By John Gustav-Wrathall
Delivered at The Hearth Fireside Series on February 26, 2017, Atherton, CA
21 ¶Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
The story of the Syrophoenician or “Canaanite” woman (told in Mark chapter 7 and re-told in Matthew chapter 15) is unique in the Gospels, in that it is only story where Jesus refuses to bless someone. At least initially.
It’s easy to focus on the end of the story, in which Jesus miraculously heals the woman’s daughter long-distance. We’re inclined to interpret his initial refusal to bless as a test of the woman’s faith.
Except that Jesus’ refusal is coupled with what, on the face of it, looks like blatant racial or ethnic discrimination and insults.
“It is not meet,” says Jesus, in response to the woman’s pleas for a blessing, “to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to the dogs.” I’ve seen some exegetes try to soften the blow of the insult of comparing this woman to a dog by suggesting that the original Greek in the text was diminutive, that it didn’t have the same harsh connotations that referring to someone as a dog in Middle Eastern culture typically has. Maybe. Consider it through the eyes of the Canaanite woman. Her daughter was suffering, and she was being refused in language that literally dehumanized both her and her daughter.
In the Matthew version of the story, she followed them, crying after them from a distance, and Jesus refused to answer her. When the disciples begged Jesus to relent, just to make her stop, he replied tersely, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
That phrase (not present in the Mark version of the story) was the key to James E. Talmage’s interpretation of the story. Jesus was not called by the Father to minister to the Gentiles. The keys to that work were not to be delegated until after Christ’s ascension.
The story might credibly have ended with that rejection. Most women in her shoes might give up and leave after being insulted. This would not, however, have been much of a story if it had ended there. It occurs to me that in the course of his ministry, Jesus might have said no to Gentiles seeking blessings many times, so often that it wouldn’t have seemed worth mentioning. This story might only have been told because of its exceptional quality; because it was the case of a Gentile who refused to take “no” for an answer, and whose faith was such that the blessing ultimately could not be withheld.
It is reminiscent of another story (recounted in Luke chapter 7) in which a Roman centurion beseeched the Jewish elders to intercede for him on behalf of a dying servant. Perhaps the centurion knew that Jesus was “not sent but unto… the house of Israel,” which would explain why he never appeared in person to Christ, and why he sent Jewish messengers to convey the message: “I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof… neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed” (vs. 6-7). Jesus marveled at the man’s faith, and proclaimed: “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (v. 9). The Luke account does not specify whether the servant was of the house of Israel or not, but it does state that like the daughter of the Canaanite woman, the servant was healed thanks to the exceptional faith of a Gentile.
To return to the story of the Canaanite woman, her faith was such that she did not allow herself to be put off, neither by the insistent rejections, nor by the dehumanizing language. “Yes, Lord,” was her response to the ‘dogs’ comment, “yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” It was when she said that, that Christ knew there was no blessing he could withhold from her. “O woman,” replied Jesus, “great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (Matthew 15: 28).
As a gay man who am excommunicated, and who am unable to be reinstated into membership in the Church because of my 25-years relationship with my husband, and who have a testimony of the Gospel, and who am active in my LDS ward, I have occasionally been accused of accepting crumbs. I’ve been told that a self-respecting person does not do that. A self-respecting person demands a full place at the table and accepts nothing less.
I don’t believe for a single moment that that Canaanite woman believed either she or her daughter were of less value in the eyes of God than any child of the house of Israel. The proof of that was in her unwillingness to relinquish a blessing she knew her daughter needed; her perseverance until she had secured that blessing; her willingness to humble herself before God in order to claim that blessing. In a sense, by turning Christ’s refusal away with the words, “Yes, Lord, yet the dogs eat the crumbs,” she affirmed her infinite worth in terms that Christ could not deny. “Great is thy faith,” he said of her. Or “I have not found so great faith in Israel,” as he said of the Roman centurion.
To my way of thinking, it would have been her turning away, her giving up, that might have devalued her. To turn away might have been an admission that she or her daughter were less worthy of the blessing than anybody else Christ might have healed more readily. I am of infinite worth, and so is my husband, and so I show up at Church and I live the Gospel as fully as I am permitted within the current confines. My presence at church is simultaneously two things: a testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel, and a testimony of my infinite worth.
This still begs the question: Why does the Church treat people in a discriminatory manner? Or, to put it in slightly harder terms, How could a church that discriminates against people, that is seemingly a respecter of persons, be true? As I was writing this talk, I was exchanging messages with a faithful lesbian mom who has been distraught because her daughter just turned eight years old, and will not be able to be baptized as her older siblings were. We can take the experience of LGBT people today, and put it in the context of long millennia of discrimination of some sort in the Church, for race, or gender, or ability.
