Isaiah 56:6-8 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Let us pray: Gracious God, grant us true insight, understanding and wisdom. Show us the path to life, and help us to walk it more faithfully, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
A man was getting ready for bed when his wife told him he’d left the light on in the garden shed. She could see it from the bedroom window. But he said that he hadn’t been in the shed that day. He looked out himself, and there were people in the shed, stealing things.
He called the police, but they told him that no one was in his area to catch the thieves. He said “OK,” hung up, counted to 30 and phoned the police again.
“Hello. I just rang you a few seconds ago because there were people in my shed. Well, you don’t have to worry about them now. I’ve just shot them all.” Within five minutes there were half a dozen police cars in the area, an armed response unit. They caught the burglars red-handed.
One of the policemen said to this man, “I thought you said you’d shot them!” He replied, “I thought you said there was no one available.
Here we have an example of what is commonly called “profiling.” The police are often accused of it in arresting blacks, Mexicans, and other people today. In our story the police were guilty of profiling by considering the man’s neighborhood safe.
In today’s gospel it appears Jesus, was guilty of profiling. A woman who was a Gentile, not a Jew, begged him to heal her daughter. Jesus almost always responded to such requests with a miraculous healing. But here Jesus refuses, being very abrupt with the woman. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So, Jesus seems to be very prejudiced against anyone who is not a Jew. He says his mission is only to Jews.
We might, then, accuse Jesus of profiling if we did not know that his words “I was sent” exonerate him. For who sent Jesus? The Father. In refusing to speak to the woman Jesus was only following his Father’s command to save the Chosen People, the Jews. Jesus apparently came to know his mission as we all come to know our goal in life, by degrees. As we know, Jesus himself extended his mission to all mankind. We see his outreach in examples, such as when Jesus healed the servant of the Roman centurion.
After a busy schedule of preaching and healing, Jesus goes to a place named as "a district of Tyre and Sidon." This was in Phoenicia, or a part of modern-day Lebanon. The important point is that it was outside of the territory of Israel. It was pagan land.
Then Matthew further defines the situation by explaining that he was accosted by a "Canaanite woman." Do you remember the Canaanites from the Old Testament? They were the folks who occupied the Promised Land before the Israelites arrived. They were the ones that God wanted exterminated from the land in order for the Israelites to possess it.
The Canaanites were the descendants of Ham, one of the three sons of Noah. Once, when Noah was drunk, he fell asleep on his bed naked. Ham went in and saw him naked. Scripture says that Ham and all his descendants were cursed and destined to be slaves because it was wrong for a son to see his father naked. The descendants of Ham are the current Palestinians who are still in conflict with the Jewish people in Israel.
Not only was this person a Canaanite, but she was also a woman. We can recall from the story of the woman at the well that Jewish tradition forbade women from having casual conversation with a strange man, particularly a religious man. But here is a brazen woman approaching Jesus and his disciples, which makes her a doubly questionable individual.
Jesus was brought up in a very exclusive community and religion where clear lines of division were set, and folks were either in or out. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes were very exclusive in nature. Only the chosen few could belong to them. I think this was what Jesus had been taught all his life. It was only natural for him to reflect the traditions and teachings of his upbringing.
We have many faulty traditions in our upbringing as well. For example, some of us were raised with negative views about people of another race. But knee-jerk reactions must give way to carefully considered responses and merciful actions for those of us who claim to know that Jesus is Lord. Jesus reflects his tradition quite accurately, but sometimes traditions are meant to be bent or even broken.
Prejudice. Bigotry. We know them well. Our own nation has legislated against such bigotry as slavery and has extended all rights of a citizen to our black brothers and sisters. But, as someone has said, “You can’t legislate morality.” Many people still harbor hatred and bigotry toward blacks, Mexicans, and other non-Caucasian people.
In our first reading we hear the prophet, Isaiah, proclaiming God’s mercy to all nations. There Isaiah has the Lord say: “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.”
The Father intends all to be called to his house of prayer. This shames us as we recall the days when churches either did not allow blacks to become members, or had blacks sit in the balcony instead of letting them sit anywhere they chose in the church.
Prejudice. We see it in the seemingly endless hatred of the Israelis for the Palestinians and vice versa. We see it in the centuries fighting and killing between the Irish Catholics and Protestants; we see it in the standoffs between the Indians and Palestinians. We see it in the resurgence of Neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacist groups.
Somebody said, the day you can no longer change is the day you stop being a human being. Well, Jesus is a human being, and this day he changes. His outlook, his worldview we might call it now, is lifted to something new. Let Jesus be our example: we must dare to let our outlooks be changed too. We must dare to truly engage with the world and let life’s encounters work with what we know of God and so shape our living and understanding. According to Matthew, that is a Jesus thing to do.
Following Jesus means we must constantly struggle to test what we have been taught, and what we always have believed. What Jesus offers us is not always a clear set of instructions about where to go and what to do. The Christian life is not static, but dynamic. We should always be challenging the traditions which we harbor. We must examine our most cherished beliefs. And when the Spirit leads, we must be willing to change. Along with the Canaanite woman let us continue to pray “Lord have mercy on us.”
Let us pray: Lord of all, teach us to recognize that everyone has a purpose and a contribution to make to your kingdom and so help us to see beyond the barriers that keep us apart, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.