Heavenly Father,

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who hast by Thy might,

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.


Last week, Evelyn and I were in Topeka, Kansas, visiting our son and his family. On Friday afternoon we were at loose ends while the grandkids were at school and their parents were at work, so we decided to visit the Brown vs. Board of Education National Monument. This memorial is a small museum in what was the segregated, all-black Monroe Elementary School south of Topeka’s downtown. I’m glad we went to see it. It is a remarkable place, and a fascinating if sobering reminder of how bad racism has been in this country and how much further we still have to go to remove that stain from our nation.

Among the exhibits is a narrow, low-ceilinged hallway with video screens covering the walls around you on which film constantly and loudly plays of the white bigots who yelled epithets, racial slurs, and obscenities at the black students who broke the segregated education color line. It is an immersive, if only partial and inadequate, way to give one a small sense of what Autherine Lucy experienced when she enrolled as the first black graduate student at the University of Alabama in 1956, what the Little Rock Nine experienced when they tried to attend their city’s Central High School in 1957, what first-grader Ruby Bridges experienced in 1960 at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, what Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes experienced in 1961 as the first black students of the University of Georgia, what James Meredith experienced enrolling as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi in 1962, what Lloyd Smith experienced when he was “bused across town [in Lima, Ohio] to the all-white Westwood Elementary School in the early 1960s” where “some students as young as 5, 6, 7 years old called [him] the N word,”[2] what the Freedom Riders experienced in bus station waiting rooms across the South in 1961, what the late John Lewis experienced at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, and this list could go on and on.

Walking down that low-ceilinged, claustrophobic hallway one experiences the truth of Jesus’ observation that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”[3] Walking between those video screens one realizes that, as a nation, we have trod not only the blood of the slaughtered of whom James Weldon Johnson wrote, but also through the bile and filth spewed by those who tried to slaughter the spirits of those who differed from them. That’s what racial slurs are, part of a practice that law professor Patricia Williams has labeled “spirit-murder,” the “disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard,” a practice which produces “a system of formalized distortions of thought.”[4] Today, we call it “systemic racism.” It “robs people … of their humanity and dignity and leaves personal, psychological, and spiritual injuries.”[5] As professor of education Bettina Love describes it, it produces “a slow death, a death of the spirit … intended to reduce, humiliate, and destroy” its targeted victims.[6]

It destroys its practitioners, too. Our society has, for too long, trod that path through the blood of the slaughtered, and their blood, together with the bile and vitriol spewed by those who murdered them in body and in spirit, has splashed up on all of us. Some part of us all has died, and when we hear racial slurs and epithets the necrotic tissue in our spirits winces in pain. We expect it and prepare for it when we walk down that video-lined hallway at the Brown v. Board of Education memorial and hear it from the mouths of recorded bigots and racists. We expect it though we hope not to hear it from the mouths of those who join in protests like the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 or the counter-demonstration against Black Lives Matter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. We don’t expect it and we are shocked by it when we stand for the gospel lesson in church and we hear it coming from the mouth of Jesus. And that is what we heard this morning: Jesus as much as calls the Canaanite woman a dog, answering her plea for help with what some scholars argue is “merely” a reference to an old proverb, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[7]

Make no mistake: this is a racial slur! In ancient Palestine between Canaanites and Jews there was a hatred every bit as intense as any there has ever been between two ethnic or national groups! The Jews believed that God had commanded them in the Book of Deuteronomy to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites,[8] which they hadn’t actually done. The Canaanites were still around, hated Gentiles at whom this insult, this racial slur, was hurled. The Jews referred to the Canaanites as dogs, unclean animals that Jews reviled. In the Scriptures, dogs are linked to corpses. They are referred to as scavengers feeding on dead bodies, beasts that maul human beings.[9] They were the very epitome of sinfulness: “Packs of dogs close me in,” cries the Psalmist, “gangs of evildoers circle around me.”[10] What Jesus says may have been a proverb, but it was also a vile racial slur. First Century Palestinian Jews –– both those with Jesus at the time and those who were Matthew’s first audience — would have known this.

Irony, when it is subtle and understated, can be humorous. When it is blatant and hits you like a hammer, it can be instructive. I suppose that is why Matthew, in his gospel, has placed this story immediately after Jesus has confronted the Pharisees with “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”[11] Seminarian Molly Tomashek has written of this story, “The incompatibility of Jesus’s words evokes a cry for justice within the reader.”[12] I agree! In my reader’s imagination, I just want to grab Jesus by the shoulders, like I used to grab my son or my daughter when they would say mean things. I just want to grab him and shake him and say, “Listen to yourself! Do you hear what is coming out of your mouth?”

So what are we to learn from this episode? That it’s OK to insult people? By no means: Jesus made it clear that it is not in his Sermon on the Mount commentary on the commandment to do no murder: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”[13] Jesus here “is saying that when we speak words that shatter a life and leave a person shamed and damaged, we ourselves become useless and damaged.”[14] “What comes out of the mouth … is what defiles” even if it is “merely” a proverb.