God is no respecter of persons. If the story of the Canaanite woman is an illustration of anything, it is of this fundamental truth. But apparently God’s church is a respecter of persons. The story of the Canaanite woman is also an illustration of that reality.
Even Christ himself seemed somewhat bound or limited by that reality. The gospels' and the Book of Mormon's witness of Christ almost always shows Christ standing with the disadvantaged. It shows us that when society and/or the Church marginalize people, God stands with the marginalized. That is the normal ethic that God demands of us. But if we believe — and I believe it — that Christ was God incarnate, then the incarnate aspect of his being placed him in a temporal, worldly context and in the framework of all the limitations that came with that context. He could transcend it at times, but he couldn’t just dispense with it. And if Christ could not, then I’m not sure how I would expect his apostles to, especially when the scriptures are replete with examples of Christ’s apostles’ limitations. It doesn’t make the Gospel or even the Church less true.
We can theorize or speculate about why the limitations exist. Perhaps it is God accommodating human weakness. Perhaps when human beings learn to stop putting artificial limitations on someone because of their race or their gender or their sexuality or their gender identity or their ability, then God eagerly takes us to the next step of evolution as a human family. There is a fundamental Gospel principle that we are able to see God only to the extent that we become like him. The becoming like him part is a real challenge.
Perhaps God has some master scheme in mind that requires steps. Perhaps God could, for instance, only have overcome the innate human tendency toward idolatry by creating a “chosen people,” a necessarily limiting or discriminatory act. There’s scriptural support for the notion thatGod used the Law to discipline his chosen peoples because of our innate tendency toward selfishness and egotism, though the arc of the history of God’s engagement with humanity shows him weaning us toward a higher law of selflessness and compassion, free of the legalism and the harsh discipline of the past.
Nothing about the existence of these limitations or of the trauma they create for so many convinces me that God is absent or nonexistent. Amidst the pain, God is at work. I have had too many experiences that are unexplainable to me in any other way than that his hand has been in my life and that the restored priesthood is real, to not believe that God lives and that he is guiding the Church.
I am also convinced that God takes the principle of agency very seriously. It is the foundational principle of creation, and equal parts of human misery and transcendent joy in this life are the product of it.
All that having been said, whatever the reasons for legalism and discrimination in our institutional religious framework, it doesn’t change the fact that to be gay, lesbian, bi or transgender in this world today demands an extraordinary kind of faith. And that is why I want to directly and personally address the last half of my remarks to my fellow lesbian, gay, bi and transgender siblings here in the audience today.
There is a significant difference between us and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. The Canaanite woman had her daughter, and her daughter had her. They had the love of family; that is what drove this woman to demand a blessing from Jesus in spite of the rejection: her family. And many of us have lost our families. LGBT people are sometimes blessed to have our families come on this journey with us, but we’ve never been able to take it for granted. And in my time as a leader in Affirmation I have seen the absolute devastation and trauma of this total rejection so many of us experience from our families and from our church.
But here’s what I can say about the rejection we’ve experienced. Every significant thing I was told in the Church about what it would mean to be gay has turned out to be completely false.
I was told that gay people were incapable of real love, that we were incapable of forming lasting commitments. This year my husband and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary, and one thing I can say about the love between us is that it has never been deeper, or stronger, or more nourishing than it is now. That love has steadily grown, day by day, month by month, year by year, through trials and challenges and heartache and through mistakes and failings and forgiveness and through the raising and care of foster children. And if our love is not real, then I can’t imagine what real love is, because what we have surpasses my ability to express, in its power to heal and teach and inspire, and in its infinite potential.
I was told that if I entered into a same-sex relationship of any sort, that I would lose the Spirit of God. But I have the Spirit in my life, and so does my husband. How do you know when the Spirit is in someone’s life? When you see the fruit of the Spirit: love, hope, patience, faith, kindness, forgiveness, perseverance… Do I know gay people in same-sex relationships who manifest the fruit of the Spirit and who have gifts of the Spirit? I do in abundance. No matter our sexual orientation or gender identity, no matter our status in the Church or our life circumstances, if we seek God in patience and humility, he pours his Spirit out on us.
I have one thing to say about the Church’s current policy relating to gay people. If these things that I had been told were true — if real commitment and love were impossible in a same-sex relationship, and if a same-sex relationship denied us the possibility of having the Spirit in our lives or a relationship with God — then the policy would be wise and kind, evidently designed to prevent us from harming ourselves, to protect us from falling into lonely lives devoid of spirituality or meaning. I think our leaders believe they are protecting us.
