Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Jesus had a great sense of humor. I see it shining forth in our Gospel text today. It would be easy to mis-read Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman as harsh and demeaning. Our Lord is never like that! Instead, I see him approaching her playfully, egging her on to be the proclaimer of the Gospel that she was, and taking the opportunity to demonstrate that his mission was to the entire world – to all peoples everywhere and in every age, and to invite us to recognize and welcome each and every person as brother or sister.
In the first passage from Numbers, we read about the Israelite’s mission to occupy Canaan. As that story unfolds and continues, Israel’s assignment, as they took possession of the Promised Land, was to eliminate all the Canaanites. They were not successful in their mission, and the Canaanites became enemies of the Jews. That animosity continued in Jesus’ day. As our Gospel account begins, Jesus enters the region of Tyre and Sidon, which was Gentile territory. The Jews, believing that they alone were God’s chosen people, had a deeply engrained sense of “us” and “them.” Not only was Jesus choosing to interact and mix with “those people,” the Gentiles, but he also engaged with one of Israel’s sworn enemies, a Canaanite! And a woman at that! Jesus’ behavior would have been shocking at best and infuriating at worst to the Jews who were present. It was the perfect opportunity to present the revolutionary Gospel message of love and inclusivity and to let Israel know that their Messiah’s mission involves everyone.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it. They saw the Canaanite woman as an enemy and wanted to distance from her. The other, the Canaanite woman got it! She addresses Jesus as Lord, Son of David, a Messianic title. “Send her away!” the disciples said. Jesus could have rebuked them, but he didn’t. He chose to cajole everyone into seeing his radical new reality. Tongue-in-cheek, Jesus says to the woman (and to all present), “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Undeterred, she persists, “Lord, help me!” Egging her on in a gentle way, Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their puppies (the more literal translation of the original).” “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In this brilliant exchange, Jesus recognizes the woman’s faith and her understanding of the inclusivity of God’s merciful love.
I find it profound that this exchange centers around the Master’s table. As Eucharistic people, we must recognize that all are welcome, not only at the Lord’s Table, but at every table at which we find ourselves. At the time the Gospel account takes place, Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it. They remained trapped in the us and them paradigm, truly viewing certain others as dogs and not as brothers and sisters. As Jesus’ disciples today, we must ask ourselves, who are the dogs in our paradigm? Who are the people that we consider as them, or those people, or other, or God forbid even enemy? My son Jacob and I have been talking a lot about prejudice lately, and he offered me some real wisdom recently. He observed that we all have some form of prejudice, but mostly we deny it or suppress it because we don’t want to face up to it. So those subconscious or even not-so-subconscious attitudes get played out in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions. Jacob said the healthy first step to overcoming prejudice is simply to admit that we have it, to be honest enough to say it. Then we can take steps toward repentance and transformation, asking the Holy Spirit to change our minds and our hearts and to help us to love as Jesus loves. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two (Jew and Gentile) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . .” (Ephesians 2:14). Jesus came to destroy every wall that divides us, not just between Jew and Gentile, but any barrier that we erect in our hearts or minds to exclude or marginalize others. As disciples of Jesus we dare not approach the Master’s Table on Sunday and then spend the rest of our week harboring prejudice and treating others with animosity. We are sent forth from the Master’s Table with these words, Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life. We glorify Christ when we love as he loved, and that includes everyone and excludes no one. Let us this day, be humble and courageous enough to admit and expose any prejudice we hold onto, and to ask the Lord to transform us more and more by his radical love so that we can walk with greater integrity as his disciples.
- Elizabeth Wourms