Who’s Your Canaanite?

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When I was a kid on the playground we would get into rather vicious games of four square, kickball, and handball. I have not reflected on playground behavior in a long time, but it was vicious. Less than stellar plays were rewarded with complete humiliation from everyone playing and watching the game. Humiliation was not spared even from fellow team members! Anyway, one way this humiliation was expressed was in the saying, “Who’s your daddy!” Usually this phrase was enthusiastically yelled after some sort of athletic high ground was gained during the competition. Think of a perfectly executed throw in kickball that, against all odds, knocked the runner out and down on their derrière. The thrower would be within their athletic rights to stand over their downed opponent and yell, “Who’s your daddy now!” Nothing was more humiliating on a fourth grade playground and often made an environment ripe with conflict for the rest of the day, sometimes weeks. These were the thoughts racing through my head as I listened to the lectionary readings this last week in church. First you have Psalm 67 asking that the Lord’s salvation be known among ALL nations. The Psalm was followed by a reading from Isaiah 56 (Isa 56:1; 6-8) where foreigners are promised to be bound to the Lord, with their own sacrifices recognized as Holy. This talk of foreigners trickles over to the letter to the Romans (Rom 11:1-2; 11:13-15) where the Gentiles are given pride of place as the people of God, even to the enviousness of the Jews. Lastly, the Canaanite woman rounds out this “outsider” Sunday as even dogs deserve scraps from the Master’s table (Matt 15:21-28).

The reason these verses jarred my childhood memories of playgrounds and kickball-games has to do with the visceral remembrance of fourth grade “who’s your daddy” moments contrasted with Christ’s behavior toward the Canaanite women particularly, and all foreigners of Israel generally. Look at it this way. Jesus, Who is the very God that ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites in the book of Deuteronomy with a viciousness recorded in Joshua, is standing before a Canaanite woman. I mean, standing before Jesus is one of the cultural groups that the Lord sought fit to eradicate for their wickedness to preserve the line that would eventually birth Jesus.

Image: 'Day 143' by kylesteed. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Image: 'Day 143' by kylesteed. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This is not lost on Jesus as he doles out a bit of good ol' fashioned playground taunt comparing her to the dogs hanging around a children’s table, a bit of cosmic “Who’s your daddy!”. Then Jesus does what Jesus does, dropping a centuries long tension, renders her faith great, and heals her daughter. We do not learn anything further about the life of the Canaanite woman. We have no idea if she persevered in the faith. She is held up as an icon of the power of faith, an example of putting ourselves in our proper place as worth nothing but the scraps our bountiful master provides.

And, all this is certainly true. But, I think there may be a deeper magic in play here. If Christ can pardon the most despicable of foreigners, a creation that He saw fit to eliminate from the earth, then there is hope for me. If Christ can even render the Canaanite woman’s faith great, then He can render my faith great as well. He is not looking at me with the taunting “Who’s your daddy now!”, but with the loving declaration of “I am your father and you are my son/daughter with whom I am well pleased.”

Moreover, as this passage draws attention to the absolute awesome ability of Christ to pardon the most despicable of people, it calls us to reach out to the foreigners. It calls us to bring Christ’s message to our own Canaanites. The very people we hate intellectually, culturally, theologically, socially... whatever—we are shown that the power of Christ is for those most unlike us. The passage moves us to ask, “Who’s my Canaanite?”