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Welcoming Everyone (and Everything) at God’s Table

A Letter from Josh Heikkila, serving in West Africa

August 2020

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Dear Friends,

I can’t tell you the number of times in Ghana people have approached me to ask this question: “Do you really let dogs sleep in bed with you? I’ve seen it in American movies and television!”

And when I tell them, “Yes, some Americans do let dogs into bed with them,” you can see the disgust in their faces and the cringing in their bodies.

Dogs in West Africa, after all, are working animals. They bark and bite to guard homes from thieves. They watch out for snakes and approaching threats when farmers are in the field.

Dogs burrow in the dirt to find comfortable places to rest. They’re followed by dust and flies, like Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons! Although definitely loyal, and at times cute, dogs are pretty much the last thing you’d want in a clean bed.

Last week, I preached virtually for a congregation in suburban Philadelphia. The text for the day was Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus interacts with a Canaanite woman.

The Canaanite woman came and knelt before Jesus saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Once while visiting the north of Ghana, a Bible study group wondered why Jesus insults the woman this way. He calls her a dog, they concluded. In some places in Ghana, the pastor felt, words like this could bring about inter-ethnic fighting.

They thought back to the mid-1990s, when a fight broke out over a Guinea fowl – a variety of chicken common in northern Ghana. The conflict grew, such that a thousand people were killed and a hundred thousand displaced from their homes. And it all started over a chicken.

Some interpreters think that Jesus was actually testing the Canaanite woman. He calls her a dog to see if her faith was strong, whether she would remain dedicated to him despite these words. Others claim Jesus was testing his disciples. He used this racial slur to show his disciples how wrong it was, and that God’s love extends even to ethnic groups they despise.

At face value, though, the passage seems to tell another story. Jesus in fact seems taught by this woman. She points out the error of his ways, such that he recognizes God’s love is for all people. But an interpretation like this conflicts with some very basic Christian tenets.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is like us in every way – tempted as we are, but without any sin (Hebrews 4:15). If Jesus was taught by this woman, it could imply he sinned. So how do we reconcile this interpretation with scripture?

Perhaps it’s heretical to say this, but I figure Jesus was shaped by his culture, and even by the biases found within it. In the moment, maybe he fell back on a common insult for Canaanite women. And in this moment, God uses the voice of this long-silenced woman to help the human Jesus grow more fully into his divinity.

The Canaanite woman helps Jesus to know once and for all the divine perspective – that God’s love for humanity goes beyond any limits of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or age. It gives me hope to think that if Jesus could move beyond the deeply held prejudices of his culture, that in following him, we can too.

Throughout the world these days, it’s common to find simmering tensions that occasionally turn violent: ethnic conflicts in Ghana; ones between farmers and herders in Nigeria; between Muslims and Christians in Niger. In the United States, we’re struggling with a culture that has long privileged white people at the expense of people of color.

Our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith explains that the Holy Spirit helps us “to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” As part of the Matthew 25 campaign, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has begun taking steps to address more fully systemic racism at home.

I believe God has given us mission partnerships for a time such as this. Through them, we can help one another recognize and move beyond the biases in our respective cultures that have prevented human flourishing. As we engage more deeply with our West Africa partners, I’m also certain God will help us walk more faithfully in the life-affirming path of Jesus Christ.

-Josh


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