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The Jesus who we see in today’s gospel is disconcerting. His treatment of the Canaanite woman seems dismissive and condescending. Is this the good shepherd? Yes, it is, but here he is speaking and more to the point acting as a prophet. The Jews who first heard and observed him would have understood immediately as would the members of Matthew’s community who were born Jews. Those born gentile and indeed we ourselves may need some background to understand what Jesus is saying and doing and how it affects us.
As on only child I bring a particularly valuable perspective to this passage because it has to do with being chosen. Only children are chosen. We are the center of the universe for our parents who must be particularly careful that we do not think that we are the center of the universe for anyone else. Otherwise the singleton can easily become an insufferable prig. This was the case with the Jewish people. They were chosen by God and he both lavished his unconditioned love on them but also needed to show “tough love” lest they forget that they were missionaries to the Nations. They were called indeed created and formed to make the presence of God known beyond their tribes or nation.
As early as 700 years before Jesus the prophets told the Jews that they were to be the means by which all people would come to know and love the God who revealed himself to them.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction (Is 2:2–3).
They rarely accepted or lived up to this. Eventually to teach them a lesson God sent the Babylonians to destroy their city and temple and take their leaders into exile. This was their time of formation and after a generation he allowed some of them to return to Jerusalem. There through another series of prophets he told them that they were not saved – re formed – for themselves but for God’s purpose. The prophet Isaiah repeatedly tells them they are the light of the world, most tellingly:
I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6)
I also love a beautiful passage from the too little read book of Zechariah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zec 8:23).
Notice however the order, the gentiles must first go to the Jews most particularly the temple.
Prophets not only spoke, they acted. We see Hosea around 750BC marrying an unfaithful wife, Gomer, to portray the marriage of a faithful God with an unfaithful Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:15 especially 1:2). Jeremiah about 600BC wore a yoke around his neck to show that God would “yoke” the Jews to the Babylonians. (Jerimiah 28:13). Ezekiel at about the same time ostentatiously took his possessions and left Jerusalem to foreshadow the exile of the leaders to Babylon (Ezekiel 9:1-22)
Jesus is following in this tradition. He has already told the apostles:
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick. ( Mt 10:5–8).
Jesus is now in an area with both Gentiles and Jews and will re-enact this principal of Jewish belief. When he is met by a Pagan woman, she calls out to him, “Son of David”. She is addressing him as a Jew not just a generic holy man or miracle worker. Jesus will answer her as such. First, he ignores her and repeats to his disciples ‘I was sent only to the Lost sheep of Israel”. She then did him homage, most likely prostrating herself before him and asked for help. His response “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Rather than anger she responds not without wit and certainly with perception that even the dogs are allowed the scraps. This is the order the prophets proclaimed. Jesus is literally the temple and she has grasped on to him. When the child is cured, she is given the reward of the kingdom of which Jesus told the 12. He opened the door to the Gentiles
Jesus in his life and ministry was fulfilling the old testament prophecy.
This would have been extremely important for Matthews community. It was founded by Jewish – Christians but was receiving many Gentles. They both needed to realize that the prophecy has been fulfilled and that Jesus wanted them to receive the Gentiles as brothers and sisters. Matthew’s gospel tellingly ends with “baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19–20). The door is now permanently opened and can never be closed without shutting out Jesus.
For the Jewish-Christians the call was to accept the Gentles as full brothers and sisters. For the Gentiles the call was to recognize that the light comes from the Jews and that to know Jesus we must know his people and roots. Matthew has written his gospel to remind his community that everyone brings something to the table and his responsibility is to help them esteem each other’s gifts. He has given us an insight into his vocation:
And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Mt 13:52).
Perhaps it is ours as well.
We have joined the Jews as chosen people. What has this meant for us. Are we like the only child at his or her worst, expecting the world to revolve around them? We will only share Jesus with others if they prove themselves worthy or do we consider this a gift so great that we can’t hold it in and will burst if we do not share it? Have we experienced enough of the light that it shines through us?
We live in an extraordinarily dark time. Not only are bad things happening around us, but everything is so uncertain. Life will not be the same. Our offices, if we still have them, are different. Travel is a distant dream. We will never see some people in Church again. Not only have parishioners moved but a few have admitted that the got out of the habit of going to Mass and other church related activities. How many will get it back? On the other hand, there are people who have been intrigued by religion usually because of the behavior of Christians. Our light has shined more brightly than we may have believed. I have received many calls and countless emails with questions and concerns. People will try us out. What will we do? Will we shine a light for them?
Many people have said how much they missed the Eucharist and we will have a chance to prove it by remembering that we can only worship Jesus at the altar if we are willing to greet our neighbor at the door.