One of my biggest frustrations with the Bible is rooted in the culture in which it was cultivated. Women, who were mostly second class citizens at best and property at worse, frequently go unnamed in the Bible. An example would be the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28.
So, for the purposes of this talk we will give her a name. Extracanonical tradition, or writings used by the early church but not included in the Bible when it was put together in the year 367 – Extracanonical tradition names her Justa, meaning just or justice. So, in our story her name is Justa.
Justa was Canaanite. She is among people who must stay two arms lengths from a Jewish man at all times and whose homes were considered unclean and therefore off limits to Jews. This hatred between the Jews and the Canaanites even led to the contemptuous, but common slang, of “dog” to refer to the Gentiles.
In short Justa, was an outsider. She lived on the outskirts of town on the border between Jewish and Gentile lands, but she was on the border in so many other ways. She was a woman; she was property. She was Cannanite; she was the enemy. She was from a rural people; she was an outsider. She was a Gentile; she was unclean and a non-believer. She may have been thought of as demonic, after all her daughter was believed to be possessed by a demon. In almost every way, she was seen as “less than,” undeserving, an outsider, a person living on the borders of life.
Enter Jesus and the disciples. In an effort to escape a recent skirmish with the Pharisees they headed out to a border land. They were probably seeking a little R&R, a little peace and quiet. But.. when they get there they find neither peace nor quiet.
A woman started shouting, more specifically, she KEPT following them shouting (almost like her own One Woman March). As the story is told, at first Jesus just tries to ignore her. I suspect most of us have tried that move before. Basically, “Maybe if I just ignore her, she’ll go away.” She doesn’t. She begins to get on the last nerve of the disciples and they plea with Jesus to just give her what she want so that she’ll leave them alone. Jesus’ reply seems curious. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Basically, with her standing there pleading, he says, “I’m not here to help her kind.” Any one of us would have felt defeat. Any one of us would have tucked tail and ran. She doesn’t. She persisted.
Jesus’ words may seem cruel to us, and with GOOD reason, but when you place them within a larger Biblical context (or even just within good story telling) Jesus’ resistance to helping her is rooted in his messianic identity. Basically, the way he might have understood it would have been that in sticking to his “call,” he will be able to help not only Israel but, afterwards, the world as well. I’m not saying it makes what he said better, as much as that it was probably his mindset.
Justa is an outsider living on so many borders. She is rebuked by the disciples. Jesus ignores her and then after being badgered finally says, “I’m not here to help your kind.” Justa should just throw in the towel. She doesn’t. She persisted and responds to Jesus’ words by kneeling before him and asking for mercy. She believes to the very toes of her supposedly unclean feet that Jesus can heal her daughter. She persists. What a very strong and remarkable woman!
Well, in the face of such a great example, Jesus just had to respond kindly. He doesn’t. “It,” he says, “is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Throw it to the dogs? Justa, while groveling in the dirt ON ALL FOURS, has just been called a dog. She should just pick herself and her pride up and go home.
She doesn’t. She persists.
Then Justa uses Jesus’ own words to remind him of something about that messianic identity I just mentioned. “Even the dogs,” she says, “eat crumbs from their master’s table.” (Typically I have issues with the word “master,” but in this dog/human context I’m willing to let it slide). But, in those brief words, Justa gives a sermon. She reminds Jesus that “yes” he is sent for the children of Israel that sit at the table, but that after the children eat so will the rest of the world. Her persistence is a mark of her faith that he can help her daughter.
Well, what else was he to do? “Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, as the story is told, her daughter was healed instantly.
What does this story mean for us today? I think that there are two very clear directives we can take with us – one for those of us who find ourselves on the borders, marginalized – and one for those of us who don’t count ourselves amongst that group, that is, one for those of us who marginalize from our places of privilege.
In Justa, we learn about the importance of persistence for those who are marginalized. Let me say that again, we learn about the importance of persistence for those who are marginalized.
What does that look like lived out in this life? It looks like Elm St., in Greensboro, February 1, 1960. Four freshmen from North Carolina A&T University defied the segregationist policy so prevalent in the Southern United States by boldly asking to be served at the “whites only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s department store. In the face of the controversy some would say they should just go home.
Their courageous act launched the sit-in movement that was a major component of the civil rights movement. They persisted; they demanded to be recognized as equal. They had been marginalized and pushed out to the borders of society and in the face of challenge and controversy they stood firm in their faith; they persisted.
The life of Dr. King is also shining example of this Justa Syndrome, this persistence from those who are pushed to the borders of society. Dr. King described what I’m calling the Justa Syndrome this way “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Dr. King’s words also bring us to our second life lesson from the story of Justa – the lesson for those of us not marginalized, but privileged. Hear it again, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” We learn the importance for those who live in privileged places to reach out to those marginalized; to listen to them; and stand with and for them as they proclaim their rights, value, and equality.
Dorthea Dix was gifted from an early age. At the age of 15, yes 15, she started her own private school. It is fair to say that while she was a good person with a good heart, Dorothea came from a place of privilege. One day, later in her life, a ministerial student came seeking advice from her about teaching a women’s Sunday school class. She listened to the woman’s concerns and wishes and than volunteered to teach the class. The catch was it was at a prison and in 1841, well, it just wasn’t proper for a lady of privilege and place to be seen in a prison. She should have just given up on it and stayed home. She didn’t. She persisted.
When she saw the conditions of the mentally ill inmates she was horrified. In order to help them claim back their humanity she took on the state of Massachusetts, then other states, then US congress. She then traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany changing the way the world saw and treated the mentally ill. She was challenged at every corner and should have given up. She didn’t. Why? In her own words, “In a world where there is so much to be done. I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.” Matthew tells us that faith shows itself in how we respond to Jesus’ teaching of the inclusion of those marginalized.
The Justa Syndrome tells us that oppressed groups must be persistent in seeking liberation from subjugation. In harmony with that, Jesus’ response in the story indicates that reaching out to those we have marginalized is an essential part of living a spiritually honest life and that we should never perceive those we consider outsiders as somehow more distant from or less deserving of love and grace. When we can step out into the margins and claim love, value, and equality for all, then and only then can we say that we, like Jesus in this story, have learned the power of the persistence of faith.
We saw this Justa Sydrome recently as millions of women (and men as well) took to the streets in the second annual Women’s March. And what happen’s at those marches? Those who have been marginalized speak out against the powerful, they speak out about how they abuse their power, how they use their power to abuse others. They demand that all people be treated with love, as valuable, as equals.
And that, my friends, is how positive, meaningful change is ushered in – it always has been.