My father was a bigot. He wasn’t especially passionate or outspoken about it. In his mind, blacks were simply inferior to whites. This was for him a fact of the natural order. Dogs hate cats. Leaves change colors in the fall. Whites inhabit a higher social order than blacks befitting whites’ presumed superior intellect and character.
His condescension was genteel, so long as it was met with the expected level of deference. He never used the n-word when addressing an African American directly. That would have been rude and unnecessarily hurtful. But among fellow whites that was the habitual way to refer to blacks.
As despicable as I found all of this, I have to admit that there was no naked hatred involved in my father’s prejudice against African Americans. I can say this because I witnessed his response to the Japanese. He reserved a visceral hatred for the people of Japan until the day he died.
My father was a sailor in the Pacific theater during World War II. He served in various capacities. Frogman. Landing craft pilot. Anti-aircraft gunner. Japanese soldiers, sailors, and pilots had tried to kill him on a number occasions. But that’s not why he hated them. The Japanese had killed his friends.
He was glad we dropped the bomb on them. He could never forgive them. And he had neither an interest in forgiving them nor a sense of moral obligation to do so.
He hated them. They were his enemy. Hate is what you do with an enemy.
At least, that’s how my father looked at it. And the evidence seems to indicate that lots of people agree with him. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hate your enemy so much that you pass your hatred down to your children and they to their children and so on down through the generations. Hutus hate Tutsis. Serbs hate Croats. Long-lived tensions have existed between the Irish and the English, Turks and Greeks, Arabs and Jews.
But Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)
This sounds like a lovely idea. It also has the ring of a high-minded platitude uttered by people who have never been at war, watched their family slaughtered, or struggled for survival in a concentration camp. In other words, it sounds like what people would say who have never had any real enemies. They just had some hurt feelings or experienced some minor slights.
But Jesus said this. Jesus lived in a conquered nation occupied by brutally efficient killers. Moreover, Jesus was part of a people who had themselves been conquerors. The Israelites had displaced the Canaanites when they took the Promised Land.
The Canaanites were the ancient enemy: the bad guy in many of the stories that children heard at their grandmother’s knee. They always wore the black hat. They were evil every time.
|Fernand Khnopff’s “My Heart Cries for the Past”|
In Deuteronomy, Canaanites are the enemy. The land of Canaan is good. Its inhabitants? Not so much. Their wickedness is so great that God commands the Israelites to eradicate them. “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy,” God said. (Deuteronomy 7:2)
It is telling, therefore, that Matthew relates the story of a Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus desperately seeking help. She wants Jesus to heal her little girl. “Have mercy,” she pleads.
Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Now, he’s actually confronted with an enemy seeking mercy from him.
Just in case you think I’m making too much of this Canaanite business, consider this.
If I were going to write a travel guide about Norway, it would never occur to me to refer to the inhabitants of that country as Vikings. The Vikings used to live in Norway. That is, when there were Vikings. Norwegians can count the Vikings as their ancestors, but they’re not Vikings anymore.
|Edith Vonnegut’s “Hot”|
As Brian McLaren suggests, when Matthew identifies a Gentile woman as a Canaanite, it would be a lot like calling a Norwegian a Viking. It’s incongruous.
In Jesus’ day, there weren’t any more Canaanites. There were Gentiles of various stripes, but there were no Canaanites. The Israelites had wiped most of them out and driven the rest away.
So, it’s pretty unlikely that Matthew is grabbing a word out of thin air to describe the woman. He means to bring up the old animosity between the Israelites and the Canaanites. We’re getting a lesson in loving our enemy.
We may have difficulty hearing the message because Jesus acts in such an uncharacteristically rude, dismissive, and uncaring way. He hesitates to show mercy to a sick child and then contemptuously calls a desperate mother a dog.
This all seems so un-Jesusy that lots of readers have drained their interpretive energies explaining away Jesus’ behavior. “Oh he was just testing her,” some say. Others insist that he was just calling her a puppy or a house pet.
When my child is dying, don’t test me. Treat the kid! And if you ever want to talk to me again, don’t call me a dog of any kind when I’m asking for your help.
In the Canaanite woman, Jesus comes face to face with the ancient enemy of his people. Earlier in his ministry Jesus has already taught us to love our enemy. Now he shows us that he is no stranger to how hard this can be.
He’s been taught since childhood that his way of life exists today only because his ancestors had won a life-and-death struggle with the Canaanites. It was us or them. If we had let them stay, they would have made a wreck of the Promised Land. It’s in their blood. They’re bad seeds. Every one of them. Show no mercy.
And yet, God is a God of mercy, inexhaustible and extravagant mercy.
So, like each of us, Jesus faces the challenge of overcoming some of the influences of his social and cultural setting in order to be the channel of God’s healing and peace in the world. It’s a struggle. And yet Jesus does just that.
He lets go of the idea that this stranger—simply by being different—is a threat. Her needs and desires do not make her an adversary. They make her his sister. The child of the same God.
It’s a lesson we are apparently still struggling to learn.
We human beings still make enemies in our fear and intolerance, in our ignorance and mistrust, in our greed and envy. From Iraq we hear news of mass atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
Even when we strive to see holy siblings in every sort and condition of person, we have to acknowledge that some in this world refuse to see us as anything but the enemy.
Mercy heals and reconciles. And it leaves us vulnerable. Jesus did not say, “Enemies are a figment of your imagination.” Neither did he say, “Love your safe enemy.” In fact, to complete the teaching, Jesus adds, “Pray for those who persecute you.”
Love is risky and costly. And it is redeeming. But it is not unrealistic, enabling, or masochistic. Love is a practice, a way of behaving toward others in this world devoted to their well-being.
In this still violent world, love sometimes means drawing sharp boundaries, resisting those who seek to eliminate us, and sheltering the weak and the vulnerable.
And yet, love continues to resist the impulse to annihilate the other as an irredeemable enemy. In the midst of conflict, love seeks to recognize the other person’s humanity and acknowledges the moral injury that violence is doing to us all.
The vision that keeps us going along this risky path is this:
We yearn to beat our swords into plowshares. And we believe that in Christ we will inherit a world where there are no Israelites or Canaanites. No Jews or Greeks. No male or female. No enemies. Only the many and varied children of God.
This sermon was preached at Holy Comforter in Lecompte, Louisiana.
Thanks for reading!
You helped me to like Jesus a little more. His humanity, in this instance, touched me. Sometimes I don't like Jesus. Not a very Christian thing to say but it is true. I've always had a hard time with “I am the way, the truth, ….” It seems to leave so many people that I love or that I don't even know out in the cold. I don't need to understand to love God, in fact I understand very little but I've loved God since I was a very little girl in a very private and personal way. Just wanted to thank you for humanizing Jesus for us.
Thanks for being such a faithful reader, Tersi! I'm glad this piece was helpful to you. You are not alone in struggling with that passage. Lots of folks engage me in conversation about it.