Our Grief Unites Us, and Can Heal Us

Matthew 15: 21-28
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.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Don’t freak out, but Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t perfect. At least, the Jesus of the Gospels sure wasn’t. There were times when Jesus changed his mind, altered course, did a 180. This particular story in Matthew is one of those times. Here’s the context: Jesus crossed over into Gentile [non-Jewish] territory. Tyre and Sidon were both ancient Phoenician ports. Tyre, in particular, became very Greek. Remember that Jews and non-Jews were segregated from each other, for lots of reasons. Prejudice. Suspicion. War. Religion. Even food. So Jesus went to Gentile land. Also, I should say that sadly many interpretations of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures paint this Jewish-Gentile conflict as a pretty black and white thing. And in many cases, the Bible is reduced to an us vs. them mentality. This of course was not/is not the case. Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures contain stories and teachings that incorporate various religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions. To say that it was always Jews vs. Gentiles is a BIG mistake.

And that’s kind of the point here. See, Jesus met a woman who was from Canaan, a sworn enemy of Israel. Or so they were conditioned to think.

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Many Israelites viewed the Canaanites as lesser. Why? It went all the way back to the famous Joshua. When the Hebrews and Joshua entered the so-called promised land of Israel, the Canaanites were there, and the Canaanites and Hebrews fought each other. So it’s no surprise that Jesus’ disciples, upon seeing a Canaanite woman no less, shouted for her to go away. The woman was undeterred though. She kept on approaching Jesus, shouting. She knelt before Jesus. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. And a Rabbi no less. She said: “Help me.”

Jesus’ answer was harsh and there is no way I’m going to sugarcoat it. Jesus compared this woman to a dog. Jesus said that it wouldn’t be fair to take children’s [i.e. the Israelites] food and then throw it to the dogs [i.e. the Canaanites]. Well.

Oh No You Didn't GIF | Gfycat

Again, this woman was not deterred, even by the insults.

“Yes,” she replied. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Oh snap.

Did this woman just burn Jesus of Nazareth?
Um, that’s a big YEP.

Jesus flipped his thinking and his decision.

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

It’s only here in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus refers to someone’s faith as great. A Canaanite woman. A woman Jesus just called a dog.

Not only did she teach Jesus, her daughter was healed.

Jesus lost an argument and a woman gained healing.

What a story!

And I see deep connections in this story to Valarie Kaur’s story called See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. With Jesus and the Canaanite woman we have a see no stranger moment.

Which leads me to these questions:

What are the paradigms we’ve been raised with, how have we been conditioned to trust some and mistrust others? How are our opponents/enemies created?

And a follow-up question:

What if wonder and grief are needed in this moment?

Wonder, because we need to be curious about others, why they see the world differently, how they behave, etc. We need to question any prejudice we have against certain people; we need to wonder where those prejudices come from. Who taught them to us? Why? Are they really valid?

And Grief, because there are so many injustices in the world and we need to grieve with those who have been/are oppressed and singled out and marginalized. See, our wonder leads us to see the injustices done to people. Our wonder leads us to go and grieve with them. And this act of grieving recognizes the harm that was done to them. We express solidarity and acceptance of their pain and loss. And this keeps us connected. This can even mobilize us to bring about social change.

On the other hand, suppression of wonder leads to a lack of empathy, prejudice, and violence.

Suppression of grief leads to depression, loneliness, isolation, addiction and violence (Kaur 43).

And yet, Grief, collectively experienced, enables the stories to be told.

“This happened to me. It was wrong. It must not happen again.” The storytelling is what happens before justice because it recognizes the trauma. When we grieve together, we know each other better.

We see no strangers.

As Valarie states: “This requires us to acknowledge the ways historically oppressed people continue to suffer—and the ways people with good intentions continue to benefit from that suffering. It requires witnessing the pain of trauma without trying to control or colonize  or minimize it—then listening, and continuing to listen” (Kaur 58).

May it be so.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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