“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” (Lincoln, 1861).
These words were offered by Abraham Lincoln in his first inagural address in 1861 at a time when the United States was deeply divided by the Civil War. Lincoln would go on to sign the Emancipation Proclamation a couple of years later, freeing slaves. Yet throughout history, shamefully, both Church and State have played an active role in fostering discrimination through ignorant policies and teachings, guided more by the corrupt angels of our nature rather than the better ones that Lincoln implored we listen to. Perhaps this is part of our fallen human condition, the need to create a false “us and them” paradigm designed to build one group up, whilst tearing another group apart.
Certainly there are many examples of Church and Government heeding the call of our better angels to end all forms of division, hatred, racism and prejudice, but in recent months, I must admit I reach for the TV remote with a sense of forboding and fatigue as I switch on the evening news. Lines of justice and common sense we thought were once firmly established in our 21st century society appear to have been put on notice as this alternate reality show we have seen play out in the States comes into our living rooms on a daily basis. This show seeks to silence our better angels, enticing us to once again set up walls and put into boxes those who appear different to ourselves.
Examples of prejudice in its many guises, both overt and more subtle are all around us today, not just on the TV. The challenge laid out for each one of us is – how will we choose to respond to the call of our better angels? And what does the Holy Spirit who fell on many different races and nations on the Day of Pentecost have to remind us about the diverse, inclusive nature of our God?
Our gospel reading this morning is an honest, raw reminder that the issue of cultural and religious identification has had a long and shameful history of alienating those who are perceived as being different. The story of the Canaanite woman pleading with Jesus to help her sick daughter is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable Gospel’s we get to wrestle with in our three year cycle of readings. It is uncomfortable not because of what she asks for, but because of how Jesus chooses to respond.
This morning, we find Jesus in the Gentile populated area of Tyre and Sidon, both Jesus and his disciples are outside their culturally familiar territory. They are conceivably bracing themselves for conflict by virtue of their ancestry. Relations between Israelites and Canaanites were tense to say the least. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is generally one who the poor, the outcast and the dispossessed can solidly rely on, yet this story appears to tell a different tale, at least, initially.
To set the context, Jesus had just spoken extensively to the crowd about the dangers of allowing religious purity codes to choke the spirit of the law. Jesus appears less concerned here about upholding arbitary purity codes as a means of determining a faithful disciple, and more interested in the intentions of the human heart, of how a disciple chooses to live out the kingdom of God in their daily lives.
What makes what happens next so curious is that Jesus appears almost imediately after delivering this compelling teaching to revert back to his cultural purity bias when a Canaanite woman with a sick daughter begs for his help, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” To this request, Jesus ignores her. It is plausible that the cultural divide between he and the woman is too wide to cross at this point. It seems to take Jesus some time to process how to navigate this desperate plea.
Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate her from Judean social norms. Further, demon possession marginalizes her daughter. In addition, the woman’s behaviour is unacceptable. Her culture expects women to be reserved in public. When she not only takes the initiative but also shouts her demand at Jesus, she violates social norms. Social affronts do not merit consideration, so Jesus seems to be playing by the social rules of his time when he does not even respond to her.” (J.W. Lee: Feasting on the Word. Year A, Vol 3. p. 359).
Yet, the woman persists, understandably not satisfied with Jesus’ response. It reminds me of those moments in life when what we long for does not come easy. Those moments when we too look to God for help only to be met with silence. Sometimes when there is nothing left to lose and we are desparate, we don’t care about social norms and making a spectacle of ourselves. If there is but a chance this encounter with Jesus could help her daughter, this mother is not going to pass it up, nor is she going to let Jesus off the hook.
Of course, the disciples do not come out of this encounter with flying colours either, they urge Jesus to keep on walking, “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” The privilaged few, openly walking past a woman in genuine need. What is Jesus thinking? He answers the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In this moment, he blatantly tells the woman that Canaanites are not on his priority list – he has other, more important people in need that require his attention. But even this rebuke does not dampen her resolve. She approaches him and kneels before him saying, “Lord, help me.” He responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.
Now, there was no love lost between Israelites and Cannanites. Calling each other “dogs” was a familiar slur in Jesus’ day, what’s so shocking is that Jesus actively participates in this mud slinging against a woman who approaches him out of respect and in desparate need. Her response is nothing short of courageous as she turns the racial slur back on Jesus, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “if you are convinced I am just a dog, then at least offer me the scraps. I’ll take anything you can offer me right now, except for an apathetic response”.
This appears to be a teaching moment for Jesus, except this time, he is the student. “Woman, great is your faith!” he said, “let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed immediately.
Did Jesus discover his better angels in this moment? I think so. Jesus does not appear to show remorse for the metaphor he applies to this woman. At best, he has come to the conclusion that like a dog, this woman deserves some scraps of grace which is hardly a shining moment for him. Yet his better angels do appear to have a slight win by the end of this encounter. For there is a shift that occurs in the text that is difficult to ignore. The Canaanite woman overcomes so many barriers in order to garner a satisfactory response from Jesus. It seems to me that she may be the single most influential person in all of the Gospels to shape Jesus’ mission and purpose. Before this encounter, Jesus is solidly advocating for his commission to extend only to the Israelites, but by the time we get to the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ vision is much broader than this, extending well beyond the land of Israel to all nations (Matt 28:19).
People should not have to fight this hard to have their voices heard or their dignity met. May the Church universal and indeed the whole world learn to listen to our better angels and seek to truly live into our baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.