Most of us have heard the story. Jesus is traveling with his disciples when he encounters a Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her daughter, to rid her of a demon. Jesus does not even answer her, but he does tell his disciples, in her hearing, that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
She then comes and kneels before him and asks again, “Lord help me,” to which Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She stands her ground and replies, “yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” Jesus then commends her faith and grants her wish. (Matthew 15:21-28)
This was always a difficult story for me to hear. How could the Christ, the Son of God, be so uncaring, so cruel, to a mother whose child was in dire distress? That is, until I remembered the fourth century struggles and fights and shouting matches that led to the creeds: the creeds that declare Jesus both fully God and fully human. As I reflected on a fully human Jesus I was able to look at him in the same way I have looked at and studied the human race as a whole. Human beings are and always have been a tribal species. It is only the grace of God that allows us to see ourselves and all human beings as children of God.
Jesus as God was above this tribalism. Jesus as a human being was a first century Jew and like all human beings, first century Jews had their own religion, customs and foods. They were loyal to their families, their tribe and their religion. Other nations and peoples in the region and at that time had the same loyalties. The human Jesus lived into his time and place on Earth with all that implies. The Canaanite woman stood her ground, looked Jesus in the eye and pushed him to expand his human boundaries, to enlarge his vision of God’s plan for him. Jesus saw the world through both human and divine eyes, and after this encounter his two views of the world became one. We see this in an encounter with another woman, at a well in Samaria. “The time is coming,” he told her, “that true worshippers will worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” (John 4:23)
The important lesson for us is this: like the human Jesus, we human beings are bound by family, tribe and nation. We are peoples of different denominations, different faiths, or no faith at all. We eat different kinds of food, have different customs, ways of worship and languages. We used to be a national society, but now we are a global society. We may or may not like it, but this is the way life on this earth has evolved.
So, how do we adjust to these changes? How do we adapt? Do we even want to adapt? How can we be loyal to our family, our tribe and our nation, and at the same time be loyal and faithful to our God? Remember, it was not easy for Jesus either.
David Uptain grew up in all-white Crossville Alabama, and forty-three years ago he was Quarterback on the all white football team. Today he has just retired after two decades as Principal of his Alma Mater, now a high school whose student body is 70% Mexican and Guatamalan. The immigration debate in the United States today is not an abstraction in Crossville, where languages, cultures and assumptions collide.
In the early 1800’s the original English and Scots-Irish settlers came to the isolated mountain top in Alabama, and like many immigrant communities they were proud, resilient and hard working. With the wave of new immigrants from the south, those who had lived there for generations were angry at worst, wary at best. How do you look out for your neighbors when you don’t speak the same language, eat the same food or have the same history? How do you learn to trust “outsiders.”
Uptain freely admits that he was prejudiced just as many of us who grew up on this mountain were. His attitude began to change when his sister started to date a Kuwaiti Exchange student. He did not want to lose his sister so he got to know the new boyfriend and learned to like him.
David Uptain saw himself as an ambassador of sorts, and made a commitment to use whatever influence he had as Principal to “take hold of both sides and pull them together.” “Patience is the key,” he said, “and understanding, prayer and a belief that everybody deserves a shot at anything we have to offer.”
Maria Quintana sits at the main desk in Crossville High's front office, about 10 steps from Uptain's office. She is technically the School Secretary, but also serves as translator and assists parents and grandparents in filling out forms and helps them make the school experience better for their children and grandchildren. Quintana came to Crossville as a child in the early 2000’s and began school in kindergarten and graduated from Crossville High School. She says the Crossville she loves today is not the town she experienced when she and her family arrived. “Then the whites and Hispanics didn’t mix, the new culture was not accepted and one could feel the tension.” In school she was bullied and the white boys would pull her long black hair. The English Learning Language teacher was called a “Wetback Lover” and worse.
Looking back, she says, “Things have changed so much. People are more accepting of each other; they are friends with people of other races.” And, she says, white people now shop at the Mexican grocery store and bakery. Everyone is trying new things.
Uptain reminds us that “Crossville still hasn’t made it to a place where everyone’s ok with everyone else. Most people, including Crossville’s teachers and students will tell you that.” But, he continues, “Profound change takes decades to work through. Crossville is home. I could have been one of have been one of those folks that said, I’m not doing this, I’m leaving. But Crossville means more to me than that. It meant we need to accept and change and grow, and become the right kind of person. It’s way beyond picking a side. It’s rooted now, down in my soul.”
The Canaanite woman, and Jesus would be proud!