August 16, 2020
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
Did you hear what I just heard? Jesus ignoring the request of a mother begging him to help her tormented child. Jesus insulting this woman by calling her a dog.
Did you hear what I just heard? This persistent mother who keeps barking until he changes his mind, moving him to do her will. Jesus paying this pagan woman a compliment which he gives to no other person in Matthew’s Gospel, calling her a woman of “great faith.”
The humanity of Jesus shines forth in this startling encounter between this Canaanite woman and him, a Jewish man. Jesus is a member of the people chosen by God; she a member of the people which the Israelites ran off the land promised to them by God.
We do not usually consider the limitations of culture when we think of the incarnation, of God fulling embracing our human condition in Jesus. We find it difficult to entertain the possibility that Jesus was ever in any way biased. That is very unfortunate, because this tends to make Jesus less than human. It also minimizes his extraordinary actions which break through the limitations of his culture.
In today’s gospel, this was accomplished through the agency of one whose gender and religious commitment made her unsuitable, according to the standards of Jesus’ culture. He was a member of the children of Israel— she and her kind were worth no more than stray dogs to the Israelites.
To be fully human is to change and to grow, and Jesus is humble enough to do so, to learn from others, especially those different from him.
The evangelist Matthew most likely included in his Gospel this shocking encounter between Jesus and this woman of great faith, because his early Christian community faced similar challenges.
The Christians to whom Matthew addresses his Gospel were almost entirely Jews who had embraced Christianity toward the end of the 1st century. But now there were pagans (Gentiles) becoming Christian who wanted to be part of their faith community, and there was a mighty struggle on how to incorporate them.
How were these Jewish Christians to welcome these foreigners? The Gentiles spoke a different language, ate different types of food, and even looked different from the Jewish Christians.
This Gospel passage presented the Matthean Community with two different responses to the Gentiles. They could choose to follow the example of the disciples, who wanted to send the woman away, who did not want to be bothered by her or with her, or they could follow the example of the founder of their faith. If Jesus could change his mind and react in mercy toward a Canaanite woman, they could do the same, and with Jesus, be blessed by the great faith of the foreigner.
The Jewish-Christian members of Matthew’s community were being invited to learn something from the “Canaanite women” in their midst. Those on the outside, like this woman, could teach something to those on the inside about faith and persistence in faith.
So, we are challenged to change and to grow, to be more and more inclusive of others, to move beyond our own small, exclusive groups toward others who are different from us. We are prodded and pushed by the word of God to leave our comfort zones to encounter people who are different from us, because we have so much to learn from them. Not so they can become just like us, for we are not seeking uniformity but rather unity.
As our image of God continues to change and grow, so does our image of others. In fact as we include others who are different from us in our world, as grace expands our heart space to treat them with mercy, we see there are many people we do not acknowledge or even notice who are worthy of our engagement.
Then we can move beyond that word “other” by adding two letters to the front of it— “b” and “r”—so that we may live together as brothers instead of perishing together as fools.
Or we can add the letter “m” onto that word “other” and recognize there are so many mothers today like the Canaanite woman, remarkable women of faith who are crying out to us, the Body of Christ, to respond to their pleas for help.
Black mothers crying out on behalf of their sons, “Have mercy.” Hispanic mothers pleading on behalf of their daughters, “Have mercy.” White mothers of police officers and soldiers, shouting out on behalf of their children: “Have mercy.”
Mothers of children in prisons, mothers whose children are starving, mothers whose children have “come out” regarding their sexual identity, all crying out on behalf of their children, “Have Mercy!”
All of us, every single one of us, have sinned and feel like we are outside of God’s care. We have turned a deaf ear to the cry of others in their need. Because of our disobedience, because we have all done our own will, instead of God’s will, we think we are outside of God’s care.
But by the obedience of one man, Jesus the Christ, we have all been brought inside God’s care.
We have been brought inside a large house of mercy where every thing and every one belongs.