Every human group defines itself through a set of beliefs, values, traditions, arts, and institutions; this is what we mean by “culture.” “These beliefs, values, and traditions are often passed down through many generations and help shape the future of the culture.”[15] They are expressed in many ways, including proverbs and old sayings. These cultural beliefs, values, traditions, and societal norms shape the way a person within that culture views the world. This “groupishness”—as some researchers describe humans’ tendency to identify with social groups—can be the source of wide repertoire of positive human interactions, “including cooperation, altruism, embracing diversity, and helping people radically different from ourselves.” It can also lead to prejudice, discrimination, and intergroup conflict.[16]

Our reading of Scripture is to be informed by Scripture, and we are taught by the Letter to the Hebrews and by church tradition that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin.”[17] Drawing on this teaching, Lutheran seminary professor Leah Schade reminds us, “[F]or Christians, Jesus is human as well as divine. And as a human, he was a product of his time.”[18] Benedictine monk Andrew Marr adds that “being fully human means that Jesus was not omniscient but had to learn life skills and develop his understanding of life just like any other human.”[19] Jesus the human was shaped by the beliefs, values, traditions, and societal norms of First Century Palestinian Judaism.

So, what lesson do we take from this gospel episode. I believe that we are to learn that we, like Jesus, are not bound by our cultural conditioning, that we, like Jesus, can learn to abandon the systemic prejudices we may not even realize we have.

In this incident, he reacts to the woman’s request exactly as First Century Jews, including himself, would expect a rabbi to react. He is, after all, “the child of and bearer of traditional thought forms” of his culture.[20] One of the temptations Jesus faced was tribalism, the inclination to give in to and be controlled by one’s cultural conditioning. Giving voice to the racial prejudice inherent in that old proverb, he was faced with that temptation. But he listened; he heard himself utter that insult. Or, rather, he heard the Canaanite woman’s response.

Grant LeMarquand, formerly an assistant bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, has suggested that Jesus was “conquered by the wit and faith of this Canaanite:”

In the midst of his [conversation with] this woman, Jesus’ attitude appears to shift. She is at first a non-entity; she is ignored. Next she is addressed, but Jesus’ words to her are simply an explanation of her exclusion (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Finally, Jesus hears the faith behind her plea, grants her request, and heals her daughter. It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning “mercy”. The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of Jesus’ own “conversion.” In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.[21]

As New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has said, “A model teacher is one who can learn. If Jesus has nothing to learn, and if he is not going to listen to others, then he is not a teacher, he is not in relationship, and he is not human.”[22] In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is “modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today.”[23]

I began this sermon with a prayer drawn from the words of James Weldon Johnson’s hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing,[24] the first and last verse of which we will be singing at the close of our service. If we can learn this lesson, to listen deeply to the other and overcome our cultural conditioning, our systemic prejudices, and the temptation to tribalism, we will – in the words of the hymn – be “true to our God, true to our native land.” Amen.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2023, to the people of Church of the Ascension, Lakewood, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher.

The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Proper 15: Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; and St. Matthew 15:10-20,21-28. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is a news photo of white protesters confronting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Adapted from James Weldon Johnson, Lift Every Voice and Sing, in Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1917)

[2] Matthew Rand, ‘We were kind of a novelty’: Reflections on desegregating Ohio schools, WOSU Public Media, February 28, 2022, accessing August 16, 2023

[3] Matthew 15:18 (NRSV)

[4] Patricia Williams, Spirit-Murdering the Messenger: The Discourse of Fingerpointing, 42 U. Miami L. Rev. 127, 151 (1987)

[5] Bettina L. Love, How Schools Are ‘Spirit Murdering’ Black and Brown Students, EducationWeek, May 23, 2019, accessed August 16, 2023

[6] Ibid.

[7] Matthew 15:26

[8] Deuteronomy 7:1-5

[9] See, e.g., 1 Kings 21:23-24; 2 Kings 9:10; Jeremiah 15:3

[10] Psalm 22:16 (BCP Version)

[11] Matthew 15:10-11 (NRSV)

[12] Molly Tomashek, Social Action and the Canaanite Woman of Matthew 15, Priscilla Papers, Vol. 36:4 (November 2022), pages 23-26, 24.

[13] Matthew 5:21-22 (NRSV)

[14] Stephanie M Patterson, Words of Love: Don’t Kill Each Other, Prejudice vs. Racism: A Racial Equity Workshop (Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Inc., Louisville, KY:2020), pages 21-22

[15] See Mamie Albritton, What is Cultural Perception?, Study.com, July 8, 2022, accessed August 18, 2012

[16] Dominic Packer & Jay Van Bavel, The Myth of Tribalism, The Atlantic, January 3, 2022, accessed August 18, 2023

[17] Proper Preface for Lent, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 379, paraphrasing Hebrews 4:15

[18] Leah D. Schade, Calling People Dogs: Juxtaposing Jesus and Trump, Patheos Progressive Christian blog, September 9, 2018, accessed August 15, 2023

[19] Andrew Marr, OSB, An Enemy Woman as Teacher, Imaginary Visions of True Peace, August 13, 2014, accessed August 18, 2023

[20] Richard Ward, Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28, Working Preacher, August 20, 2023, accessed August 16, 2023

[21] Grant LeMarquand, The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus (Mt 15:21-28), Trinity School for Ministry Faculty Writings, accessed August 18, 2023

[22] Quoted in Leah D. Schade, 6 Bible Texts for a Sermon on Racism & Why Your Church Needs to Hear It, Patheos Progressive Christian blog, August 5, 2020, accessed August 16, 2023

[23] Marr, op. cit.

[24] Johnson, op. cit.