Thought for the week - 20 August
It’s a problem for us, I think, when we consider who is ‘like’ us. We worship here in St Stephen’s as millions do in their churches around the world, and we and they will be aware of our points of difference – what makes us into St Stephen’s, or St Mark’s, or St Norberts, of Rostock Free Methodist congregation, or whatever. With that line of difference can come a sense of being superior to some, maybe with fewer attendees, or with a building in poor repair, or whatever it may be. With that of course comes sin and division, and crucially it takes us away from relating first of all to our fellow Christians at all times and in al places. It’s a long way from Galilee two thousand years ago.
I wonder who we would cast in a negative light from our knowledge of churches? I can think of a few places where I have worshiped on holiday and it’s very obvious why they are struggling, but I’ve never gone to worship in a Satanic Temple and you would be rightly shocked if I had – but this is the dynamic today between the Canaanite woman and the Disciples. The Canaanite gods are Baal and Moloch, their goddesses Astarte and Ashera. They are accused of practising fertility rites, sacrificing children and many other abominations on account of which ‘the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants’ as it is recorded in Leviticus. So far, so ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, but how much this reputation carried over into New Testament times is impossible to say, but the woman in todays Gospel is clearly classified as a Canaanite, but Syrophoenician by birth, which frankly could be seen as little of an improvement by someone looking for a reason to distrust her. She is identified as not being like them, by language, descent and ethnicity.
So there is here a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the encounter between Jesus, the Disciples and the Canaanite woman and it’s not in any way a consoling image of the Lord that St Matthew gives us: at first Jesus seems to ignore the foreigner; then he refuses her request for mercy on apparently racial grounds. It even seems that he calls her a dog, which admittedly was not a great insult then, and he uses a slightly cajoling, familiar term, maybe we could translate it as ‘puppy’ in a playful sense – but not quite how we would wish to be addressed by the Son of God! But she gets it, maybe she’s used t looking for the positive in any conversation, but she gets it anyway and she gives a theologically astute response – ‘yes, but even the puppies get fed eventually, maybe they don’t get the steak, but they get something’. In other words, God’s love (firstly for Israel) doesn’t exclude his love for everyone else too. What is the miracle here, for miracle there certainly is – not a healing, but an eradication of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and that is a miracle that we can also perform. We may be unable to heal the sick, but we can heal the wounds of division. Jesus’s initial silence turns out not to be a rejection, but a recognition. He is silent because he is listening to her.
Not only is He listening to her, He is also searching for her. The locus of this encounter is a messy, undefined borderland between Gennesaret and the region of Tyre and Sidon – Christ is leaving Gennesaret and she is leaving Tyre and Sidon, and so we are unsure if crossed the border into Israel, or whether Jesus strayed into pagan soil. They are moving towards each other – she from her baggage of Baal worship and being an outsider, He from His heritage, and they meet in a place where neither really belongs, and where the Disciples are clearly uncomfortable – but it is she who takes the initiative, she approaches Him first: the woman is brought into the promised land by Jesus reaching out across borders, into the pagan world.
But what about us? Where do we belong in this? We are really the Gentile ‘others’, who the disciples would have been uncomfortable around, at least most of them would, but we have been established for long enough maybe not to feel that awkwardness anymore. Over two thousand years, as Gentile Christians have come to outnumber Jewish Christians, we have lost sight of our foundational experience of being outsiders brought in by the love of God and have even begun to make others feel like the outsiders. This is a problem, is it not?
There is much listening that we need to do, much searching for the lost and the outcast, and learning to be done when we encounter them, and we must resist the poor example of the disciples here, which is to ignore the question she asks and to just give her what she asks for in the hope that she will leave us alone! What is being asked for is that we remember whose body we are part of and to recognise her place within it, as or place was once long ago recognised as well. That so often happens best in the thoughtful, loving silence in a place unfamiliar to us, with people unfamiliar to us. To be blunt, we have to get out of our comfort zone in order to discover who we truly are.