Twentieth Sunday of the Year
Isaiah is offering us a way to embrace the value of others by genuinely appreciating them in our hearts which impacts on our actions by way of his prayer of the heart – the God in our heart – who says, ‘I will bring foreigners to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer, says the Lord, ‘for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples’. No one is excluded.
In recent weeks, the parables were scrambling the disciples’ minds by continually inviting them to go deeper in understanding the Reign of God. In Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter - ‘the enemy’ - we need to have our minds scrambled again, have eyes opened and ears ready to listen. But, Jesus and his disciples probably had spent time being with like-minded people who talked about Canaanites, traditional enemies from early times. Clearly, in this time of racial tension and voices calling for justice, we have the responsibility to listen to the stories of people of colour who are often grouped as ‘them’ the trouble makers, the lazy ones, the violent ones. White supremacy, and the racism that follows, means that people of colour are treated as if they were, in the painfully vivid words of the Canaanite woman, ‘dogs…at the master’s table,’ picking up the scraps of the rights the dominant ones in society are prepared to throw their way. Jesus and his disciples were comfortable simply talking about this woman. Jesus words to her are initially dismissive and dehumanising. But she is persistent. We have heard how Indigenous people in Australia often say, ‘No about us without us’. This nameless woman’s role has been important and challenging. She compels Jesus to change his mind and expand his understanding of he is relation to her. As she speaks, and Jesus listens, the wall between ancient enemies is lowered. We see here that faith is not bound by history and its barriers but rips them apart when even the ‘lowest of the low’ dare to challenge it and to imbue it with the possibility of justice. For Matthew, justice is not given but something we must all struggle for in solidarity with the suffering and despised. It is a reminder that must listen, especially to listen to the poor, the outcast, the unwanted and remember that their lives matter. So, God is using many guises to rouse us from our complacency. We might ask who is the Canaanite women of our day? What might she teach us, if we hold our tongues from our insults, work past our resistance, and choose instead to listen?
The unnamed Canaanite woman reaches out to touch the door of God’s heart so that her daughter may be free. This is what mothers do. She asks healing for her daughter to which he responds, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel... It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.’ Jesus’ attitude reflected the racial prejudice of most Jews of his day.
The gospel has gone to the dogs. Where those in power saw an outcast - Jesus now sees a woman’s faith and love, and heals her daughter. God’s circle of love, mercy and compassion is expanded to include those once considered outsiders. The day the gospel goes to the dogs is when it comes to us. We are the ‘dogs’ who have received the good news of the gospel! This marginal woman who is outside the field of Jesus’ alleged interest or concern challenges him about his calling. There are to be no limits to it. Despite being both a Canaanite and a woman, she knows enough about the Jewish tradition that the God of Jesus made its leaders responsible for all people on the margins. She takes a stand, a risk, and crosses a borderline without knowing how he would respond. No doubt she is accustomed to being dismissed as many are today but she cries out until she gets what she wants. The norms that prohibit her approaching Jesus are not to be normative. Society’s strikes against her do not limit her tenacity to reach beyond existential borders. Silence is not an option. Her daughter deserves healing—health care—like any other person. The challenge for us is to hear the questioning voice of God through this woman’s (or anyone’s) demand for attention and dignity.
Isaiah warns us about boundaries and how we can treat people as ‘dogs’ either in word or action. Isaiah points to God's invitation to outcasts, including sexual outcasts (which for some reason omitted from today’s reading!!) and foreigners, to the messianic banquet: women are still deprived of full ministry in the churches and many other people [gays] are still alien in most churches, mosques and synagogues. Their liberation is still of no great concern to many bishops, rabbis and mullahs who cannot imagine such people amongst them. Though on the margins, they are persistent, and seek God’s liberation and intimacy. Paul too saw a special place for ‘outsiders’ in God’s plan beginning with those who were non-Jewish. If Christ died for all - then no one can be dismissed; no one can be considered a ‘dog’, no one can be excluded from God's all-embracing and relentless love. God’s questioning voice also comes through the challenge to Israel’s exclusive territorial claims over Palestinian territory or US and Australian exceptionalism.
Jesus continues to go beyond the narrow places in his many encounters as in today’s encounter. We are not always good at listening. We give quick answers, justifications, rationalisations and clichés to dismiss the suffering of others. What a difference it would make if we, and our leaders, were more open to listen to others. How might things be different if we had tried to listen to the Muslims in the world rather than embarking in a crusade against them? If we had listened, we might have understood how they see things and then related to them interacted differently. Like the Wall through Gaza, we can psychologically build walls that keep others at a distance or out of our lives. Walls divide us but do not protect us. They are broken down by listening to those on the ‘other side’. Getting close enough to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the reality of others makes the difference. By listening to the stories of those different from us, we find similar but unexpressed voices within us. Listening to another’s story is the beginning of a new understanding and the beginning of compassionate action. People who have been blatantly racist, prejudiced, and homophobic have allowed walls to be broken down when they get to know another whom they have dismissed: an Indigenous person, a Muslim person, a gay person, a drug addict. They have found that there is another story and another reality.
We meet ‘possibilities we have never dared to dream’ of when God is allowed to speak to us through strangers especially the most vulnerable or ‘othered’ among us. We can engage with the other by sharing stories that transform our hearts and enable us to see things differently. In the gospel story, dialogue and the sharing of stories and perspectives led into a transformative healing experience for the woman, her child, and for Jesus. This demands going beyond labels and stereotypes to recognise that each one of us is a child of God. And the tipping point for us is where orthopraxis (correct action) overrules orthodoxy (correct doctrine). All those boundaries and barriers we make so much of: ethnicity, class, nationality, upbringing—so many barriers, so many divisions—none of them matter. What matters is the person before God—every single person. The 'dividing wall of hostility' is broken down in Christ.
While many people moved Jesus to compassion, this woman opened his mind to new possibilities. The passage from Isaiah to the returnees from exile is a reminder that salvation is not limited to their nation alone. Those who see themselves as belonging to God must understand that God's house is a place for all people. Choseness does not mean exclusion of others! And this story depicts Jesus adjusting his plan because a woman led him to see something differently. The Plenary Council to be held in the Australian Church is call to all to listen to one another and be open to the change that the times call us to – listening to the voices of women, LGBTIQ people, people with disabilities. The recent Amazon synod was another call to the church to conversion, to openness as Jesus was and listening to God’s call through the voices of the marginalised people and voice of the Earth, and pay special attention to the laity and the role of woman in maintaining the church and society. It has been suggested that today’s gospel could be seen as a prototype of the synod on the Amazon and the church’s future. God may be calling the church to a newly open mind.
A dialogue such as this can only happen in an atmosphere of honesty, humility and acceptance. The woman felt this from Jesus and in the dialogue both are honest, Jesus as well as the woman. The woman could have this dialogue with Jesus because of the space provided by Jesus for her to be herself, to ask for what was uppermost in her heart, to claim her rights, to express her opinions, to experience her strength and to know that someone does care.