The Gospel we have heard today is obviously two folded with a very clear structure:
– Jesus has a conversation with the Pharisees (taking it further in front of the crowd listening to them) about the respect of religious laws and what matters ultimately
– Then Jesus has this famous conversation with the Canaanite woman about whether it is acceptable for her (and her people, the Gentiles, the historical enemies of God’s people) to have access to the Kingdom and to receive the crumbs falling under the table.
We had quite of a discussion with our Bible study group about this text this past Tuesday, and one of the problems we raised was the difficulty to make a connection between the two stories – what is it that make them all come together in the end.
The themes, though important, are not new. Especially in Matthew’s. Matthew liked to identify Jesus as a new Moses (with yet an even more important role than Moses). In Matthew’s, Jesus is constantly revisiting the law given to the Jews, not to transform it radically, but to underscore what is really at stake in it and you could summarize it up this way:
It’s not about the rules or about the rites, it’s about what the law and the rites point to. The summary of the law for Jesus being contained each time (and comes back in the Gospel like a chorus) in this short sentence: Love God, love your neighbor.
Today again, Jesus, with heated energy, redirects the Pharisees, and the crowds, not towards what they need to do with themselves around religion, how they might protect themselves from being defiled by the bad things and the bad people around in this world, but Jesus redirects them towards their own hearts, have them think about how they may defile themselves by not being pure in their hearts and how they might be hurting themselves while hurting other people by their evil thoughts, words or actions.
Although it sounds very ironic today in our context of pandemic to hear Jesus saying that’s it’s not important to wash your hands, I think his sayings on cleanness and uncleanliness are right on target with what’s going on right now. Have you noticed that, with the virus, most of us are always worried about being contaminated by others, but we don’t think a lot about ourselves being the source of contamination? That we may not so much need to wear a mask to protect ourselves, but to protect others? It’s not that often that it occurs to us: Maybe I am the one who is sick, after all?
It says a lot about the way we think about ourselves, does not it? We so often see the world, what’s going on outside, people we don’t know (strangers, like the Canaanite woman) as the source of evil, or maybe at least as the source of danger, but we barely think of ourselves as being the danger and the source of evil. Yet today Jesus raises this important question: Maybe you are the one who is sick, after all. Maybe the source of contamination is inside of you, good and religious people.
And it certainly can give us a lot to think about, invite us to turn our attention inwards and see how our polluted and twisted thoughts, our toxic and auto centered feelings, our impulsive or self righteous reactions contribute to the brokenness of the world we see and lament all around us. Because maybe, just maybe, everywhere we go seems to us dangerous and polluted because really, we carry the danger and pollution everywhere with us, because the danger is inside of us, inside our own hearts.
And so while we are here, then comes the other part of the story today. The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. I love each and single one of Jesus’ encounters with women in the Gospel. They are so refreshing! The women Jesus liked, they are not the kind of well behaved women: Martha, Mary, the hemorrhagic, the woman at the well (look them up!) and today the Canaanite. These women, they don’t fit the description on how women are supposed to behave in society, around men and those in authority, how women were – and are still – schooled to be: Don’t be a pain, don’t be angry, don’t be needy, don’t ask questions, don’t tell them what they need to do – and of course the golden rule: don’t be a smart ass. Be a good girl, keep it light and easy.
But the Canaanite woman – she has it all wrong, hasn’t she? She is loud, demanding, rude, she talks back to Jesus and challenges him.
And yet, that’s when the miracle occurs – at the very moment when she did what’s absolutely the last thing her culture wants her to do – outsmarting the Master with her wit – that’s when her daughter is healed. But unlike the well behaved Pharisees and maybe a lot of goody two shoes of her time, she does not have to hide herself behind moral codes and religious laws, she can give her heart out because her heart is pure. It’s all about the great love she has inside of her. Not only the great love for her daughter, but the assurance of being a beloved and beautiful daughter of God who deserves her part in the kingdom, who deserves, if not a seat at the table, at least the crumbs that fall underneath.
In her assurance of being worthy of love, and yet in her great humility, not only does she give her heart out but she also conquers Jesus’s. Because this woman is real, fully engaged and alive.
And I think that maybe, it’s all what it comes down to in the end. Maybe that’s all what Jesus expect from us and maybe that’s the connection between the “two sides of the story”. It’s funny isn’t it to realize how often – without even meaning it – we skip the things that really bother us? It took me hours of rereading the Gospel to finally notice the center of our text today:
Jesus accusing his disciples to be “Asunetos”: Without understanding but literally in Greek “without intelligence” also translated in English with the words “dull” “numb”, which means: the disciples didn’t lack neuronal transmissions in their brain but Jesus’s regular crew was to him tasteless, without wit, without curiosity and without reaction and then comes the encounter with this salty woman who is everything but boring. And not only the miracle occurs for her (the healing), but the real miracle for Jesus is her herself, with what he calls her “great faith” of her and with who she is.
What does it take for us, to have a great faith in this liturgical season we call the season of discipleship?
Well, maybe it does not take more than not being numb and dumb and asleep (an expression that comes back many, many times in Matthew’s parables) in our relationship with God. Maybe it means we need to be more engaged, strive to understand, but also react and ask questions, maybe we need to be a little more curious about God intellectually, and concretely in our lives, ask for what we need, be ready to do what it takes to gain God’s favor. God wants us to be whole and to be real. To be exactly who we are and who we are meant to be – not resting on or hiding behind our good deeds or on our rites but be ready to open ourselves and open our hearts to God in great confidence and in great humility .
To get there, maybe we need a bit of the faith of the Caannite woman. To become aware of our belovedness, aware that God will meet us exactly where we are. It’s not about our personality, or even about how we behave or what we do. God does not want to change our personality. God just wants to give us a clean, a pure heart – a heart that is alive, a heart that knows it is loved and can love in return and put love in everything it does – whatever we do. Bishop Curry reminded us a few months ago that love is contagious too. What bigger call for us as disciples than being the source of love in a broken and hurting world?