20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Political events this week – Riots in Charlottesville, North Korea tensions, terrorist violence in Barcelona, the tragedy of the mudslide in Sierra Leone, this is a catalogue of shocking pain and loss. What response can we make? We come this morning with these matters on our hearts. Alongside these stories of the world’s confusion and pain we come also to hear again and remember the stories that shape our faith.
The story of Joseph is a tremendous family story of jealousy and betrayal and of reversal of fortunes as the young man sold into slavery becomes a leader of a nation and the story climaxes in the moment when the brothers who sold him come before him for his help. In a dramatic moment of disclosure, a brilliant and emotional moment, Joseph re-writes the family story; and sees the whole family narrative, its tragedy of loss and pain, from a greater perspective, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” This most Jewish story recognises the purpose of God faithfully keeping the covenant with his people Israel, working within the flux of history.
The gospel this morning is caught up in a family debate within the Judaism of Jesus’ time. Some of the Pharisees promoted a tradition of hand-washing before meals as a way of encouraging holiness, a spiritual discipline, not a matter of hygiene. Jesus dissents from that tradition when he declares that holiness proceeds from the heart and not from the laws and customs associated with food: this was a controversial position to take. In this moment we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within the assumptions and debates of Judaism. But what happens next?
Jesus heads away from Jerusalem and heads northwest toward the Mediterranean coast, toward a region associated with non-Jewish communities. There he encounters an unknown woman identified only as a Canaanite – the ancient designation for the inhabitants of the region.
|The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter . |
Juan, de Flandes, approximately 1465-1519
The Jewish Jesus is confronted by his cultural and religious antithesis – a Canaanite woman who wants him to heal her daughter. Again we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within Judaism: he ignores this religious ‘outsider’. She creates a scene and obviously makes his disciples uncomfortable – because they ask him to send her away “for she keeps shouting after us”. He explains the problem and why he ignores her: she is not within his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. This is a very orthodox Jewish point of view, a family perspective if you like. His objection is entirely comprehensible to Jesus’ Jewish followers. There is no surprise in this.
But what follows does surprise us. The Canaanite woman directly approaches Jesus and kneels in front of him directly with a direct petition “Lord help me”. In that moment, by that movement, the Canaanite woman cannot be ignored. She is seen differently, she becomes a person and cannot be dismissed simply as a cultural outsider. She says, “Lord help me”. It cannot be more direct or simple than that. It is the suppliant’s prayer. We may find ourselves praying that a dozen times a day: in every situation where we are stumped as to what to say or do. It is a relational plea; it produces a relational realignment.
This is not Charlottesville, a race confrontation with no one really ‘seeing’ each other, just different groups , ‘us’ and ‘them’, yelling across a history of stereotypes, slogans and prejudice.
Jesus’ response is still firmly rooted in his exclusive Jewish vision: salvation is for the Jews. Accordingly his response sounds harsh: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." For him, the Jews are the children, and the dogs are the Gentiles. Admittedly his harshness is somewhat softened by his use of the term for puppies – but that is a trivial nuance – the relational position is still severe: Jews are children; Gentiles are dogs.
Her clever response turns Jesus’ words back upon him "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." In a word, all are fed by God.
At that response Jesus, the Son of God, changes his mind: in that moment his vision of salvation is transformed; expanded beyond recognition. He is ‘out-theologised’ by this early feminist theologian!
Jesus’ theology has shifted; it has become more comprehensive as it has been challenged in this ministry encounter. But it is even more than that: his consciousness has changed. He starts to understand his calling differently under the pressure of this encounter. Maybe here we see something of the nature of the incarnation; a Christ who develops into his calling; in the activity of a God who works constantly within the untidy flux and hazards of history. God works in the encounter with this unnamed Canaanite woman; it may be that God is at work in the shambles at Charlottesville, even in the tragic death of Heather Heyer.