I have a love/hate relationship with the online application Facebook. I appreciate it for the information people sometimes share and it’s been good to re-connect with people I’ve lost track of. Sometimes Facebook will seem to play a trick on me.
I will come across a name I recognize—someone from school or from a town I used to live in. The name will seem right, but when I look at the photograph, it doesn’t seem to match. Again, and again, I have to remember that people change over time. But I also, I have to take into consideration the various ways we present ourselves to the world. For me, for example, my Facebook page might show a picture of me in a t-shirt and wearing a baseball cap. That is a very different picture than me at an altar, dressed as a priest, with gray hair shining. It’s the same “me;” just a different perspective or angle.
Looking at Jesus in the scriptures can be confusing in a similar way. We might most immediately recognize the Jesus of Matthew—clear and direct. Or maybe Luke’s Jesus is the one that most resonates with you—Luke’s Gospel showing Jesus always helping the poor, always involved, moving out of the normal and lifting up the poor. The more mystical-minded among us might recognize Christ more nearly in John’s Gospel, where Jesus sees all, understands all, and encompasses all—even from before the beginning. It’s all the same Jesus, just different “pictures,” different perspectives.
The Gospel according to Matthew, from which we read and hear a lot this year, (and the Gospel for today) underscores the humanity of Jesus. In Matthew, we see Jesus the Jewish teacher, Jesus the child who has a whole genealogy, and Jesus who (though as theology reminds us is fully God), Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ full humanity, as well.
I think we see some of Matthew’s take on Jesus in today’s Gospel. The first section of the reading, verses 10 through 20, which we did not read today) sets up the main part of the Gospel for today. There, Matthew shows Jesus to be the rabbi, the teacher of Israel– interpreting the Law, and reinterpreting the beliefs and customs of the Pharisees, a particularly religious segment of Jews. But no sooner is Jesus shown as the great teacher, the one who twice before in this gospel quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ –this merciful, good, godly Jesus then (at first) refuses mercy to the Canaanite woman.
There is a long historical context to differences between Jews and Canaanites. Ever since the Exodus, when Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, the Canaanites were the “other,” the feared ones, the outsiders, the enemies, and the bad guys. It was common slang to refer to them as dogs, and to call a female Canaanite the name for a “female dog” would have sounded just as nasty and mean then as it does today in the street.
The disciples see only this foreigner. They say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And Jesus, at first, appears to be “one of the boys,” dismissing the woman and snapping at her. He suggests that he has nothing to do with her—no responsibility, no reason to give her the time of day. His message of hope and mercy and salvation is for the Jews only, not for just anyone, not for everyone, but for the people of Israel. Jesus seems to speak out of an understanding of Israel as the elect of God, but also understanding that election as limited and exclusionary. And he certainly doesn’t seem to be operating out of the large, generous view put forth by Isaiah. In our first reading, Isaiah says that God is the one “who gathers the outcasts of Israel…[even gathering] others to them besides those already gathered.”
But the woman persists. She keeps on asking. She begs, she cries, she demands, she argues, she talks back…. however we might describe it, this woman has fight in her, and it’s fight enough to take on God. And God hears. And Jesus notices. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s little girl is healed.
A lot is going on in this story. It would have been an easier story to tell and scripture to preach, had it simply stopped before the pesky Canaanite woman comes along. Then, it would be a simple morality tale.
But the Gospel doesn’t end there. The reason it continues, I think, is that Matthew doesn’t want us to stay in the that smug place of looking across the way, criticizing the Pharisees, and feeling like we’re somehow free and clear to go our own way. He shows us how easy it is to forget God’s mercy. He shows us by showing us Jesus, who one minute extends God’s mercy, but the next, seems to lose his train of thought.
In this Gospel we see a theological message. We see Jesus coming to understand his own mission and calling. It grows. It gets more complicated. It surprises.
There’s also a moral message—a reminder for us to live on the lookout for the outsider, the foreigner, the one who seems to be so very different from ourselves. It may just be that God is working through that person to wake us up to something new.
But there’s a third point, as well, and it has practical implications for our own faith. This has to do with what we can learn from the Canaanite woman. She shows us what faithful persistence looks like. She shows us what prayer can look like. She shows us how to take our questions, our fears, our worries, our deepest hungers and deepest hopes—straight to the heart of Jesus, where there is mercy and where there is healing.
The Church gives us a tradition of understanding Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We affirm this in the Nicene Creed as we say a shorthand version of what the early councils of the Church argued and prayed over for several hundred years. Both fully God and fully human is the big picture, but in day-to-day living, I think we often experience swings in our understanding and perception of God.
Sometimes Jesus is overarching and transcendent, eternal and mysterious. But at other times, Jesus is like us—snapping at a stranger, talking back to his parents, cutting short the question of a friend, and probably hitting his thumb with a hammer all those years he was helping Joseph in the workshop.
I suppose this “full humanity” of Jesus could shake some people’s faith. But for me, rather than shake my faith in the Incarnation, this just deepens it, for me. It reminds me of the depths to which God has gone to be like us, to risk making mistakes, to risk looking foolish, to risk not being believed, not being loved.
This is the extent to which God has come for us, so that when we cry the prayer of the Canaanite woman, “Lord, help me,” God is already answering, loving, and healing. This means that we don’t have to wonder where God is in the situations and challenges of our world. God is already with us. Christ is present with those who live in fear and sickness, affected by the Ebola disease. God is with those in Ferguson, Missouri—the young, the poor, the overlooked and unemployed, as well as the arrogant and over-armed. Christ is present for the protestors and the police. We don’t have to invoke his presence. We just need to see him and respond to him.
Today, we give thanks for the prayers and witness of the Blessed Virgin Mary (whose feast day was on Friday. We celebrate the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God. We can be empowered by her persistence—in the face of questions, and fears, and worries; poverty, danger, and misunderstanding; she was able to persist in faith, persist in prayer:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant
From this day all generations will call me blessed: . . .
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
May we learn from the persistence of the Canaanite woman and the persistence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thanks be to God for his promise of mercy. Thanks be to God for his healing power.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.