“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs” (from Mt 15, 21-28 20th Sunday Year A)
This Gospel text is a little shocking: at face value, it seems that even Jesus needed time to get a grip on what was then an instinctive and universal prejudice, a distrust of outsiders.One of the important issues for us these days is our attitude to foreigners, people who are different to us either because of their cultural, ethnic or religious background or simply because they are perhaps actual or would-be immigrants and without wishing them any harm we simply wish that they would go away. This is nothing new and today’s gospel is all about the problem of foreigners both for Jesus himself and also for his contemporaries: the problem of those who were not of the Jewish faith, whom they called ‘Gentiles’ or ‘pagans’.
One of the important issues for us these days is our attitude to foreigners, people who are different to us either because of their cultural, ethnic or religious background or simply because they are perhaps actual or would-be immigrants and without wishing them any harm we simply wish that they would go away. This is nothing new and today’s gospel is all about the problem of foreigners both for Jesus himself and also for his contemporaries: the problem of those who were not of the Jewish faith, whom they called ‘Gentiles’ or ‘pagans’.
The Gospel of Matthew is particularly keen to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish hopes, that he is the Messiah. Earlier in his gospel, in chapter 10, Jesus had instructed his disciples to avoid the Gentiles and preach only to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel. But Jesus has now entered the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon. When confronted with the Canaanite woman he ignores her at first and then affirms that his own mission is limited to Israel. The persistence in faith of the pagan woman is sufficiently strong to obtain a healing for her daughter. So we might ask why Jesus is so harsh with her. Is it simply that, knowing her faith, he tests her to express it? After all, earlier in the gospel Jesus had cured the servant of the Roman centurion and praised his faith.
The good news of the Kingdom is to be preached to all, but the initial priority of Jesus was clearly to bring the gospel to his own people. The mission to the nations had already been hinted at in the visit of the Magi from distant lands to the new-born child and in due course, it will be the mission of the Church to teach all nations, as the Risen Lord will make clear at the end of Matthew’s Gospel… “ Go, teach all nations …”
So this Gospel episode foreshadows the going out of the Gospel to the whole world, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which Jesus preached before his Ascension.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul declares that he has been made apostle to the gentiles. He is nevertheless convinced that it is God’s purpose to bring his own Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as the pagans, to life in Christ. His expectation is that the faith of the nations will in time convince Israel that the God of all peoples has been revealed in Jesus Christ.
This episode has more to do with the Church today than we may think. In the recent past, we often got the impression that the Church’s priority was to take care of itself and leave evangelisation to others. Today many Christians seem to think that all they have to do is give money to the missions and let others do the work. But Jesus did not evangelise the Canaanite woman without entering into a personal discussion with her, while even at the same time the disciples were trying to get rid of her – just as they had wanted to send away the crowds before the feeding of the 5000.
Interfaith prayer, pilgrimage and study and even the relatively unadventurous ecumenical services which we may hold from time to time can open up to us a whole world of rich faith and holiness. Equally, many of us have learned to overcome our personal prejudices by helping someone from a despised or disapproved-of group, a convicted prisoner perhaps, an alcoholic or a racist, who suddenly becomes a person rather than a category. Didn’t Hopkins write in that wonderful poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes, not his.?
It can be hard to recognize the face of Christ in people we instinctively mistrust or fear. But here we see how Jesus opened his heart to faith found in unexpected places: Roman soldiers, pagans, Samaritans, lepers and the outcast.
But even after the first Pentecost, it took some of his closest disciples years to learn the lesson.