The Pecan Man and a Canaanite Woman
Often, we forget the humanity of Jesus. We like the God side. We want to think of Jesus knowing everything—you know the omniscient part of God. We like to think that in addition to healing the sick that Jesus could walk in your home and fix your computer, adjust the washing machine so it stops that rumble during the spin cycle and make the lawn mower crank on the first pull like it did when you bought it 15 years ago. The truth is that because Jesus was fully human, he continually learned just as you and I do. Certainly Jesus had insight that could only come from God, and we will never fully understand all he knew and did. It is indeed part of the divine mystery of Christ, to steal a line from the Apostle Paul.
Luke 2:52 says that after Jesus taught in the temple as a boy that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” I wish the Bible said more about this. Did he struggle with tying shoes? Or was he better at reading or math? The text is vague about all Jesus learned and we do not even have one copy of a report card.
We struggle to see Jesus and his learning and growing in the Biblical texts. That is until we come across an encounter between Jesus and a Gentile woman whose daughter needs healing.
Now I will be honest it is a tough story for most of us. And a lot of us like to skip over it because it puts Jesus in a bad light.
We find this encounter in the 15th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
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.”
He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
As Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka has written about this encounter:
This woman comes to Jesus, bows at his feet, shows him respect, and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Then Jesus says something that is at the very least unkind, if not horrible. He tells her “The children are to be fed first because it would be unfair to take the food meant for them and cast it to the dogs.” He draws a clear distinction here. By children, he means the Jews, like him. And by dogs, he means her. Gentiles … the others. By any measure, this is a horrible statement. In the Middle Eastern culture, to call someone a “dog” is an incredible insult. There is no getting around this. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, just made a horrible, insulting, at worst bigoted and even racist statement. He called this woman and others like her a dog — a lesser creature — someone who is not worthy of his efforts at teaching and preaching and, least of all, healing.
However, if I understand the text, what happens next not only changes this woman and her child’s lives, it also offers us hope that as humans, we can all learn and grow and even overcome our biases and narrow view of the world and of God.
See I believe in this encounter suddenly Jesus’s eyes were further opened to the reality of His calling as the Son of God on earth. Without warning, Jesus understood that there was more than enough grace for everyone and then some. Just like the 12 baskets full of bread left over at the feeding of the 5000, God’s love could embrace all.
Recently I finished a book entitled The Pecan Man. It is an excellent story and won several awards in 2012 when it came out. I do not know why I waited until now to find it, but in my defense, I was working on my Specialist in Education degree in 2012 and most of my reading revolved around Educational Administration, Curriculum and Pedagogy.
I will not give away the entire story but one part of it is the relationship between the narrator, who is a well-to-do widowed white woman named Ora, and her black housekeeper Blanche. Over the decades these two women became friends—best friends—but along the way Miz Ora had to learn and grow and evolve from what she had thought to what she actually found to be true.
I’d like to share a passage which is a powerful example of the change that I believe Jesus went through in his encounter with this Canaanite woman.
The passage begins as Blanche and Ora have grown close because of several tragic events that have moved Ora to move back into the world from her seclusion that began at the death of her husband.
Blanche began accompanying me to various charitable events, and I realized the uniform would have to go. I cringe now when I think of how long I kept my invaluable friend and helpmate in those crisp white symbols of servitude. I've always said that the worst thing anyone could ever say about me was, “She means well," but I have to claim now that I meant well. I meant for her uniforms to be part of her pay. I meant for it to be easy for her to wash them. I meant to help her avoid bleach spills and food stains on her own clothing. I never meant to put her in her place, but that's just what I did. And, God help me, it took Dovey Kincaid to make me realize it.
It was Thanksgiving of 1979 and Patrice was home from college for a few days. The younger girls were out of school and stayed home with their older sister while Blanche and I went to the church to help distribute food among the baskets to be delivered. We were working in the kitchen of the fellowship hall, which was fairly large, but a bit cramped with ten to twelve of us working side-by-side.
When Dovey dropped a jar of pickles, shattering the glass and spraying sugary green juice everywhere, she spoke without hesitation.
“Oh, dear, look what I've done! Blanche, could you grab the mop and clean that up for me, please?"
I froze immediately, which halted the entire distribution line. Blanche didn't react at all, except to head for the broom closet.
“Whoa, whoa, WHOA!" I said, as I found my voice. Blanche stopped abruptly. Dovey, who had marched right over to the sink and grabbed a wet towel to clean herself up, spun around with a bewildered expression on her face. All eyes were on me, all wondering what had just prompted my outburst. I didn't even try to disguise my contempt.
“You made the mess, Dovey. You clean it up."
I never meant to humiliate Blanche, though I think I did. There was no way to recover from it. No matter how you look at it, Blanche had just received two direct orders and neither of us considered what a horrible position they put her in.
“I don't mind helpin', Miz Ora," she said after a moment of awkward silence.
“Neither do I," I said as I dropped out of the assembly line and followed Blanche to the closet.
I could hear murmuring behind me as the women resumed their tasks, but I never worried or even wondered what they were talking about. Good, I thought. Let them figure it out for themselves. Dovey joined us in the clean up and we silently mopped and swept and wiped away the evidence of our mistake.
Blanche never wore a uniform again. When I asked her not to, she did not ask why. In her usual candid way, she said simply, "I can change my clothes, Miz Ora, but I can't change my color. They's always gonna be people who expect what they expect."
“You're absolutely right, Blanche," I nodded. “And I can't change anyone's expectations but my own."
Friends, the world wants us to operate out of a worldview that says there is not enough of anything—including God’s grace and love. A worldview that says some belong and some do not.
But if we listen to the text and our own hearts and are willing to learn, we know that this is simply not the truth.
Of course, learning to both love everyone and see them as beloved children of God means we must be open to change even in the face of others who only see what they will see…be it a Gentile or a poor housekeeper with dark ebony skin.
What I have had to learn over and over again is that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I must love God and neighbor—not just in my words, but more importantly, in practice which sometimes requires me to admit past faults even if I meant well so I might better love others.
As Biblical commentator on this passage from Matthew talks about learning to love in this way.
“We have to learn this over and over and over again.
Jesus learned it.
There was a woman who came to Jesus. She was a Canaanite woman. She was a mother pleading for her child.
I am the Messiah, Jesus said. I’m sorry I can’t help you.
But you are God’s Messiah, she said, and we are all God’s children.
He realized she was right, and before long he taught his followers that every single person in every nation was a child of God.
They all are included in God’s love. No one is left out.
So how do we do that?
Just learn to say, “I love you.”
And then live like we know that is what we are created to do.”
The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge (2012)