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Jesus vs. Mama Bear

In our continuing journey with the nameless characters in the gospels, we find ourselves with a very special mother on Mother’s Day. Known only as the Canaanite woman, she stands as a symbol and example for mothers and parents everywhere, even today. Because some things, sadly, never change.

To understand the impact this story would have had at the time it was written, we need to know why it was important to point out that this mother was a Canaanite. The Canaanites (peaceful agricultural people who worshipped the goddess Asherah/Astarte and her consort Baal) were one of the indigenous peoples occupying a land of “milk and honey” that God supposedly gave to Moses and the Israelites (the Promised Land) and instructed them to kill the inhabitants. Because of an ingenious ploy on the part of the Canaanites, Joshua allowed them to live, but consigned them to being water bearers and woodcutters. Essentially it was believed that the Canaanites were worth nothing more than oppression and the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. And this is where they stayed.

At the time of Jesus, the scorn for the Canaanites still remained, centuries after the time of Moses, an entrenched Jewish prejudice. In this light, let's consider the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28.

The Canaanite woman was a mother whose daughter was “horribly demon-possessed.” In ancient times this could mean anything from epilepsy to various forms of mental and even physical illness. If we use our imaginations, what else would we like to know about this mother who has the distinction of being the only person in the gospels to ever win an argument with Jesus? Here are a few things I'd like to know:

  • where is her husband?
  • what is her financial situation?
  • what else has she tried in regard to helping heal her daughter?
  • does she worship the goddess as her ancestors certainly did?
  • what does she risk in approaching Jesus? And where does she get the strength to do it?
  • is Jesus a last resort?
  • does she have more than one child?

Even without knowing the answers to these questions, we do know that she is a desperate mother willing to try anything to help her child. She cries out and cries out and still Jesus ignores her. She makes a nuisance of herself until the disciples nudge Jesus to do something about her.

Finally, Jesus speaks, “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” In other words, you’re not my problem.

But the Canaanite mother now has his attention. Undeterred by his comment, she throws herself at his feet and cries out, “Help me Rabbi!”

Jesus replies, “But it isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Frankly, I’m hugely disappointed in Jesus at this response. Seriously? He’ll dismiss a mother whose child is ill because she isn’t Jewish? What happened to God loving everyone? What happened to the last being first? What happened to the spirit of the law? What happened to compassion? What happened to "do unto others"? And this story is immediately after Jesus tells some folks that one eats is not what makes one unclean, but it is what comes out of one’s mouth that makes a person unclean. I think what just came out of Jesus’ mouth wasn’t very nice. Last week we heard a story of Jesus giving sight to a blind person and making the "seeing" blind. It appears now that Jesus is either the one who is blind and needs to see, or he thinks he sees and is right and need to be made blind!

In any case, the important thing to remember is that this is a story told for a purpose. It was told by a Jewish author to a Jewish audience. To their understanding, this Canaanite woman (along with all other Gentiles) lived outside of the covenant between God and the Israelites (the Chosen People). So, the question here is how far will the love of God stretch? Can it reach far enough to encompass even the recipients of the harshest Jewish prejudice? Can the barrier between the “chosen people” and the “dogs” be broken?

We draw in a sharp breath at Jesus’ harsh response and wonder what the woman will do. But she is resilient, tenacious, and smart. She does not fight the comment, she does not hurl back insults (both of which would have put Jesus on the defensive), nor does she give up and leave, but instead she absorbs the insult and uses the metaphor to her advantage, “True, Rabbi, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.”

She replies with strength and reason, transforming his prejudice, getting him to question his own statement, and moving him to include her within the circle of God’s love and care. Jesus opens his eyes to her great faith and heals her daughter.

The answer is yes, God’s love can embrace those who are most disliked, marginalized, and rejected in any age. We cannot place a limit on God’s love. It is not and has never been true that some people are more worthy of love and care than others.

The Canaanite woman was what we might call “Mama Bear,” risking herself for the sake of her child, confronting power and not backing down. She is the archetype, the symbol of women through the ages who have gone to bat for their children.

I think of all the mothers of gay and lesbian children who stood by their sides, fought for their right to be who they are, to be safe, to marry who they love, to receive the health care they deserve. Matthew Shepard’s parents, after he was brutally killed over 24 years ago, have spent this time honoring his memory by working for hate crime legislation for LGBT people, by speaking and educating about hate crimes to law enforcement, community organizations and citizens. They also work for federal job protection laws to be passed, because how can you report a hate crime, or prejudice at work if you are in fear of losing your job?

I think of the mothers who are standing up for their trans children: Dana Mosling, Michelle Baade, Anne March. These three are just a small sampling of the many, many mothers of trans kids fighting for health care, protection, and rights in the state of Wisconsin. Many of them are ready to leave the state if something changes in their access to gender-affirming health care.

I think of the many mothers of special needs kids who work diligently and tenaciously to get the best care, the best education, the best therapy, the best life for their children.

I think of the many Black mothers who have organized, started non-profits, marched, spoken out, counseled, taught and fought for equity in schools, health care, workplaces, and the justice system.

The list goes on and on, including every situation of injustice, every system of oppression, every imbalance of power, every need for safety, health and wholeness.

The nameless woman who confronts Jesus and the power structure that he represents, is the icon, a superhero, for all women who, over the centuries, and now, refuse to be daunted in their desire for a better, safer, cleaner, more equitable, kinder, gentler world for their children.

Jesus listened, he changed… mothers won’t stop speaking up until others have changed as well.

Love & Light!

Kaye