Matthew 15:21-28 “Crumbs”
$43.02. Forty-three dollars and two cents. That’s all. Undoubtedly there are some who are listening right now who have that amount of cash in their wallets as I speak. It’s cash on hand, change even, for most of us. In fact, just recently I needed to break a $50 bill. It was for no other reason than convenience. I wanted smaller bills, not a big one. Smaller bills are handier. So, at the store where I stopped to buy a lemon and a snack, I used that fifty, and my change was just about $43. I walked out of the store and didn’t think anything of it, except perhaps that I was glad not to have to deal with that fifty anymore. I got back in my car and went about my life. It was barely even a blip on my radar.
Then the report arrived in my inbox. $43.02. That was how much medical debt was purchased and forgiven for someone in Wabasha county. Back in February we at First Congo, partnering with a few other churches in town, started a campaign to raise money that would be used to purchase bad medical debt in our region. This debt – bad because the collection agencies have determined it unlikely to be paid back – was available for a penny on the dollar. By raising $15,000 we were going to abolish $1.5 million in debt. While our original goal was to raise this money during Lent and celebrate a successful campaign on Easter Sunday, the events of 2020 slowed that down. But we continued to work and achieved our goal about 6 weeks ago. I was so excited to see the impact we were going to make. I was eagerly awaiting the actual numbers from the nonprofit we are working with, RIP Medical Debt. I was itching to see the actual number of households who were provided relief in our region. I was itching to see just the amount of money that people no longer had hanging over them. So, when the report arrived in my inbox, I couldn’t wait to examine it.
But, I need to confess something. I looked at that report, and the first thing I felt was disappointment. $43.02? That’s it? All that work. All that time. All that communication and asking and planning and praying. And the only debt we were able to purchase in that nearby county was $43.02? Of course, in other counties in our region, we were able to purchase thousands and thousands more. But all I could see was that $43.02. What a waste, I thought. That’s nothing. It’s just crumbs. I confess this to you because of the shame I now feel as I read the familiar and yet uncomfortable story of the Canaanite woman.
I don’t like today’s scripture reading. In fact, I don’t know many people who do. Jesus’ dismissal. The woman on her knees begging for her child’s life. Jesus needing to be convinced. I don’t like it. Now, I am someone who likes to consider Jesus’ human characteristics. I like when he is not perfect, when he looses his temper or acts out. It makes him more relatable to me. But he is far too human for even my comfort in this story. And, I also like stories where women stand up for themselves, when they demand to be seen and respected. But, this story pushes even my boundaries. She is on her knees, begging, being called a dog. I don’t like it and want to ignore it.
Or, perhaps even worse, I try to fall in line with some of the scholars and commentators who do some rather extraordinary interpretative gymnastics in order to smooth the rough edges of this story. One I read this week even suggested that Jesus and the Canaanite woman were in cahoots with one another. That the entire interaction was a show put on for the sake of the disciples and for us. An object lesson. That scholar, one whom I deeply respect, seemed to suggest that the whole thing concludes with a wink and smile between Jesus and the woman – look, they fooled everyone into learning a lesson. And, I will admit, I was tempted. It made me feel better. Jesus wasn’t being dismissive. The woman didn’t need to beg. They were equals in teaching an important lesson! But then I remembered: $43.02. Crumbs.
When we started the campaign to raise money to purchase and forgive bad medical debt in our community, I imagined something much grander than $43.02. While I knew that the average amount of debt for any one person that was forgiven in a campaign like this was less than $1000, I didn’t expect to see a number quite so small. I was not pleased to see something that I considered insignificant. But, as I read this scripture, one I do my best to ignore normally, I discovered that I need the lesson more than I realized. I need to be taught that someone’s need and pain is not one that I can place a value on. What’s crumbs for me is a feast for someone else. And, I believe Jesus needed to be reminded of this as well.
