11 PENTECOST - PROPER XV - A - 17 MATTHEW 15. 21-28
Today’s gospel stands in contrast to last week’s not only in terms of faith but also in terms of the scene. In last week’s gospel Jesus chides Peter, his chosen disciple, for his “little faith” when he lost focus and began to sink into the Sea of Galilee.
Peter and the other disciples who were present had just witnessed Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was an impressive demonstration of Christ’ power over nature. However, it would appear that his miraculous powers in feeding so many with so little had done nothing to increase the faith of his chosen.
Today’s scene is much different. Not only is it on dry land, but in a foreign land. The area is North of Palestine on the Mediterranean coast in present day Lebanon. Jesus and his disciples have retreated to the district of Tyre, and Sidon, after His having refuted the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching concerning ritual purity. For his efforts, they rejected Him.
The population of the district, at the time of Jesus, was composed of predominantly Gentiles who were descendants of the ancient Canaanite people. They were the original inhabitants of the land, but were eventually subdued by the Israelites upon Israel entering the Promised Land.
Here Jesus is confronted by a Gentile woman who persists in her having him heal her daughter. At first, he ignores her. Then the disciples rebuke her. Then Jesus says that he was not sent to her, implying her race and her people. Nevertheless, she throws herself at his feet and asks for his help.
She knows her place and only asks for the “crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Jesus is impressed and proclaims her faith as being “great,” and for that, her daughter is healed instantly.
Hatred, prejudice and racism have once again raised their ugly heads here in our own country. Racial identity continues to be one of the great moral and cultural issues of the day not only here but also throughout the world. It was no different in Jesus’ day.
The Roman occupiers despised the Jews in Palestine however; they tolerated them and their religious leaders as long as they helped maintain the status quo. The Jews, likewise despised the Romans as well as those they deemed to be “outsiders,” namely the Gentiles and non-believers.
Jesus came along and through his preaching and teaching challenged all hatred, all social distinctions, all prejudice. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “God so loved the world,” St. John writes, “that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” All Jesus said may come to Him. All St. John writes who believe in Him will be saved.
Therefore, when we read today’s gospel we find it to be a bit disturbing. It looks as though from the beginning that Jesus is refusing to help someone in need just because she is from the wrong race. It all seems so strange. What is going on here?
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ mission is not to those outside Israel. This woman is a Gentile. Christ came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They were and are God’s chosen people. Something we modern day Christians sometimes forget.
God chose them to be the promise-bearers through whom His Word, and the new life, would be brought to the rest of the world. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He came to fulfill the purpose for which this people existed in the first place.
If God’s new life were to come to the world, it would come through Israel. That is why Israel had to hear the message first. That is why Jesus limited his work almost entirely to the Jewish people. Jesus inaugurated God‘s kingdom representing the fullness of it, and yet not yet.
But as we see in our reading of the gospels there are occurrences when the future keeps breaking into the present, as it does in today’s passage. The Canaanite woman cannot wait for the great commission to be carried out (Mt. 28.19). She presses Jesus to make it happen now. She has faith he can heal her daughter.
She addresses him with the Jewish Messianic title “Son of David.” She understands that God’s chosen people are to be the promise-bearers and that she is not one of them. However, she insists on her point, that if this is true, God’s Messiah will ultimately bring blessings to the whole world. That even the “little dogs” will share in those blessings.
Jesus is both moved and impressed by her “great” faith, especially in light of his having recently been rejected by the “faithless” Pharisees and scribes. The woman’s faith broke through the waiting period, the time when Jesus would come to Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah be killed and raised again, and then send his followers out into all the world. The disciples and perhaps Jesus himself are not yet ready for Calvary. However, this foreign woman, this outsider, is already insisting on Easter.
To be a Christian in today’s world calls for us to not only focus on Jesus but also his teachings and the commandments of God. The challenge that faces us, in light of recent events that have magnified the prejudice and hate that continues to permeate our society, is nothing less than our putting into practice the first and great commandment - to love God, and our neighbor as our self.
To love one’s neighbor as oneself is based on the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus are equal, irrespective of race and color. That Jesus Christ died for all, so that all might live through him. There is no limit, then, to the Church’s mission. It is to be extended to wherever it encounters faith.
Our God is a God of Love and not hate, and by His grace, we can put His commandments and the teachings of Christ into practice by being faithful in following the blessed steps of his most holy life. With God’s help we can put love into action within actual societies, where people from very different backgrounds and cultures can live together in peace and harmony. To do so is to reflect the true image of the kingdom of God.
This we might have imagined would one day be fulfilled in a distant future, but it is something that needs to be claimed in the present with a prayer and a faith, like that of the Canaanite woman, that refuses to be put off. AMEN+