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 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. And after all, she is a Canaanite, a foreigner, and his ministry is to the people of Israel.
But she does not give up that easily. She keeps calling after Jesus until he and 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. 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 who can.
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. Mothers with sick children are like that. They won’t let anything get in the way of taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors, health regulations, lousy insurance, or even a narrow minded Messiah will stop them.
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 a difficult story, because Jesus is hard-hearted towards this woman, not treating her with compassion because her daughter is suffering, but ignoring her and refusing her because of her heritage. In the end, Jesus gets the last word, and it is gracious, quite a change from his earlier exchange with the woman.
It is Jesus at his most human. His response to the Canaanite woman is cultural. 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 a sense of compassion that enables us to reach out to those in need?
We do not have to look very far to find events that mirror such behaviour in our own society. Consider the flyers that were posted this past week on the York University Campus. They show images of what they claim were students at York in the 60’s, saying that the student population was totally white. Below is a photo of a more diverse group of students with text saying that whites will soon be in a minority. I am certain we are all appalled that such attitudes could possibly be held in a city as diverse as Toronto. But what about our own attitudes? Whom do we reject? Whom do we try to keep out? I look back at my own life and see many times when such cultural norms affected my views of the people around me.
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. We were taking action 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. In fact, if anything we blamed them for their dysfunction.
When I was a theological student I did a placement at the Church of the Holy Trinity at the Eaton Centre as part of a program in Urban Ministry. I worked with the street people who frequent the area as part of an initiative of the local churches to find suitable housing for them. My job was to get to know them and talk to them about their housing needs. The biggest challenge for me, however, was to do a plunge, a requirement of the course. We had to spend one rather cold November weekend on the streets with only our own resources. I talked to the street people about what to do. They told me that I would not survive it, and then proceeded to tell me about the best shelters and gave me advice about how to ask for money. Their advice was excellent, I must say. I ended up staying in a shelter for abused women, a long story that I will not get into today. I was treated with kindness and respect. The other women in the shelter, as needy as they were, reached out to help me. One person truly befriended me, took me under her wing. She told me of her hopes of reuniting with her children. Her story was one of exclusion and hardship, and yet she was one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. She had a strong faith, not only that things were going to improve for her, but also faith in God. She invited me to go to church on Sunday morning. “You look like the kind of person who goes to church,” she said to me. And off we went dressed in our old ratty clothing. I don’t know what I had hoped for, but we ended up in a large prestigious church that will remain nameless. My inclination was to sneak into the back pew, but she was having nothing to do with that. She marched me up the aisle right to the front where she lustily sang every hymn, much to the consternation of the fine parishioners who tried very hard to ignore these two women who didn’t know their place. As I reflected on the experience I realized it was a transformative time in my life.
I must say, I still find times when it is difficult to get past my middle class views. Then I think back to the woman from the shelter, and I wonder how she is doing. And I smile thinking of how she pushed back against all of the preconceived notions of that congregation. I think of her faith and how much she had to overcome
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 people with a sense of compassion. 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 world. 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 realm. 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. Then we will begin to see the miracles happening in our own lives and those of others.
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