefer to think of Jesus as truly the Incarnate Son of God and if he was truly incarnate that means that he was not totally immune to the prejudices of his fellow Jews.
Jesus is under no obligation to respond positively to this woman who is pestering him when he is trying to have a little free time. The Gospel of Mark makes it clearer that Jesus wanted a little time off. He enters a house and does not want any one to know that he is there. Yet this resourceful woman and distraught mother finds Jesus and asks for a favor. Strangely enough, Jesus would have been under some obligation if the same scene were to take place within the borders of ancient Israel. Israel had strict laws regarding the treatment of foreigners. The alien, the GER in Hebrew, placed a very special demand on all Israelites. Having been aliens in other lands and survived there through the kindness of some of those who lived in the lands where the Israelites sojourned now they had to treat foreigners well. Moses who had escaped from Egypt to Median and was befriended, protected and instructed by Jethro honored the GER by naming his son GERSHOM. Later on the GER reappears as one of the members of the trinity of Hebrew mercy, the widow, the orphan and the GER, the foreigner who lives in the land of Israel. Yet, this scene takes place away from the Holy Land. Tyre and Sidon are vacation spots not places to exhibit piety or display power. Jesus' knee-jerk reaction is acceptable and it gives us permission to have our own knee-jerk reactions. It is very human to react in ways congruent with our upbringing and Jesus' response to the unnamed Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman is a very human first response. But knee-jerk reactions must give way to carefully considered responses and merciful actions for those of us who claim to know that Jesus is Lord.
I have no problems with church people who react "naturally" and at first reading wish to follow a course of action that is in harmony with culturally shared assumptions. Prejudice is one such example. Rare is the person whose first reaction to a person of a different racial, cultural or sexual, background is a warm reception. Our minds, which are a great gift, sometimes place unnecessary barriers between people. But people of faith are called to move beyond their first reactions.
Another area where knee-jerk reactions are understandable is that concerning punishment to capital offenders. Many times I react with a desire to see people who have committed heinous crimes executed on the spot. That is a most understandable reaction. But as a person of living in community I hope that laws are created for reasons other than to institutionalize our collective knee-jerk reactions. In fact, I would go further to say that society has an obligation not to institutionalize our knee-jerk reactions and that laws must emerge from a desire to legislate on the basis of our most cherished shared values. Then as a Christian attempting to follow the Lord I find it untenable to ask for the death penalty for any crime no matter how terrible. After all, are we not the followers of a victim of Capital Punishment? This, ,on the other hand, places a major obligation on all of us who are opposed to the death penalty to be extra loving and compassionate with the families and friends of victims of capital crimes. Generally, however, our knee-jerk reactions must be followed by actions that are informed and influenced by our faith in the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
The other side of this story in Matthew is that of the character and courage of the persistent woman, the caring mother, the trusting believer. Women, and other people upon whom society has imposed a subservient role, have learned to accommodate, to go practice "end runs", to be clever or funny to obtain results. This woman decides not to argue with Jesus' knee-jerk response to her. She knows who is IN first. She is the prototype of the second generation of followers of Jesus. She is more like someone who believed in Jesus through Paul, a GOY, a Gentile who understands the argument of Paul that salvation came first to the Jews. She does not assume a contradictory position. For the moment she accepts Jesus' name calling, she assumes the role of a dog and reminds the Master, that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs which fall from the hands of the children of the Master who are sitting at the table.
Today the theological descendants of the Canaanite woman are writing some of the most exciting books on theology. Christian women of all backgrounds and cultures are no longer picking up the crumbs under the table of the master but presiding over the bread at the communion table. Those whom Jesus down to earth reaction did not include among the "lost sheep of the House of Israel" now tend lambs as pastors and oversee flocks as bishops in many of the Protestant denominations.
The whole body of Christ, the church, has benefited from the gifts that women bring to the table. Texts that under the scrutiny of male scholars seemed to have dried up now are filled with new meanings and nuances that female scholars have teased out. Even our images of God have changed as women preachers and Biblical scholars have pointed out that our patriarchal ancestors underplayed the tender and caring images of God in both, the Hebrew Scripture and in the New Testament. The "crumbs under the table" picked up by the Canaanite woman have been reconfigured into new bread and new wine by our sisters in Christ. Christianity no longer limps along with one leg shorter than the other, with women confined to literally "picking up the crumbs from under the table" doing the clean-up after men have feasted. The serving ministries are indeed important and more men need to do them instead of presenting those tasks to women as the main avenue of service for them.
Elizabeth Moltmann, known at the beginning mainly as the wife of the great male theologian Jurgen Moltmann, tells poignant stories of her early life in the Christian faith when she tried to enter into discussions with males who had been in theological school with her but upon graduation barred her from the exclusive clubs of male theology. Elizabeth Moltmann persisted, like her Canaanite predecessor and is now one of the great role models for women in theological schools and faculties.
In the final event the name of the game is not "who is on first" or who is "in" first, but that through the grace of God and the work and example of Jesus Christ and the persistence and courage of the Canaanite woman and her theological progeny we are ALL IN. To God be the glory!