The Canaanites were a hated people. Despised natives pushed to the margins, beggars, seen as a drain on society. The people of Jesus’ time placed little worth on the value of their needs, often going as far as blaming them for the poverty they lived in, unable to see the systems that forced them into that poverty in the first place. When the woman, unnamed other than by her race, comes to Jesus begging for the life of her daughter, Jesus calls her a dog. Dogs at that time were mildly tolerated beggars, allowed to scrounge around on the margins for scraps, but kicked if they got too close. This prejudice, this de-valuing of another person’s worth in the eyes of God expressed by Jesus sits so uncomfortably with us because I believe it is a direct reflection of our own prejudice that we go out of our way to pretend does not exist. We don’t want to admit our own faults, our own sins, so we try to explain away those same faults in Jesus. But, when we do that, we remove the power from this lesson. When we choose not to confront the prejudice of Jesus, we choose not to confront our own. And if we can’t even admit it, then we can’t begin the process of repentance.
I reacted from a place of prejudice when I saw that someone had received debt relief of $43.02. I saw something insignificant, unworthy of my time and energy. I saw a Canaanite woman, whose need I placed a value on and determined that value to be worthless. I saw a Canaanite woman, coming on her knees, demanding that I pay attention. I saw a Canaanite woman looking me in the eyes and demanding that her life matters. I saw a Canaanite woman teaching me that, if I preach the sharing of abundance, then that means she has the same right to share in that abundance as anyone else. I saw a Canaanite woman look into my spirit, find it wanting, and thereby forcing me to look as well.
Jesus reacted in prejudice and he also learned out loud. The Canaanite woman confronted his human instincts to dismiss her because the society around him already had, she looked into his Spirit, and forced him to listen to the words of God. God spoke through that persecuted and forgotten person – God spoke with the voice of a Canaanite woman and said her life mattered. It was not crumbs she was demanding, it was the Bread of Life that Jesus had promised was for everyone. And Jesus listened. Jesus remembered. Jesus learned. And Jesus blessed her. He blessed her personhood. He blessed her perseverance. He blessed her voice. He blessed her faith.
The Canaanite woman’s words are echoed today in the voices of those saying Black Lives Matter. The Canaanite woman’s words are echoed today by those demanding equal pay, affordable childcare, stable housing, and the recognition of all gender identities. The Canaanite woman’s words are echoed on the report of a person in Wabasha county whose $43.02 medical debt is not only worth our time and energy, but demands our attention and our abundance.
Jesus learned out loud and so must we. This will undoubtedly be a lifelong lesson for each of us, but as people of faith we have no choice but to engage with the teaching. The Jewish Mishnah, the collection of postbiblical teachings from ancient and modern Jewish scholars says this: “It’s not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from beginning it.” To begin, we must – just as Jesus did – listen to the voices of the Canaanite women who surround us today, demanding our attention. We must listen, we must learn, and we must remember that the Bread of Life promised to us by God through Jesus Christ is for everyone. Everyone is created in the image of God, and therefore blessed by God. Let us commit to listen, remember, and learn.
Let us pray…
All-encompassing God, you speak to us through the voices of so many people, including some we try to ignore. But your still-speaking voice demands our attention. Help us to open our ears, our hearts, and our spirits to listen with our full selves. To listen to the words and cries, and allow ourselves to be moved and changed. Help us to listen so that we can respond.
God, there are times when we struggle to confront our own limitations and our own biases. We confess that sometimes we refuse to learn and do better. But, you came to this world in the person of Jesus Christ who taught us what it means to learn and do better. You came into this world in the form of an imperfect person to help us all confront the shadows of our souls, thereby breaking them open to allow your light to shine through.
To do this work, to learn out loud in this way, requires courage. It requires your presence in our lives so that when we falter you are there to catch us and help us right ourselves again. It is your grace, God, a grace that you give without reservation that gives us the fortitude to keep going. It is your grace that we give you great thanks for.
We pray this day in the name of the one who taught us so much, including how to learn and remember your call for our lives, Jesus Christ. And we pray in the way he taught by raising our voices together and praying…Our Father…