Homily for the 11th of Pentecost
August 17, 2014
Today’s Gospel describes a very strange encounter between Jesus and a woman of another country, race and religion.
Jesus travels into a foreign country, and when he is approached by a woman appealing for the life of her child, he offers a dismissive response and refers to her as a dog. Jesus doesn’t seem very cosmic or even global in his outlook; instead, he seems racist, rude and even somewhat flippant about a serious situation involving a sick child.
Over the years, I have had certain takes on this particular gospel, certain ways of interpreting it, but as I thought about it this time wondered if I hadn’t been shying away from a particular truth:
That maybe Jesus was, at least to begin with, more of a typical Jew of his era, and reflected many of those biases (casually calling non-Jews “dogs,” for instance) and so the question arises, why did the Gospel writer choose to include this embarrassing incident in his portrait of Jesus? It’s one thing to have the disciples look foolish, but quite another to show the Son of God in a bad light! Why didn’t he just leave it out (Luke and John don’t mention the incident at all)?
It’s good to speculate on these stories, and to be open to what new insights they might reveal to us by the Spirit, so I wonder if, rather than removing this story from the text, Matthew included it in the narrative to demonstrate something of Jesus’ capacity to continue learning and growing, with a view to sending a message to the early Christian community.
Christians have tended to see Jesus as an exalted figure who was perfect in every way and could not make any mistakes and to suggest otherwise was considered not only disrespectful but heresy or blasphemy. When looking at scripture, we typically start from a position which says Jesus was divine, so we interpret all his actions from the point of view of Jesus being all-knowing, perfectly compassionate, the equivalent of God on earth.
Yet the Church always said he was human – fully human as church dogma would later define it. And there are strains in the New Testament that suggest that Jesus was learning as he was going along, indeed still learning and growing even as he was taken to the cross which leads to his agonizing question from the Cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Clearly, he is being portrayed as not knowing the answer to that.
The Letter to Hebrews says plainly that Jesus learned through what he suffered. In other words, he learned the hard way; he learned a number of painful lessons; he didn’t arrive perfect, but he was perfected through a process of experience and learning. Isn’t that pretty much how life works?
What’s to suggest this incident is not one of those learning moments in Jesus’ life? And no doubt a painful one — to be schooled by a woman, and one of another faith into the bargain! How humiliating, but ultimately, how revealing, of the kind of mission he was truly meant to have. If so, this is a radical and important statement, promoting the significance of women in an era which viewed women as inferior if not entirely irrelevant.
The woman contends with Jesus. The passage reminds us of Jacob wrestling with God, challenging God, standing up to God. Is the woman to be seen in that light, or Jesus? Or both? In any case, a struggle ensues and new truth, insight and purpose emerge. And it is Jesus who surrenders and gives way. It’s not the way we were taught to relate to the divine, and yet it was in that encounter that Jacob was transformed and became the servant of God he was meant to be.
Perhaps Jesus “surrendered” as a way of letting go of a defensive, rigid and small perspective, in order to embrace something much larger. Perhaps this confrontation represents a moment of awakening to his true greatness; perhaps to that point he had not been willing to admit or realize how enormous his mission to the world truly was.
Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had offered a vision, a hope, of a breakthrough into a new era in which God’s blessings would be available to all people, not just Jews. In God’s scheme, even people who had been treated as irrelevant non-entities, like eunuchs and slaves and women and children – people relegated to the margins — even these, Isaiah proclaims, will have reason to hope, as God’s blessings overflow beyond the chosen people to all people, because God’s blessings are intended for all people. In this new era, even the natural order will be reconciled and transformed.
But that great vision had not been realized and perhaps Israel, occupied as it was by foreign powers, and embattled for centuries, had settled in to a very self-protective and self-justifying stance, much like we’re seeing played out in the news these past few weeks as the Israelis invade Gaza. Today’s Gospel reveals that virtually anyone can fall into that trap.
For the early Christian community, this incident probably represented a moment of truth, a moment of decision about whether to remain within a tribal, ethnic and traditional perspective, looking out from within the fold at outsiders as being somehow inferior or unworthy, or instead to reach out to connect with the world beyond the boundaries. It can serve to challenge the sectarianism of modern-day Christians, and the inability to establish inter-faith understanding and relationships.
Jesus speaks to this foreign woman with an attitude of superiority and indifference, with a sense of “How dare you confront me in this way!” His disciples urge him to get rid of her, to blow her off. To start with, he ignores her, and then he casually tosses out words that express the conventional prejudiced mindset of his people. You can hear similar things being said today in relation to the conflict in Palestine.
But it’s like, even as he puts those words out there, it is obvious how petty they sound, how cruel and mean-spirited. Frankly, to start with, he sounds a lot like someone fresh out of seminary, spouting a lot of abstract theories and ideals, unaware and unconcerned about the realities and suffering that ordinary people experience – or like some religious zealot, so consumed by the cause that ordinary individuals’ particular needs lose focus and become irrelevant. This incident serves as a warning about religious and cultural isolation, shows us that religion is not to get disconnected and removed from the realities that everyday people face, warns of the potential for genocide, and perhaps reminded the early faithful that no matter how outside the pale they thought they were, they too could call upon God to take notice and pay attention to their needs.
