Is 56:6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Matt 15:21-28
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS AND BUILDING BRIDGES
Today’s gospel comes from Chapter 15 of Matthew’s gospel, beginning from verse 21. The first part of the chapter, verses 1-20, tells us about a series of encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were people who were concerned about the law and the things that made the Jews distinct from others. They were not tolerant with non-Jews. For such Jews who were ultra-nationalistic, helping or doing a favor for a non-Jew was not only forbidden but even considered a grave offence. Now, in this part of chapter 15, (v.v. 21-28, that constitutes our Gospel text of today), the scene changes and we see Jesus visiting a non-Jewish territory. There, the deep and abiding faith of a Gentile woman is highlighted. In other words, Matthew shows us how Jesus was turning the status quo upside down. A further reading of the rest of Chapter 15, (v.v. 29-39) shows Jesus in serious action, deep within the gentile territory of the Decapolis. He cures many sick people and even feeds 4000 people with 7 loaves and “a few fish”, with 7 baskets left over (as compared to feeding 5000 on Jewish territory, with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and collecting 12 baskets of left overs, in the preceding chapter—Matt 14:13-21). This is a clear indication that what Jesus does for the Jewish people (Cf. miracles found in all of Matthew’s Gospel), he can also do them for the gentiles. He is clearly breaking a long-existing barrier.
- THE CONTEXT
We read from Mtt 15:21: “Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” After his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus resolutely heads to Tyre and Sidon. These were major seaports and gentile cities that were part of the Roman province of Syria. Tyre was about 25 miles north of Galilee (where Jesus and his disciples were). Sidon was another 25 miles away. Needless to say, this journey would have taken several days on foot. It is worthy to note that this is the only time we read of Jesus going beyond the borders of ancient Israel. He must have had a reason for venturing into this “unholy” territory.
- A STARTLING DECLARATION FROM A PAGAN WOMAN
This Gentile woman in today’s gospel makes quite a declaration. (Read out, aloud, Mtt 15:22-28.) She calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David”. “Son of David” was a title of the Messiah. She sounds like someone who knows and understands who Jesus is. It is a startling declaration from a woman who is not Jewish.
The woman approached Jesus and asked him to have pity on her because her child was tormented by an evil spirit. For her request, she received silent treatment, which would have discouraged most people, and a rejection which is hard to swallow. She further received insult and the resistance from Jesus’ disciples: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us” (Mtt 15:23b). Furthermore, Jesus even contemptuously addressed her as “a dog”. The Jews often spoke of the Gentiles with arrogance and insolence as “unclean dogs” since the Gentiles were excluded from God’s covenant and favour with Israel. For the Greek, the ‘dog’ was a symbol of dishonor and was used to describe a shameless and audacious woman. Even St. Matthew records the expression, “do not give dogs what is holy” (Mtt 7:6).
Jesus’ response to her request is startling. On the surface it seems like Jesus is rude and insulting to this woman. But, this does not seem like the Jesus we know. However, this is quite explainable in three different ways:
- It is not as if Jesus was being rude and did not want to deal with the woman. No! That does not fit anything that we see of Jesus or of the heart of God.
- He was stretching the woman (throwing ‘njakri’). Sometimes God is silent in order to deepen our faith. Sometimes he allows us to go through times of trials or tests us so that we can grow strong and develop deeper roots.
- As it were, Jesus was setting the stage for a life-altering moment. He was creating a sense of anticipation in the crowd. If Jesus really believed that he had nothing to do with the Gentiles, why did he even travel to Tyre and Sidon, which was typically Gentile land? In a sense, Jesus was uttering everything that the people of the day were saying about non-Jews. He was expressing a popular belief. (We also have lots of things that we say about people of different tribes, languages, and nations!). He was, if you will, setting them up. Jesus must have said all this with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he spoke with this woman. Sometimes, we also do something similar to the people we really care about. To such people, we tease and even give a hard time in order to shake them up a bit.
Certainly, Jesus was building a platform for something special: THE TEARING DOWN OF A WALL. He was preparing for the demolishing of the wall between Jews and Gentiles. But in spite of it all, one should not miss the wonderful heart of this Canaanite woman! She maintains her calm. She remains respectful toward Jesus, and still calls him “Lord”. There is something in her attitude that we need to see and apply in our lives.
- A WOMAN OF REMARKABLE CHARACTER
Commenting on this passage, William Barclay, a biblical scholar, says that there are certain things about this woman which we must note:
- a) First and foremost, this woman had love. In this sense, she made the misery of her child her own. She is a pagan but in her heart there was that love for her child which is always the reflection of God’s love for his children. It was love that made her approached Jesus. It was love for her child that made her accept the silence of Jesus, and still appeal to him. It was love that drove her to come near to Jesus.
- b) The woman had faith. She called Jesus as “Son of David”. It is a political title and yet full of meaning. A faith started to grow in her in which she looked at Jesus as a great and powerful wonder worker. Even though she came to Jesus like a magician, she ended up calling him, ‘Lord’, showing that she believed in Jesus’ divinity.
