20 Sunday A – August 14, 2011 – … But names do hurt me!
Is 56:1, 6-7, Ps 67:2-3,5,6,8, Rom 11;13-15, 29-32, Mt 15:21-28
When I was growing up it would not have been unusual to hear ethnic and racial slurs uttered in the neighborhood, schools and playgrounds. Words like Spic, Guinea, Polack, Hymie and … the colored. What are some words that you recall? Today those terms comprise what is known as hate speech where one person or group maligns or abuses another. There is a growing consensus in developed countries to restrict expressions of hate speech. However, the first amendment in the United States prohibits such regulation except in isolated cases when the incident incites violence.
The recently released movie The Help is a poignant example of the fear, disrespect, suspicion and anger that existed between the white and black people in the deep South in the 1960s. Three courageous women — two maids and one young writer — took risks to cross lines of hatred and discrimination. By establishing trust in one another they told their stories of humiliation. In doing so they broke boundaries and rose above the lines that defined them.
So, what can we say about what happened between Jesus and the woman in today’s gospel? What was he thinking when he said you don’t feed bread from the table to dogs? The word “dog” was a slur against Gentiles at the time. According to some interpreters the word “bread” referred to Jesus’s mission to save the Israelites from a disastrous course. Because she was a Canaanite and not a Jew he was not going to waste his time with her. 
The woman in this gospel, most likely stunned and hurt by Jesus’s response, would not take no for an answer. She tracked down Jesus because of his reputation for being a healer and miracle worker. She was not stymied by his rudeness. She fired back. Respectfully, cleverly, she addresses him as “Lord” and reminded him that crumbs from the table are given even to dogs. Now it is Jesus who is on the defensive. You can imagine him having a new insight, an “aha” moment, about his purpose on this planet. He says, OK. Your faith has saved you … and your daughter is healed.
Was this incident really about faith as some commentators suggest? Was it about who gets into heaven? Was it about which religion is the one true religion? Anyone who has ever worried about a seriously sick son or daughter knows that this woman was desperate. She wanted Jesus to heal her daughter and was willing to risk anything, offending a popular preacher and even expressing faith in him, to make it happen.
Likewise, the maids inThe Help were willing to risk their jobs and their lives to stop the deeply ingrained prejudice that existed in their towns and elsewhere. Telling their stories of disdain and disgrace did not completely eradicate racism. However, it did put a dent in the arrogance and self righteousness of those who perpetuated such divisiveness.
Today, although places of work and college campuses have established speech codes to counter harassment — hate crimes and subtle expressions of discrimination and disrespect still occur. Often we do not even realize that the words we use might offend someone. Years ago we were unaware of the harm we inflicted by using offensive terms to identify others. Further, we probably never thought of those actions as related to our religion or practice of faith. Both the woman and Jesus crossed boundaries. She had faith in the miracle worker. He responded by accepting her as she was. The differences between them no longer mattered.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while awaiting execution for opposing Hitler’s regime, wrote, “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.” 
The story of the woman in the gospel and the women in The Help offer concrete examples about the importance of faith and the choices we make in our day to day lives. We can’t say we have faith in God while discriminating against others.
1 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1995) 124-126.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Wind, Renate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995) 171.