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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A

Only Human

Readings: Gen 45:1-15; Ps 133; Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28

Once again Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds. For someone in his position it is not an easy task. People follow him everywhere. They hope for a miracle, his healing touch, words of hope and wisdom. They constantly lay claim on Jesus’ time and energy. Even as he withdraws, a woman, a Canaanite, a Gentile, an outsider, comes after him shouting for help. Her daughter is ill.

He ignores her. He is so weary. He just wants to get away from the crowds. He hopes that in ignoring her pleas she will give up and leave him alone. Maybe she will decide that it is not that urgent after all. Maybe she will think of someone else who can help.

But she does not give up that easily. She keeps calling after Jesus until the disciples are beside themselves. "Send her away!" They say to Jesus. "She keeps shouting after us." They are embarrassed by her outburst. She pushes forward. And throwing herself down at Jesus' feet, she pleads. "Lord, help me."

There is sharpness to the point of rudeness, in Jesus’ response. It takes us aback. It is so unexpected. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he retorts. It does not deter her for one moment. She knows that Jesus can help her. In fact she is certain that he is the only one that can help her.

Still on her knees she responds, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her reply is piercing. Even if she must crawl and grovel to get help for her child she will do it. Her love for her child, her trust that Jesus can help, her determination to do whatever she needs to do, give her the strength to continue.

Jesus sees through to the faith of this woman that he is trying so desperately to ignore. He knows that he cannot ignore her need any longer. Compassion wells up in him. He gets beyond his weariness. He loses his frustration. God shines out from him.

“You have great faith,” he says to her. “What you have asked for is done.” Her daughter is healed at that very moment.

This is Jesus at his most human. His response to the Canaanite woman is such a human response. He is struggling against all the norms of his society. It shows itself in all sorts of attitudes that are typical of the Jewish society in which he lives. His comments are racist and exclusionary. Do we find it embarrassing that Jesus is so human? Or does it help us to look at our own prejudices and shortcomings and find a way to achieve the sense of compassion that we need in order to reach out to those in need?

What are the similar situations in our own lives? Whom do we reject? Whom do we try to keep out? I must say that personally I have struggled with such issues my whole life.

I grew up in an inner city rectory before the era of food banks and shelters. There was a steady stream of homeless people at our door every day looking for help. We did what we could, often feeding them from our own table. It usually fell to the rectory children to make the sandwiches and coffee and take it out to them on the back verandah. For a time my mother had fed them in the kitchen, until one person let it slip that he had just got out of prison on murder charges. On the surface, what we did was good. It was certainly the best we could offer. It was something at a time when society did not take responsibility for homelessness and hunger. But when I reflect deeper I know that we failed to give them what they really needed. We didn’t see them as people. We never asked them their names, although we had nicknames for some of the regulars. There was Rudolf and Pinhead. How unkind that was! We did not try to change their situation.

When I was a theological student I did a placement at the Church of the Holy Trinity at the Eaton Centre. It is a church that really opens its doors to the needs of the community that surrounds it. And yet even there middle class values emerge. My job was to get to know the street people who make the square their home. We were working on providing housing to meet their needs. I tried to get to know them as people. We had a drop in so that they could get warm. I learned their names and a bit about their situation. I tried to get past the smell and the behaviours that landed them on the streets. I supplied them with coffee and a meal if they needed it. On Sunday mornings they would come into the church, particularly since there was always a soup and sandwich lunch. I took to introducing them by name to people. It was a challenge even to these people who are dedicated to advocacy and to working with the poorest of society.

I have to say, I still struggle with my middle class values in my dealings with those who find their way into the Church Centre for help. There are some I would go out of my way to help. I know how needy they are and that they are trying desperately to make ends meet in a difficult economic situation. They are doing the best they can. They are genuinely grateful for anything we are able to do for them.

However, there are others whom I instinctively know are just working the system. They don’t want to follow the rules and come in during office hours. They want extra help. We cannot do enough for them. They phone me on my cell phone and make unreasonable demands on my time. I find myself avoiding dealing with them. I get angry with them. I lose patience. I lack the compassion I should be showing them.

The good news of the gospel is that we are only human. Jesus had to learn to put aside the prejudices of his upbringing. He had to learn to deal with compassion with people. Maybe there is hope for me. Maybe I can learn to follow his example. The Canaanite woman exercised an extraordinary power over Jesus. She nagged at him. She made demands. And yet at the core of it was her trust that he could make a difference in her life. She trusted that he could help her. She had faith. She kept on until she was heard.

Jesus dared to walk among us. He was trapped in our words. He was trapped in our ways. What hope that gives to us! Like Jesus, we can find the way to live compassionately. We can find the way to open our hearts to those in need. We can learn to risk. We can find the words and works that build up God’s kingdom. We can share one another’s pain. We can learn to see Christ in others. We can place all that we have and all that we are before God. We can begin to see the miracles happening in our own lives and those of others.

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