Kate Harvey was a British women’s suffragist in the Victorian era. Through her work and activism she sought to open the way for women to claim rights she knew they deserved. She used the inherent power she had, refusing to let the norms and acceptability of the time prevent her from achieving more than most women of her time were permitted. Besides fighting for women’s rights she worked diligently to help people in poverty and was a doctor in a pioneering field of medicine.
And she was deaf. She pushed the boundaries of law, withholding taxes as a means of non-violent resistance. Authorities responded as expected, trying to silence her by putting her in jail. But still she persisted in working toward justice.
Shame is a powerful weapon. It keeps intended targets from claiming what belongs to them. When we feel shame we don’t feel worthy. We give into false messages that we don’t deserve what others have. We accept our place without pushing for justice because we don’t want to cross those with more power. By definition it is humiliation and cutting someone down. Making them less than they are.
The woman in this story is unnamed, though her nationality is defined. She is a Syrophoenecian woman. And she is facing a crisis. Her daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. But she has heard about Jesus’ powers to heal and cast out demons. Her non-Jewish heritage means she is crossing a boundary. She takes a risk that Jesus and the owner of the house will even let her in. She makes it past the front door and to the feet of Jesus. I’m sure she knew that at some level she was unwelcome. An intrusion into the intended plan of Jesus’ mission. But what parent wouldn’t do whatever they could for the sake of their child?
Assuming a posture of lesser status she pleads for her daughter’s life. And in an uncharacteristic response Jesus shames her. He tells her that dogs don’t deserve to eat what is intended for the children.
It is shocking. And many have tried to get Jesus off the hook. That he was testing her, but meant to heal her daughter all along. That the term he used is diminutive — little dogs. Not sure how that makes it better.
But the woman is not deterred. She is willing to bear the brunt of his words to get what she deserves. She is not shamed. Instead she harnesses her power and subverts his initial response. She turns Jesus’ assertion around, accepting even the crumbs that fall from the table.
She and thousands of others have striven against the status quo and the powers that be for the sake of moving the needle incremental steps toward full justice. And we have seen how far we’ve come and still how far we have to go. 160 years after the end of institutional slavery, almost 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement, people still strive for black lives to matter as much as white lives. 100 years after Kate Harvey and Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells Barnett we still know that women don’t have the same access to power as men. And the fight for Trans-lives and full recognition of gay rights is in many ways just beginning. In fact just this morning I saw one of my colleagues shared the names of transwomen killed to date in 2018. Three just in the last week.
Perhaps the humanity of Jesus here shows us how powerful the forces of systemic injustice are. Even the best intentioned among us can give into the assumptions and expectations of the dominant power. We often don’t even know we are doing it. We accept that it’s just the way it is.
I remember when seeking my first job as a pastor that it was the first time I realized being a woman was an issue. There were women who came up to me from the church and said, “I always thought women could be anything, just not a pastor.” Even in 2018 there are jobs and roles that people don’t feel are the place of women.
The boldness of the Syrophoenecian woman changes Jesus. It is like his ears were unstopped. One of his favorite sayings to others is “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” At first he heard the woman but his own power and privilege prevented his listening. But when she persisted he heard her for the first time. And he saw her. Who she was and what she needed. Something shifts for Jesus in this encounter. It appears to shift his whole mission. What was a more minimally defined scope, now was broadened to include the whole world. Even and especially those left on the margins.
Many people have had to be content with crumbs. And they have maintained dignity even when the society around them does all it can to put them in an inferior position. The woman had faced rejection before. She’s had to be clever and crafty to get what she needs from a society that didn’t fully acknowledge her worth. She has had to sacrifice dignity for things that men and more powerful people were handed without question. But she claims and lives into the power that is given to all people by God.
It is true that God’s mission to save the whole world is expansive, not limited. The part of Jesus that had to figure that out was showing today. But the reality becomes clearer as he continues his steady walk toward the seat of power. Where he comes up against those who do not recognize him and his mission as part of the status quo. Rocking the boat is never appreciated. And Jesus in his humanity will take the brunt of their shaming tactics as he's arrested in front of his friends. When he is stripped bear of his clothing and hung on a cross for all to see. When he is spat on and beaten by soldiers calling him names. He will know about the woman’s shame and all of our shame as he bears it for us. And there on the cross — a tool meant for humiliation and cutting down. A means used by the authorities to silence movements seeking more for those who have been content with less. There Jesus subverts the assertions of the world that values the powerful over the weak. And by Jesus in his Divinity, God lifts up the lowly over the powerful. And proclaims the worth of all people.