You Are Not One of Us
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine August 20, 2017
In the 1950s, Prime Minister Nikita Khruschev famously described Russian foreign policy as follows: “We have no pride; only interests.” Today’s Gospel presents us with the fascinating encounter between Jesus and an unnamed Canaanite woman, a Gentile, living in what would be present-day Syria or Lebanon. Unlike most Gospel passages, it does not present Jesus in a uniformly positive light. It portrays a Jesus who, in his humanity, had been shaped by the biases and prejudices of the culture, the times, the people to which he belonged. But more wonderfully, it presents an instance of Jesus being carried forward into a newer and deeper understanding of his own ministry. All of this, because of a woman who would not take no for an answer!
Put yourselves in the shoes of Jesus and his disciples. They have been preaching and teaching, healing and exorcising, feeding the crowds, battling storms and walking on water. So they were tired. They were also facing increasing opposition from the Scribes and Pharisees – accused of departing too far from the traditions laid down in the Law of Moses. Just when they thought they were getting a bit of a break, this foreign woman comes after them, shouting, demanding that Jesus heal her daughter. She was a Canaanite – an enemy, a person with whom Jews were traditionally in conflict. Why should they help her? She wasn’t even polite – she was making a big noise, shouting at them.
Have you ever noticed that it’s usually when you’re most busy, stressed, or in a hurry, that you get interrupted by someone wanting something more from you? You are just sitting down at dinner – and that’s when the telemarketing calls start coming in.
(After all, it’s supper time – they know you’re home.) Here at the rectory, we have our “regulars” who come looking for food or a little money: they always manage to arrive just after the secretary has left, when I am on the phone, or in the middle of a meeting in my office. We even have people who call us several times a day to tell us they are praying for us! (Other times they call to complain about something!) Any of you could fill in examples from your life at work, at home, and everywhere in between: just when you need a little R&R, a break from all the demands being made upon you – someone calls and makes another one.
How do we respond in these situations? If we are tired and stressed, we may give way to anger, sarcasm, avoidance, or guilty submission, depending on our own particular inclination or temperament. Because I don’t like conflict, I tend to avoid the situation; or else, I give a crumb of my time and money to get the person off my back and get back to the “real” task I was accomplishing. Often, I forget that maybe, just maybe, God is in the interruption. You may know the old saying: “We organize, God disrupts; we plan, God laughs!”
Faced with the persistent shouting of this foreign woman – and the pressure being placed upon him by his disciples to get rid of her – Jesus basically tells her: “Leave us alone. You’re not one of us.” Undeterred, she puts her pride away, kneels before Jesus, and begs for his help, calling him “Lord”. You can already feel Jesus melting – she has recognized him as “Lord” and “Son of David” – and she obviously really loves her daughter. Unexpectedly, Jesus comes out with this line about it not being fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Maybe he was trying to test the strength of her faith; maybe he was just having a bad day. It’s not really clear.
But what really matters is the woman’s response. She has basically just been compared to a dog – not nice now, much less nice in a culture where dogs were pretty low on the totem pole, and not the pampered house pets they have become in Western society. But she refuses to let her pride get in the way of her interests: the healing of her little girl. She takes Jesus’ somewhat condescending metaphor and turns it to her own advantage: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” If the children have eaten their fill, why shouldn’t I get the leftovers?
It’s as if a light goes on for Jesus. Yes, she’s right. Maybe my mission has been first and foremost to the people of Israel, but this woman had more faith and more chutzpah then anyone we have been meeting lately. Why should she not benefit from this healing power? If God is so abundantly generous, why should we be limiting in any way the audience to whom the Gospel is addressed? Most scholars see in this text a reference not only to the immediate context of the time of Jesus, but a dispute between two groups in Matthew’s community. There were the “particularists”, who insisted on the priority of the Jewish mission and the unbreakable connection between the Gospel and its Jewish roots. They feared that admitting Gentiles to table fellowship (and thus, to the Eucharist) would dilute the Jewishness of Jesus’ message beyond recognition. Then there were the “universalists”, who argued that the radical novelty of the Gospel lay in its openness and availability to everyone who opened their hearts to Jesus and his Kingdom. It was a delicate balance to maintain. We see both these tendencies alive in St. Paul, who in today’s second reading argues that although the call to salvation is indeed a universal one, there is a unique and irrevocable covenant between God and the Jewish people which endures, even as the Gospel goes out to all the nations.
Beyond these two schools of thought, there lies the reality of people whose lives have been touched. Here stands a woman: a foreigner, yes, but strong, unhesitant, persistent in her faith. Compare her with Peter, who last Sunday, was found weak, wavering, and fearful, sinking in the waters the moment he loses his focus on Jesus. However important the rule book may be, blind obedience to rules cannot be allowed to suppress the faith of those who come to God seeking enlightenment, peace, and healing. In the face of compelling discipleship and strong faith, how can you tell someone: “you aren’t allowed in, because you aren’t one of us?”
In the early Church, the dividing line was between Jews and Gentiles. What are the dividing lines today? Who are the people we deem “unworthy” of God’s mercy, unwelcome at our family tables, and at the table-fellowship of the Eucharist? Do we allow differences – sexual, cultural, linguistic, political, denominational, ideological – to undermine and block the unity to which Christ calls us? Are we so caught up in our routines – the daily tasks, our ways of thinking, our unconscious biases and prejudices – that we are unable or unwilling to be surprised?
As Pope Francis has famously said, it is more important to build bridges than walls. Do we build walls to protect ourselves from those who are different, to keep them away, or are we open to the transformation that can come when we encounter a person of a different faith tradition, a different nationality, a different way of giving and receiving love, a different point of view from my own? Jesus, the very Son of God, was open to being challenged by this unnamed Canaanite woman, to having his perception of his own mission and even his very identity expanded.
If you read the Gazette this past Thursday, you will understand something of the courage and perseverance of the newest members of St. Monica’s extended family – Ziad and Emen Alrayes, and their children Abeer, Ziad, Mariam, and Youssef – and all they endured in fleeing their home in Syria (the very same region the unnamed woman in today’s Gospel came from) nearly four years ago, finally arriving in this safe haven last month. Will we allow this family to touch our hearts and expand our vision of our common humanity, in the way this unnamed Canaanite woman touched the heart and expanded the horizons of Jesus and his disciples?
We are called to a similar openness. So let us not let “our pride get in the way of our interests.” Let us not let our stubbornness, our refusal to change, block the opportunities life affords us each day to expand our horizons, to broaden our experience, to deepen our understanding, to make our decisions wiser and our loving more inclusive. Like the Canaanite woman, may we be bold in coming before the heart of Jesus, making our needs known clearly, yet humbly. And like Jesus, may we respond with generosity and courage to all those who honestly seek God, whatever their background or culture, however different their way of life may be from our own. Then we can truly sing, with the Psalmist:
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!”