One of the peculiar ticks of the liberal Western world is that we, as a culture, seek to never really offend anyone, all the while almost seeking to be offended at all times. When I had to take a gender-studies course at Elon to fulfill a requirement, a friend of mine, who was a self-described radicalized feminist, thought that the course should be subtitled How to be Offended in Everyday Life. And yet, even as we teach our youth to find offense all around, we in the Diocese of New Jersey spend tens of thousands of dollars on anti-racism training that almost no one attends and really only teaches people new and exciting things to call your neighbors. Worldly peace is sought despite the natural consequence of that seeking, which is nothing of substance ever gets done.
Jesus didn’t seem to have that problem, and that fact offends many people. The gospel we share, that it is only through Christ that we have access to God the Father, is naturally offensive, at least to people to who don’t believe it. It is offensive because it is objectively true, and objective truth offends the proud.
Earlier this year the evangelical Christian world was all a-tizzy over a book called Love Wins. Its author, Rob Bell is a famous evangelical preacher, but his book seems more like a refutation of the Bible than a learned discourse upon it. Bell argues in the book that Jesus was a kinder, gentler soul than the one the Bible presents. Bell’s Jesus would never set down rules or boundaries, He would never say anything that could wound or convict. But Bell’s Jesus is a vision of our Lord better suited to a Hallmark card than a throne of glory. Bell’s Jesus is the kind of milquetoast God who would never, ever, call a foreign woman a dog.
Uh oh. St. Matthew tells us that “Jesus, for some unexplained reason, wandered into the area of Tyre and Sidon. To most of Matthew’s original readers, that was the equivalent of saying that Jesus had now entered Paganland. He was outside of any recognizably religious area and had entered a kind of spiritual slum, a veritable ghetto of unbelief. This was the kind of place “good” folks did not visit. The disciples were probably nervous being there. To their provincial minds, trotting around Tyre and Sidon made them feel similar to how most of us would feel if we found ourselves”1 wandering around beautiful downtown Mogadishu around midnight. “And it didn’t take long before their worst fears are realized. Suddenly a crazy woman (a crazy Canaanite woman) runs up, screaming at the top of her lungs about her demon-possessed daughter. Unwittingly, she probably played right into every stereotype the disciples harbored. She was shrill, overly direct, presumptuous, and her family had a problem with a demon. “Well, don’t they all!” Peter no doubt thought to himself.”2
The woman was begging for the Son of the God of the Jews to pay attention to her, an act that would effectively cut her off from her own people. For her trouble, Jesus ignores her and the disciples yell at her to go away. When she persists, Jesus gives her the dog comment, that it’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs. That’s crazy insulting but not unexpected, but the woman decided not to be offended. She responds with heartbreaking humor: “Sure, but don’t puppies dance around the table, lunging for scraps?”
She got what she wanted, and we got what is perhaps the most offensive thing Jesus ever said to an individual. I won’t pretend to know why Jesus said what He said, what His tone was or if He was just engaging in a little cross-tribal ribbing. I will say that we should take a lesson from the Canaanite woman, her persistence and humor. I will say that we should remember that the truth can offend, and because we are not the truth incarnate, to speak the truth in love. And I will say that the world would be a very different place if everyone looked for faith in everyday life and ditched the rest.
1,2. Scott Hoezee, This Week