- c) She had an indomitable persistence. She could not be discouraged or stopped. It took phenomenal courage on her part to decide to take on the all-Jewish and all-male company of Jesus and his disciples. Her courage and her refusal to take no for an answer finally paid off.
So many people, it has been said, pray really because they do not wish to miss a chance. This woman came to Jesus because Jesus was not just a possible helper; he was her only hope. She came with a passionate hope, an unshakable sense of need and a refusal to be discouraged. For her, prayer was not just a ritual form but an outpouring of the passionate desire of her soul, which somehow felt that she could not and must not and need not take ‘No!’ for an answer.
- d) She had a gift of cheerfulness. She was in the midst of trouble. She was passionately in earnest and yet she could smile. We know, God loves the cheerful faith, the faith in whose eyes there is always the light of hope, the faith with a smile which can light the gloom.
Of all these characteristics, her faith stands out distinctly. It is this faith that Jesus comments on. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Mtt 15:28). And it is for this faith that her wish is fulfilled. Her daughter is cured.
- THE FAITH OF THE CANAANITE WOMAN
We have already seen that this woman knew who Jesus was. She knew that he was the Lord and the Son of David, that is, THE MESSIAH. But equally important, she knew who she, herself, was—an outsider. That is why, when Jesus likened her to a dog. She did not protest. That was an implicit acknowledgment that she knew she was not one of Jesus’ people and that Jesus owed her nothing. In short, she did not come with a sense of entitlement. She came seeking grace. The true believer does not come to Jesus with his/her resume (Curriculum Vitae), displaying his/her credentials, as the Pharisee would do (Cf. Lk 18:9-14 – the Pharisee and the tax-collector/Publican who went to the temple). This woman comes to Jesus humbly and seeking his undeserved mercy and grace. She appeals to MERCY not MERIT
Jesus describes her as “woman of great faith” because, first and foremost, she came trusting in Jesus, as Lord. She did not come to him demanding a miracle. She did not try to force Jesus to act (as Peter did last week – “If you are the Lord, then do this or that!”). She came to Him as the One who could rescue her and, more importantly, her daughter. This is what the faithful person does. He/she brings the broken pieces and the horrible confused circumstances of his/her life and places them in the hands of Jesus, knowing that God, alone, can help him/her. Such a person turns to Jesus as the one who stands above all others.
- SOME LESSONS TO TAKE HOME FROM THIS SUNDAY
- a) The word “CATHOLIC” stands for “UNIVERSAL”, that is, open to all peoples and all nations of the earth. The first reading tells us that Israel, before going into exile and before coming in contact with other peoples, was not “catholic”, it was all closed unto itself. When it was enlightened and saw God was the Father of all people, God promises to make his “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:7). The Gospel goes deeper into the same theme. By tearing down the wall that was existing between the Jews and Gentiles, Jesus shows that the Christian Community has to be really “catholic” and ready to receive every person. This idea is proven by the Second reading which says that salvation is not a result of privileges or because one is a member of a certain people, but because one accepts the saving initiative of God. By the curing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows that the time has come to pull down all barriers dividing peoples.
Anyone, therefore, can come to Jesus. The message of forgiveness, salvation and new life is not just reserved for members of a particular elite group, tribe or nation. It is for anyone who will, like this woman, come to Christ humble, open, repentant, and confident.
- b) Jesus, our Saviour, is often far more welcoming than “God’s people”. Unfortunately, there are many people who have turned away from the Church because of something bad that was done to them by God’s people, not because they think that Jesus is unworthy of following. This is very sad. It is very easy to become like the Pharisee. We often put up barriers, set up regulations, and even dismiss people. Just because some Christians act like speed-breaks (We all do on occasion, even though some people seem to do it perpetually) does not mean that God blocks the way for people who want to come to him. We must always guard against slipping into the mindset of the Pharisees. We should not ‘play God’!
- c) Today, we are exhorted to learn to look at the HEARTS of people rather than the LABELS, POTENTIALS or SCARS tagged on them. This is where we need most to be like Jesus! He did not make judgments about people because of their color, gender, educational qualifications, class, ranks, appearance, or the stuff they owned. He saw beyond the hysteria and stereotypes. He looked past the scars. He looked past the failures. Jesus did not see BAD people. HE SAW BROKEN PEOPLE. Therefore, it is not our job to try to fix people!
As followers of Christ, we should BE BRIDGE BUILDERS. We should be taking down walls instead of putting them up. We do this by listening, caring and continually pointing people to Jesus rather than to our list of things that good people should be doing. If we have learned anything this morning, hopefully it is this: we are most like Jesus when we tear down walls of hostility and begin to act more like a family than as enemies on the battlefield.
Let us pray that we would be a CHURCH, a people, more concerned about welcoming others than judging them. Let us be the first to reach out to those who have a different political view, are living an alternative lifestyle, and have many scars. May we be known for bringing a message of hope, the hope that is found in Christ alone!