Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
Reconciliation/reunion is a common theme today. The psalmist lauds the unity of community “where YHWH bestows the blessing”. The painting by Bartholomeus van Bassen depicts one of the Bible’s most emotional scenes: the reconciliation of Joseph with the brothers who sold him into slavery (a scene of much weeping). And the Gospel is most striking of all – the immense barrier between Jews and Gentiles is broken through as Jesus the Messiah is challenged by the faith, persistence, and quick wit of a woman who is also a Canaanite (a traditional enemy).
It is striking in that Jesus is portrayed as tired, insensitive, cold. The Messiah who has just given the disciples a lesson concerning cleanliness and uncleanliness (“Hear this and understand: it’s not what enters your mouth that defiles you – it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you”) here, from his own mouth, utters insulting (racist, sexist, elitist) words in the presence of his disciples and in the presence of a mother begging for mercy …
“Heir to the House of David, have pity on me!” the woman cries. Jesus meets her request with stony silence, and the disciples say, “Please get rid of her! She keeps calling after us”. Again, Jesus rebuffs her: “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” In no other miracle story is a petitioner treated so harshly.
The narrative changes when the woman, doubly an outsider because she is a Gentile and is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection) and speaking the simple prayer, “Help me, Lord/Rabbi”. Again there comes a rebuff from Jesus, harsher than the earlier two: “But it isn’t right to take the food of the children [Jews] and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles].” Not to be put off, the woman turns Jesus’ words back on him: “True, Rabbi, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” In a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.” Her daughter is healed at that moment.
Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on Isaiah 56, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, the Canaanite woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these captures the great surprise of the narrative. The woman’s brash courage actually “converts” Jesus. Twice in Matthew Jesus has limited his mission to the children of Israel (Mt 10:5-
We would be right, I think, in seeing her, then, as a Spirit figure – a figure of the Holy Spirit – she drives, directs Jesus, opens the heart of Jesus to a Grace he is learning to share.
Our Gospel for today is provocative and has often been interpreted so as to “protect” Jesus or to “defend” his behaviour – Was he going along with racism, for example, in order to make a dramatic point? It’s difficult to justify such a reading, though. Why would Jesus take this opportunity – a mother in great distress, and so on – to make a dramatic point? Other commentators seek significance in the fact that Jesus uses a diminutive term for “dogs” – little dogs, or little bitches. Most Greek scholars do not think this helps at all. The term is a pejorative one for unclean Gentiles, and not a term of endearment (however cute we might think puppies are). His behaviour, at best, is patronising. He himself concedes that the woman is in the right.
Perhaps it’s a notion of sinless perfection that many commentators are seeking to protect. If Jesus is the sinless and perfect human being, then shouldn’t he always be in the right? Shouldn’t he know what’s right, always?
One of the traditional heresies is called Docetism: the belief that Jesus seems to be human but really is superhuman or divine, really is God dressed up as a human.
Our Gospel reading won’t let us be docetic. Here we see a human Jesus, the product of a human culture and all its prejudices and limitations. He is tired, and he is learning from his experiences. Whatever we mean when we profess that Jesus is sinless and perfect will need to take into account his growing in faith and wisdom. We will need something other than a static model of sinless perfection.
The sinlessness of Jesus does not mean that he didn’t inherit the racist assumptions of his culture. Perhaps it means that as soon as he became aware of an alternative he was able to move beyond those assumptions into greater godliness. Perhaps the temptation Jesus overcomes in today’s Gospel is the temptation to insist on being right – the temptation to save face – the temptation to maintain authority in the presence of his disciples (and critics).
The Good News might be stated like this. The sinlessness of Jesus does not put him in an entirely different realm from us, and thereby beyond our comprehension, but is actually a genuine example for us to follow. Every time we are confronted with a new challenge to grow and we get it right, or at least part right, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus. If even Jesus underestimated the grace of God and had to be shaken into recognising some people as loved by God, then, no matter how broad-
I suspect our prompt for today may relate to English unrest and Israeli-