On a recent Sunday I heard a sermon on the radio based on the story of the Canaanite woman who implored Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus is reported to have said to her, “I’m sent to the children of Israel. Is it right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?”
And the woman says, “But even dogs get to eat what falls from their master’s table.”
The preacher on the radio took this as an example of the woman’s commendable humility, as if she was willing to identify with dogs in order to help her daughter. But I wonder about that. I wonder if her tone of voice might have sounded like she was pushing Jesus to consider the hurt in what he said.
Behind it all was the centuries-old animosity between Canaanites and Israelites. They called each other degrading names like “dogs” and probably worse than that. So, we might say, Jesus and this woman enter right into the habitual way Israelites and Canaanites talked about each other, and it seems to me this woman sends Jesus’ characterization of her right back to him. I think she’s telling him he’s treating her worse than a dog.
Right away I was reminded of a day in a lettuce field near Watsonville years ago when I was trying to earn money for college. I worked on a truck that went down the long rows of lettuce and picked up the cartons of two dozen heads each that Braceros had cut, trimmed and packed into cardboard boxes. The Bracero Program started during World War II to bring Mexican men to northern farms on six month work visas. The word “bracero” means “arms.”
My job was to make sure the boxes were arranged evenly on pallets so they could be taken off the truck by a forklift and set down in the cooling plant without a mishap. We started at dawn and finished by noon because the lettuce would wilt if cut after it got warm. I made about $25 a day for five- or six-hours work, darn good money for a 16-year-old kid in 1950. The Braceros got 87½ cents an hour for what they did. In the afternoon they thinned lettuce for 82½ cents an hour, and their pay was docked two dollars a day for a cot in a Quonset hut and three meals of Chile beans and Pepsi Cola.
Most of the time the Braceros seemed happy enough. With fine lilting voices, many of them sang happy songs while they stooped over the rows harvesting or thinning the lettuce. But then I had a conversation with one of these men. In my high school class Spanish and his halting English we got on to what it was like for him to be far from home working in the fields. In the course of our little chat he said something like, “They feed their horses all year even in winter when they don’t work. But we get food only when we work. We are just arms to them.”
So, for all their hard work and grand singing, these men knew that here in California they were not considered full human beings, and they resented it. There was nothing they could do about it. They needed the money, and they netted about a fourth of what I got for less work. But low pay and bad food were not all they suffered. Just as bad was being considered less worthy than a horse, being seen as nothing but a pair of arms.
I hope it’s better for our farm workers now, though I wonder about that. I hope we can see how they are essential workers, especially these days. I hope we are aware that they are suffering from the virus in larger numbers than the rest of us. And I hope the day will come when we lay aside our derogatory names for other human beings.
At the end of her sermon, the radio preacher said, “Maybe this Canaanite woman was teaching Jesus something.” I missed what she said it was, but I thought that maybe by her tone of voice she was teaching him something like “Canaanite lives matter.” In any case, I think Jesus learned from this woman he had likened to a dog. He blessed her, and her daughter was healed. May all such stories end so well.