Brief synopsis of the readings: God, through the prophet Isaiah, spoke about foreigners “who have attached themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and his servants.” Isaiah said that they would be accepted: “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer. In Matthew’s Gospel we read about a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon and she begged Jesus to heal her. His disciples asked Jesus to heal the girl if only to get rid of the woman. Jesus then turned to the woman: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs.” But the woman replied: “Ah yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus then praised her for her great faith and healed her daughter.
I might be alone in this but I sometimes wonder what I would do if I ran into Jesus. I suspect that some people would just freeze or panic in the presence of the Son of God. Some clearly want or need something that they believe Jesus can provide. But I don’t think any of us would expect to get into a throw down with Jesus.
We generally don’t talk about this but there are times when Jesus is just plain rude. A few chapters earlier in Matthew, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers wish to speak to him and Jesus responded: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He then pointed to those gathered and said: “There are my mother and my brothers.” Also, in John’s Gospel Jesus attends a wedding with his mother where the hosts runs out of wine. When his mother tells him about this he replies: “Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me?”
And here a woman asked for healing for her daughter, something Jesus did with great regularity and even his disciples suggested it. But they weren’t interested in this Canaanite woman or her daughter, they just wanted her to go away. The Canaanites were sworn enemies of the Jews: when they escaped slavery in Egypt and traveled to the Promised Land (Jerusalem) they fought and defeated the Canaanites to occupy the land. By all the protocols of the time this woman had no business speaking to Jesus, and his rude response resonated with his disciples. We can discuss what Jesus meant but it appears to me that he was telling her that his power was intended for only his people.
Most people in her position would have walked away, but she took on Jesus. Again this is open to interpretation but it sounds to me like she is saying that there is enough food (healing) to go around to everyone. And this response, surprisingly, pleased Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus’ rude answer to her was meant for Jesus’ disciples who may well have done high fives on hearing Jesus’ barb. But here’s where it gets tricky: Jesus doesn’t praise her for her quick response or her clever answer. He praised her for her faith.
That’s where we can misunderstand this Gospel. Jesus rarely praises anyone for their intellect, but God knows we do. Time and again in our history we read that Jesus praises faith and at the same time we revere knowledge. Students of Christian history know of a movement called “Gnosticism.” Within a few centuries of Jesus some came to a belief that salvation was reserved for those with a secret knowledge; it didn’t last long and was quickly discredited.
But even today we revere those who are “intelligent in their faith.” Many years ago I succeeded a priest at a parish in Virginia as the director of a CCD (Sunday School) program. He answered to the pastor but was also required to meet monthly with a Religious Education Board, a group of about a dozen parents. He was fairly contemptuous of them and often told the pastor that “knew more than any of them.” In a sense he was right: he held several degrees from prestigious Catholic colleges. But he missed the point. He was terribly ineffective in his role (and I had quite a mess to clean up) and he honestly thought his intelligence made him closer to God.
It didn’t. Isaiah’s writings couldn’t be clearer: the roots of justice are found in integrity. Understand I’m not denigrating intelligence and I’m not suggesting that there’s no purpose in learning about the faith (that’s where I made my living). But measuring intelligence, in the final word, ranks and divides. It makes some better because they are smarter and others less because they aren’t.
Justice and integrity, on the other hand, joins and unites. In many ways the greatest challenge to Christianity lies in our ability or willingness to accept everyone Jesus accepts. Isaiah made it clear that even foreigners who have chosen to follow the Lord will be welcomed.
And while groups like Samaritans and Canaanites may not mean much to us, they meant a great deal to people of Jesus’ time. They were enemies, competitors for scarce resources, and people they could hate. Today we don’t have Samaritans or Canaanites, but we do have Muslims and aliens.
I’d like to think that in the last 2000 years we’ve read these passages and become more inclusive. And in many ways we have, but we are far from “mission accomplished.” Four years ago a man successfully ran for President of the United States on a platform of seeing immigrants as murderers and rapists. Too often we see defense of racism as though there is a correlation between skin color and God’s love.
Furthermore, our readings today couldn’t be clearer: Our faith does not give us a “leg up” in our relationship with God. Jesus did not demand or even suggest that the Canaanite woman embrace Christianity before her daughter could be healed. She didn’t need to be smart enough or believe the right things. She needed only faith.
Today we live in hard times and it’s much too easy to believe that we need to divide ourselves into who is in and who is out and who is included and who is not. But if we choose that path then we ignore what we claim to believe. Let us say a prayer for the Canaanites who live among us.