This woman knows what she needs – what real mother wouldn’t be this assertive on behalf of her child? She believes that Jesus can do something about her daughter’s situation, and her concern and compassion for her child become the major consideration as a result of her persistence, as opposed to whether or not the rules and traditions are being correctly observed. So it’s like Jesus is pulled along by the way this woman articulates a very real need, which cares very little about the academic and abstract mindsets and entitlements behind Jesus’ opening comment. How good are we at hearing the cries of those in need? When we see the TV images of desperate mothers with their sick and starving children, how are we choosing to respond?
Men are generally unwise to get into a verbal sparring match with a woman – it’s rude, you’re not likely going to win, and even if you do, you look like a jerk. Jesus, so adept at outwitting the lawyers and Pharisees and their clever arguments, is clearly bested by this woman. She takes his flippant, unexamined expression of Jewish prejudice and discrimination, which has insultingly compared her to a dog begging at the table, and brings the light of reality to it. Even dogs are treated better than Jesus is treating her in this moment. And, Hello — this is a child we’re talking about here! It’s like she makes it about him and not about her, because so often our own comments say more about us than they do about the person we are critiquing.
In discussions I will often ask “Who is the Christ figure here?” In this case, the woman appears to be the Christ figure – compassionate, humble, interceding on behalf of someone suffering, desperately seeking what is good, motivated by love. Or perhaps, for Matthew, so schooled in the Jewish scriptures, she is the personification of Divine Wisdom, described as “intelligent, holy, unique . . . loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety . . .” (Wisdom Chapter 8).
The barriers erected by years of racism, violence, ignorance and distance are clearly revealed, much like the huge walls that the Israelis have erected in recent years to restrict the movements and freedom of Palestinians. But Jesus breaks through the barriers, and it is this foreign woman’s faith that becomes one of the key teaching moments, as Jesus praises a faith that is confident, assertive, persistent, hopeful, and adaptable. There is a lot in this woman’s behavior that is being celebrated here, and it is her faith, rooted in compassion, that becomes the real focus of the story.
Both Jesus and the woman come away changed by the encounter and this moment becomes a kind of parable to the church going forward about the folly of exclusiveness, of a too-narrow view of what the Gospel is all about. Jesus’ encounter with this difficult Philistine woman becomes a parable suggesting, among other things, that, if the Son of God can learn something new, so can you!
We have things to learn from foreigners and people of other faiths. What a concept! So often, the Christian mindset has been imperialistic, domineering, overbearing, willing to tell others how it is without being willing to listen or respect or be open to change.
Jesus’ actions in this parable are an invitation and challenge to the ordinary Christian to take the risk of growing in faith. As last week’s Gospel suggests, it’s a summons to get out of the boat, to learn about unfamiliar things, to put ourselves in situations where our fixed ideas can be challenged, and to continue to open our minds our horizons, and our hearts. We often don’t know how narrow, how insular our attitudes sound until exposed to a wider context – to people who do not necessarily share those views.
How does one come to terms with the magnitude of one’s own purpose? Our own potential for greatness? This Gospel portrays Jesus awakening to his own greatness and the scope of his ministry. Jesus initially appeared to have a very limited sense of what his ministry was about – that it had to do with reaching the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This woman seems to have disabused him of that narrow approach.
The prophet Isaiah centuries before had said to the people of Israel that it was not enough that they tend to their own spiritual life — that they were meant to be a light to the whole world: “It is too light a thing that you should … raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49). It is Isaiah, so universal in scope, who in fact gave Jesus one of his greatest lines: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” which we heard in the first reading today. But this wisdom, this sense of Israel’s greater purpose, seems to have been forgotten. The woman’s challenge to him recalls the universal vision of Isaiah and obliges Jesus to see his ministry in much greater terms.
How do we come to terms with our true purpose and our own potential greatness – as individuals, as a parish, as a community? I think in part we discover it as we take the risk of moving out of familiar territory, as Jesus did, being open to encounters with people of radically different backgrounds and outlooks on life, and willing to learn and grow. Jesus reveals to us the importance of the capacity to embrace radical change and shift of focus, because he was humble enough to let go of prejudices, biases, and habitual ways of thinking.
We need to have the courage to continue engaging the scriptures with an attitude of openness and willingness to be taught and to see new things, or old things in a new light; we need to become lifelong learners, and never assume we know it all.
Let us give thanks today for the wisdom and insight that comes from unexpected places and people, and for the faith, humility and openness which allow us to receive it as God’s gift to us. May the healing and reconciling power of God be released in our time as a result.
Prayer: O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the person who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Matthew 15: 21-28 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.