Crayons & Canaanites: A Sermon on Invisible Barriers
This sermon was preached on August 20, 2017 at Knox Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa, CA. The text for the week was Matthew 15:21-28.
School started last week. There’s nothing like new school supplies. Do any of you still get excited if you get a new box of crayons? All those colors! There’s something about seeing all those colors, side by side, tucked in the neat little boxes. I always find it very exciting to open a brand new box of crayons.
Did you know that they make boxes of Crayola Crayons that come in a whole variety of skin colors? They’re pretty neat, in beautiful almost rainbow order from light to dark, starting with white, running through pink and peach and tan to all shades of brown to black. It’s fun for kids to be able to pick out a crayon that matches their skin while they’re coloring. Some people have to blend a few shades together to get a close match. I don’t know what I am. A kind of pinky peach, I guess.
In my first job out of college, I used these crayons a lot. I ran a program in Columbus, Ohio for two years called “Students for Tolerance, Acceptance, and Respect” (STAR). I worked with groups of 6th graders in two city schools doing group activities and exercises to help them get along. The schools were mainly ethnically African American and Caucasian, with a distinct Somalian immigrant Muslim population mixed in, too. And the STAR program was meant to teach racism prevention by way of education and fun group activities. Like, if we can manage to share the crayons at the table, we might be able to get along in the wider world.
One of the first exercises I would do with the kids (besides having them do a group agreement) is have them trace their hands on a piece of paper and then color it in using the crayola skin color crayons. Then, they would share with the group the picture and we would talk about all the different colors we used. The idea being two-fold: one, it was safe to talk about skin color and differences in this group; and two, to appreciate the beautiful variety of skin tones present in the group.
The kids always liked this activity: coloring and talking about yourself. It’s perfect for twelve year olds!
As adults, we might be able to look a little deeper at the activity. On paper or in the crayon box, in theory, we know pink or peach is not more or less beautiful, or more or less valuable, than any other color in the crayon box.
Yet, in life, it’s as if the crayons on the lighter end of the box are generally better protected, less likely to get broken, and have an easier time just getting out of the box than crayons on the darker end of the spectrum.
Like, if you just look at the colors in the box, they’re all equally beautiful and equally necessary. But...what if there’s some kind of invisible barrier that the darker crayons smash up against if you’re trying to pull them out.
And maybe the teacher and the kid sitting next to you keep telling you’re just taking them out of the box wrong. That’s why your crayons keep breaking. They don’t see how hard you’re trying just to finish your own picture - because they don’t need to use the same colors you need - so they're not struggling up against the barrier - so they don't see it's there.
Invisible barriers. Sometimes they’re there and we just don’t have the eyes to see them.
That’s what came to mind in reflecting on the Scripture for today from Matthew, where Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!
My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Notice Jesus says, when asked to heal this poor woman’s daughter, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
I never know what to do with this Jesus here. When he says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” That’s not nice.
This scripture here is one of the reasons why - if you’ve ever been in a group with me and I’ve had you do a group agreement when we write down general guidelines for group behavior - and somebody says “be nice like Jesus” or “be respectful, like Jesus” - I’ll say “Can you say a little bit more about what you mean?” This scripture here is what I’m thinking about then. Because Jesus is not nice or respectful. He’s downright rude to the woman.
What is the deal with this rude Jesus? What is going on here?
Well, the text becomes a little clearer when we begin to look for clues to understanding. Clues that might be invisible at first. Jesus and the Canaanite woman existed in a very different cultural time period than ours. What was the same is that there were lots of different types of people living together in towns and cities, and they often didn’t get along.
The woman in the story is a Canaanite. To us today saying someone was a Canaanite has no meaning. The difference between a Canaanite and an Israelite two thousand years ago to us is...who knows? They’re all ancient and foreign to us...but saying she’s a Canaanite would have been a clue to understanding the story to a person in the time when the gospel of Matthew was written. Saying a person was a Canaanite was like saying she was a suspicious outsider. She’s a sneaky foreigner, not to be trusted. The Canaanites are enemies of the Israelites.
Plus, earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has told his disciples not to go anywhere among the Gentiles (or people that were not Jewish like the disciples). And now here is a Gentile coming to Jesus for help. So, if he helps her in front of the disciples, he’s going back on his instructions to them to stay away from the Gentiles. He tells her to go away. He tells her to go away, as best we can tell reading the story, because she’s a Canaanite.
The woman won’t go away, though. He insults her, comparing her to a dog. This insult is very pointed - like, he’s saying that he wasn’t sent to Canaanite people because they are not quite human - not made in the image of God, like the Israelite people. She argues back at him. Jesus does heal her daughter, at last, and it’s her faith in him as Lord and Master that makes her daughter well.
So, this text has a lot of coded stuff in it about race and ethnicity that we wouldn’t necessarily see unless we look for the clues. The clues are there, though, and there’s tons of scholarship written on women, Canaanites, dogs, the topic of “What do we do with this Jesus?” In fact, “What do we do with this Jesus?” is even the title of one of the articles on this topic. The Jesus that is a real jerk to someone asking for his help, because of her ethnic background. What are we going to do with this Jesus? Because this Jesus is our Jesus, too. We can’t keep the blinders on and just pick and choose “nice” Jesus all the time. Often, there’s a temptation with scripture to just pick the easy ones. I don’t think that’s the way to go. Jesus also said something in Matthew about wide and narrow gates. Skipping hard scripture seems like a wide gate. It's tempting to take the wide gate.
What are we going to do with this Jesus?
Well, I don’t think we can necessarily draw a moral lesson out of this scripture today, like it was a children’s story written to teach a lesson, all tied up with a neat little bow. Of course, reading for a moral lesson is only one way to read (and a good way to read, sometimes). There’s lots of different ways to read a scripture text, looking at history, at psychology, as literature.
Another way to read a scripture text is to read for how it makes us feel. The feeling when we read a text can be a clue to meaning.
What do we do with this Jesus? We can notice how it makes us feel when we encounter him.
To see Jesus as a human, fully human in this moment, and to see him act in a way that humans act, to push another person away at first because she is different. That doesn’t feel good. But it’s there, in the gospel, if we have eyes to see. We feel bad - disappointed - when we see someone we love acting in a way that isn’t loving. At first, Jesus isn’t loving. Then, his divinity comes through. Jesus allows the woman to change him. He has a change of heart after encountering her. He heals her daughter. The healing in the moment is a sign of God’s presence.
I don’t know what full total meaning of the gospel text today is - but my takeaway reading it this time is to ask: what if we're supposed to allowing ourselves to be disappointed in this kind of human behavior, and then notice the change of heart, and healing at the end? The spirit of God prevails in the end when the Israelite reaches out to the Canaanite.
I wonder if this is the spirit of the gospel for us today. We as Christians are called to having eyes opened to the world, to see that people we love - good people - maybe even our own selves - are capable, in our most human moments, of acting unjustly towards another because something like skin color, religion, or ethnic background.
We see better behavior from kids on the playground sometimes than we do from adults. We expect kids to share their crayons, don’t we?
If the world were kids sitting at a table, each coloring our own picture, we might notice if our friend next to us has only broken crayons in her box. Those broken crayons are the worst, aren’t they? Little stubby things, you try to peel the paper down, try to sharpen them. Yes, we might notice if our neighbor’s crayons kept breaking and she couldn’t get them sharpened. We’d probably offer to share, so she could get her picture finished before the bell rings, so she wouldn't have to stay in at lunch, so she could go out to play at recess with us.
The good news of the gospel message is that Jesus Christ by example and through his Spirit calls us ever forward into new life, towards wholeness and healing. The good news of gospel message is every color crayon in the box is created equally and loved totally by God. Amen.