I am the president of Affirmation, so I feel like I would be remiss in my duty tonight if I did not leave you with some affirmations.
First: We are greater than the rejection.
When people are unkind to us, when they reject us, there is a fundamental spiritual principle that we all need to be aware of. What you do to others, you only do to yourself. We are all interconnected. And we are all connected to God. That is why Christ said, “If you do it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25: 40)
When people reject us, we might think it is some kind of reflection on our worth. But it is not. A person who rejects you may be revealing something unfortunate and unpleasant about themselves, but in their rejection there is not the least of an iota of reflection on who you are or what you are worth.
We are greater than the rejection.
Second: God does not reject us.
Read the founding scripture of Mormonism: “If ANY of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to ALL LIBERALLY and UPBRAIDETH NOT.” (James 1:5) It says “if ANY of you lack wisdom.” That means the only prerequisite is that we lack wisdom, which most all of us do. Or I can speak for myself and say I do. It says, God “giveth to ALL.” There are no disclaimers here, no exceptions, no requirement that you be straight or righteous or anything at all. It says ALL. It says “and UPBRAIDETH NOT,” which means that God does not scold us or punish us for asking him the “wrong” question. That’s not how God operates. He doesn’t care what question you have to ask. He doesn’t “upbraid” you for that. He cares only that you ask him, that you turn to him. And it says “LIBERALLY,” which means, when we ask God for something good, he is not stingy. God does not hold back. He pours out blessings on us.
How do I know this scripture is true? Because I have tested it, and I have found it truer than I ever had been able to imagine.
God does not reject us.
Third: LGBT people are in a better position to understand the Gospel than many of our straight brothers and sisters.
Why? Because we have to work and struggle and fight for every ounce of understanding about ourselves. Because we are not permitted to take anything for granted. Because we have to build a relationship with God that is refined through trial and error. Because we learn the heart of the Gospel by forgiving. And right now we have plenty of opportunities to forgive.
Forgiving does not diminish us. Forgiveness is one of the greatest, most humanizing gifts of the Atonement. It is the most powerful way we can realize for ourselves that first affirmation I shared with you, that we are greater than the rejection. It enables us to access the forgiveness we need for our mistakes and shortcomings. It unlocks the power of love and redemption.
The gospel applies to us every bit as much as it applies to every other child of God on the planet. But when we are marginal, when we have experienced rejection and loneliness, when we have had to sit in the dark without human friends or guides, then we are in a position to acquire deep understanding.
We LGBT Mormons are in a better position to understand the Gospel in all its depth and power than we think.
We have gifts to offer the Church, without which the Church cannot prosper.
I have a vision of Mount Zion, of the Lord’s Holy Temple, where we will all some day gather, gay, lesbian, straight, bi, transgender, non-binary, people of every race and tribe and background, women and men. I had a dream once, that we were all together in the temple, dancing, like the Saints who danced in the Nauvoo Temple before they were driven out. In this vision of Mount Zion, there will be no poor among us, no marginal people, no people on the edges. I will see you there, with my husband, and with our foster sons, with my parents and siblings and nephews and nieces, and uncles and aunts and cousins and ancestors and descendants. And the Spirit will be poured out on all of us with a richness and a power that none of us imagined possible; with a richness and power that our straight brothers and sisters had never realized was possible because until that moment, we LGBT folks had been missing from the equation.
I have a friend here in Oakland, Judy Finch. Judy has been one of the most constant supports to me through one of the most challenging times of my life. One of the things that Judy keeps reminding me is that the most important thing I can do for anybody else is to take care of myself, to do whatever I need to do to be healthy and happy and whole. I can’t help anybody else if I don’t do that.
And so in closing I want to pass Judy’s reminder on to all of you. I love you deeply. Every morning I wake up to thoughts of you. I pray and I work throughout the day, thinking what can I do that will bring hope and encouragement to my siblings who are lesbian and bi and transgender and gay. And I have seen the trauma so many of us have experienced and I have felt the pain of it and I have been amazed by your capacity to transcend it.
But I say: Take care of yourselves. Do whatever you need to do to be happy and healthy and whole. You don’t need to go anyplace where you are not affirmed in the fullness and integrity of who you are, all of you, every molecule of you.
And if you have begun to catch a vision of yourselves as whole and good and complete and as a divine child of God, if you have found that healing ground and that spiritual center, there is work for you to do. There is much healing needed in the world. And I invite you to join in that work.
In the name of Jesus Chist, our Teacher, our Savior and our Redeemer. Amen.