A Dominican Sister Theologian reflects on the Gospel of Sunday, August 20
Homily on the Canaanite Woman
Mathew 15, 21-28
What are we to make of this portrait of Jesus? As one scripture scholar remarks, “We seem to have caught Jesus with his compassion down!” It took at least three tries for this frantic mother to get Jesus to help her sick daughter. He meets her first plea with icy silence. With his back to her; he even explains to his disciples his “Israel First” policy, making her need not part of his job description.
So, what do we make of this incident? Even though we know that Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Jews, nevertheless, it seems so uncharacteristic for Jesus to ignore her.
If we go back to earlier episodes in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, we hear Jesus preaching his sermon on the mount where he says, “Love your enemies!” He then puts these words into practice, when he compassionately welcomes the Roman Centurion. He opens his arms to this enemy. He praises his great faith and heals his servant. We see him cross another boundary, as he reaches out to heal the outcast leper.
In yet another scene, his boundless mercy scandalizes the religious leaders of his day as he enjoys a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. So, this story of a Jesus pushing away this poor mother in a rather insulting manner gets our hackles up! What’s going on? Why did both Matthew and Mark include this story in their gospels?
Maybe it’s not about healing as much as it is about boundaries and being open to the presence and call of God in new and unexpected possibilities.
What will help us as we grapple to understand today’s story is to reflect first on our basic faith in Jesus. What do we believe about his humanity? Most of us were raised with a strong creedal affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. We believe he is the Incarnation of God, the Word made flesh. Less accentuated in our religious formation was the equally important doctrine of our faith: Jesus was fully human, like us in all things but sin. We need to keep these two truths in balance. The problem is we often favor his divinity and neglect the truth of his full humanity. We perceive Jesus as more divine than human. Taking this perspective, we would justify Jesus’ harsh treatment of the Canaanite woman by asserting that he knew all along what he intended to do and was merely testing this woman’s faith. In other words, his gruff rudeness was for her own good.
But what if we took a more balanced perspective that appreciates Jesus’ full humanity? As the persistent woman seeks to persuade Jesus to hear her cause. Jesus, unfortunately, only saw and heard her through the preconceptions of his own religious heritage that convinced him that his mission was limited to Israel. As we know from our own experience, healthy boundaries require us to humbly acknowledge our own limitations. We can’t do it all. We need to set priorities, maintain a laser focus, and be willing to say “no” to the expectations of others that threaten to divert us from our mission.
The danger, however, is that sometimes the single-minded pursuit of our goals can degenerate into individual and group bias that blinds us to the needs of others and diminishes our own humanity.
When the woman with her dogged determination turns up the pressure, Jesus sharply rebukes her, but she is more than equal to the challenge. If he is going to call her and her people “dogs,” she will remind him that the dogs always get the scraps that fall from the table.
With her masterful wit, she won his full attention. I imagine Jesus throwing back his head and howling with delight. He had been concentrating on boundaries, nationalities and religious restrictions, while she dedicated her whole self to the well-being of her child. As Mary McGlone playfully quips, “She hounded him into remembering the bigger picture.” Now Jesus looks at her softly with eyes of love. As he looks into her eyes, he sees the eyes of God looking back at him from across the human divide. At that moment, he knows with certainty that God’s saving love is meant for all people everywhere, especially the last and the least. He praises her great faith and grants her request for healing.
Now this rather dicey story of Jesus, whether we like it or not, shows a very human Jesus, capable of growing and learning from others. This incident with Jesus must have left his disciples in total shock. Here this pagan woman who had no right to make any claim on Jesus actually got him to rethink his position, to accept the validity of an opposing perspective, and to change his course of action for the better. He exemplified the same kind of openness and flexibility he demanded of others. This story makes his baptism and temptations in the desert all the more believable. It gives more credence to his Gethsemane prayer. Portraying him as a real human being who matured and learned, who struggled to accept God’s will even when it challenged his own assumptions, preferences or desires.
“We can’t ignore the fact,” says Mary McGlone, “that in the four gospels the only times we see Jesus obviously change his mind comes in response to requests by women: from this woman and from his mother during the wedding celebration at Cana. Perhaps the Gospel writers recorded this one because it showed just how true Jesus was to his option for the marginated”—even to the point of opening himself to women as his teachers. Jesus learns that when his vision needs broadening, God will send the unexpected, even disrespected teachers.”1 Whether we are learning with Jesus, or challenging boundaries with the Canaanite woman, we need to take some time to reflect on the diversity of people and events that God uses to get our attention in the hope of changing our minds.
I am sure you would agree that the horrific event of white supremacist terrorism which took place at the hate rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past week mirrors to us our own deep rootedness in white supremacy. Through these faces of terror—the faces of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members—God calls us with urgency to be about the work of our third enactment2 on embracing diversity. If we can more deeply own our own sinful story of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance in America, we can write our own redemptive ending. May we learn to live our lives in such a way that Jesus Christ our Savior, Dr. Martin Luther King and all those who gave their lives for civil rights will not have died in vain.
1 Mary McGlone, “Dogged Determimation,” NCR, Vol. 53, no. 22 (August 11-24, 2017), 19.
2 Third Enactment of the Adrian Dominican Sisters: “Rooted in the joy of the Gospel, we will embrace and nurture our rich diversity, commit ourselves to deepening our relationships with one another, invite others to vowed and Associate life, and expand collaboration for the sake of the Mission.”
Sara Fairbanks, OP