The book The Help is the story of a group of white women and their black maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. The world of The Help is one of rigid roles: the white women play bridge and organize fundraisers, while their black maids cook their food, clean their houses, and raise their children. The white women expect the black maids to keep their children clean and well-fed, and above all, out of their hair as they engage with their busy social lives.
Aibileen is a maid in the house of Elizabeth Leefolt, a woman who finds motherhood completely exasperating. Her two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, exhausts her, bothers her, and so again and again, she passes her off to Aibileen’s care. It is Aibileen who dresses Mae Mobley, Aibileen who plays with her and answers her questions about the world. And it is Aibileen who first notices that Mae Mobley is starting to see herself as her mother sees her – as a pest, as something irksome and irritating. Mae Mobley can only see herself as a “bad girl,” and this, of course, absolutely breaks Aibileen’s heart. So Aibileen decides to fight back in her own way – by offering Mae Mobley a kind of daily positive affirmation. Day after day she repeats these words – “You are a pretty girl, a good girl, a kind girl,” willing them to work their way into Mae Mobley’s heart, hoping that she will learn to see herself as beautiful and lovable, no matter what names her mother might call her.
Now this is just one side storyline in the book – and it may not appear in the movie at all, I haven’t seen it yet – but I remember it distinctly because I think it really rings true. For which one of us hasn’t seen a loved one beaten down and wanted to build them back up? We all have known people who believe all of the negative things the world tells them about themselves. We all have known people who have a difficult time seeing themselves as good, as beautiful, as worthy, who far more easily accept the cruel names that others call them. I would guess that most of us have felt this way ourselves from time to time. We know what it feels like to believe the worst about ourselves, and we know what it feels like to love people who cannot see all of the beauty that we see in them. We know what it feels like to have this kind of broken heart.
I think this must be part of the reason why listening to today’s Gospel is so difficult. Yes, I would imagine I’m not the only one who squirmed a little while listening to the story of this Canaanite woman. This story is hard to hear – first of all because this Jesus is difficult to look at. Not only does he completely ignore the cries of this Gentile woman, but when his disciples finally ask Jesus to do something about her, he tells them, essentially, that he’s off today. I’m not working up here – this isn’t my district, and these aren’t my people; my only clients are the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And then, when the woman quite literally throws herself at his feet and begs for his help, he throws a kind of racial slur in her face, the word that Jews sometimes used to describe a lowly Gentile – he calls her a dog.
Jesus calls her a dog. Ugh. That is certainly hard to hear, but it’s also hard to hear about how this woman seems to just sit there and take it. She just kneels there in the dirt and says Okay, I’m a dog, I’m a bad girl, and it breaks my heart to hear her say this. Now to be fair, she does use her wits to turn that slur back against Jesus, and we would be right to give her credit for her cleverness. Right, I’m a dog, she says, but even a lowly, miserable cur like me gets to eat the food that falls to the floor. Very smart…and effective, because when Jesus hears his own words handed back to him in this slightly different package – the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like a measure of yeast, like a tiny crumb – it changes him. He changes his mind, commends her “great faith,” and heals her daughter.
But to be honest there is a part of me that is less than satisfied with her response, clever as it is. Part of me wants her to jump to her feet and come right back at him. “Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario?” I want her to ask. “Yes,” Jesus would reply. “Who is the dog?” “You are.” “I am. I am the dog. I am the dog.” (If you can name that movie to me later, you win a free cookie at coffee hour.) But seriously, there’s a part of me that wants her to fight back. I want her to say, “I may be a Gentile, but I’m not a dog. I am not a bad girl; I am good and kind, I am a beautiful woman who desperately loves her desperately sick daughter, and I am worthy of your love and of your care and of your respect.” Hah! I can see her in my mind, standing in Jesus’ face, hands on her hips, eyes flashing like fire.
But the Canaanite woman does not do this; instead she chooses to sit in the dust at Jesus’ feet and in her role as a less-than, as an other, as a dog. How can we understand her actions? Are they only a ploy to manipulate Jesus or does she really feel this way about herself? And if she is just being clever, then where is the “great faith” in that? No – the key to her great faith is found earlier in the reading, all the way back at the beginning of the story, in these words: “A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.’” The woman calls him Lord, Son of David. She knows who Jesus is. She truly sees him, recognizes him as the Messiah. And so when she sits at his feet and accepts her role, she is not sitting at the feet of a mere man and allowing herself to be humiliated by him; she is sitting at the feet of God, and she allows herself to be humbled before him. She sits at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ and says to him, I am not a bad girl, but compared to you, I am, actually utterly unworthy. Compared to your glory, I am a dog, a flea on a dog’s back. Compared to you, I am nothing…and yet I still hope for your mercy. I still am, sitting here, asking you to help me.
So it is not just her cleverness that helps to change Jesus’ mind; it is also her posture, her humility. For when Jesus looks down upon her, he sees his own self. He sees himself, who has “humbled himself and [become] obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Yes, Christ knows humility; he knows what it is to know the dust, the humus of our being. And when he sees this humility mirrored back to him in the great faith of this unlikely woman, it opens his heart in ways even he never could have anticipated. He starts to see the edges of his mission field expanding; he begins to see this woman as sister and not other. And the next time he sends out his disciples, he will send them not just to the lost sheep of Israel, but to make disciples of all nations. And all because this one woman was unafraid to be utterly humble.
Humility is rather undervalued these days. In times of fear and unrest, it can be a scary thing to be humble – to admit that we might be wrong, that we don’t have all of the answers, that we might need some help, even from God. Too often, we wrongly equate being humble with being a doormat – with being weak or unsure of ourselves. In the wider Church, we have downplayed humility for years. We see so many broken people in our pews and in the world, all of the Mae Mobley’s out there and in here who feel unlovable, who have been called every name in the book because of their race or class or their sexual orientation or how they dress, and it breaks our hearts. And so sometimes we hesitate to ask ourselves or anyone else to humble themselves before God because we are afraid that it might take away our already fragile sense of dignity. We try to offer affirmations of our worth without falling on our knees, because to be that humble is just too scary.
But we at St. Mark’s know – and this Gospel reminds us – that to deny ourselves the experience of humbling ourselves before God is to deny ourselves a great gift. It is to deny ourselves the chance to discover who we really are and where our dignity really comes from; we are the daughters and sons of God, who are made worthy and made beautiful by an Almighty, All-Loving God. What a gift this holy, divine affirmation is – that God sees us as we truly are – as imperfect human beings – and chooses to love us anyway. What grace this is – that God knows us, knows that we are eternally incapable of earning God’s favor, and then pours that favor upon us anyway. It is only when we find the right role, when we place ourselves in the correct posture, humbly kneeling at the feet of the living Christ, that we can know and honor and love ourselves as beautiful, good, kind, imperfect, wonderfully beloved children of God. So be not afraid – come, kneel at this table, humble yourself before Him, and be healed.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
14 August 2011
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia