17 August 2014

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

If we're looking for a Gospel lection that breaks all stereotypes today's is one of these! This reading is sometimes categorized among the "difficult sayings of Jesus" because it has Jesus characterizing a Gentile woman as a dog (a typical epithet of his day when referring to Gentiles) and refusing to extend healing to her daughter because HIS mission is first of all to the lost of Israel, not to the Gentiles. And so, the woman, who has already silenced Jesus with a terrific act of faith, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David," answers Jesus' instruction on this point with a bit of instruction of her own: [[ Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table!]] Jesus, already silenced and now thoughtful, seems even to reconsider and expand the scope of his own ministry in light of it. If Jesus' can grow in grace and stature in this way, through the mediation of a completely disenfranchised woman, then is anyone in the Church really beyond being instructed by the women standing (at best) on the margins of power and authority or the Christ standing as their Master? I don't think so.

What happens to Jesus is as instructive for the contem-porary Church as all of Jesus' words, all his parables, dis-courses, instructions, imprecations, and remonstrances. For (again) in today's gospel story Jesus hears and is silent! He is stopped, arrested by a woman's compelling act of faith. It is a pregnant silence because it is the result of truly listening and leads both to further listening and to a fundamental shift or variation in Jesus' ministry from the lost sheep of Israel to the lost of all the nations. It is the silence of a teacher who is truly effective not because he has all the answers but because he is willing to listen, reconsider the answer and ministry God has given him, and learn! It is the silence of a docile teacher who truly hears the commission of God coming from the least and the lost; it is the silence of one who can change his mind and even the direction of his ministry as a result of an encounter with the truth a woman and outsider carries! Certainly that is precisely the kind of teacher the Church itself is called to be! After all, the Church is not greater than her Master; instead she is called to embody and mediate him. In light of today's Gospel lection the challenge to embody and mediate the DOCILITY of Christ seems compelling!

All kinds of situations reduce us to silence but only sometimes do we really listen therein, only sometimes are we genuinely obedient. Ordinarily today silence is something that occurs momentarily while we plug in a different device or while we take a breath during a conversation in order to "let someone else have a turn". Rather than listening to that other person in the profound way Jesus listens in today's Gospel, too often our silences tend to be filled with mental machinations as we gauge where and how we can reenter the "conversation" and continue our own discourse or argument! Conversations with Church leaders can sometimes give us the sense that we are speaking to a clerically-clad wall. Nothing, especially the living God, is truly heard in these conversations, no minds or hearts are changed, connections and bonds of charity are not made, aliens do not become neighbors, neighbors do not become brothers and sisters, and brothers and sisters especially do not become colleagues in the service of the Gospel!

But Jesus' example condemns such an approach. In this lection one of the lowest and the least becomes the One by which Jesus truly hears the voice of his Father and comes to modify his own understanding of his mission. After his silence at her first words to him Jesus rehearses the standard Jewish arguments for her and for his disciples, arguments that make sense in THIS worldly terms and in terms of an Israel threatened by outsiders, but not in terms of the Kingdom of God: "I was sent only to the children of Israel; It is not just (right or fair) to take the food from the children (Israel) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles)." (We might hear common arguments for excluding folks from Eucharist today --- arguments that make good sense in worldly terms: "We cannot pretend there is a unity that doesn't really exist. We cannot defile the Eucharist by giving it to public and obstinate sinners. It wouldn't be just to do these things!") But in Matthew's telling of the Gospel story, Jesus has already fed the five thousand (apparently mainly Jews) and found there was plenty left over. He has also just preached that it is what comes out of us that defiles, but to eat with unwashed hands does NOT defile. . . The Canaanite women's response is a reminder of Jesus' great Eucharistic miracle as well as the infinite value and power to heal of even the smallest crumb that comes to the most unworthy from God.

But it reminds us of much more as well. For those, for instance, who object that women cannot teach, we have an example of a Gentile woman teaching Jesus about the will of God and helping to reshape his mission. In so doing she reminds Jesus of a different "justice" in which all are therefore welcome at Christ's table; similarly she reveals that the way Israel is first may not be precisely the way the world (or Israel herself) sees or has seen such matters. Israel is to be first in including, ministering to, and serving the outsider and the unworthy, not in excluding them until some other day of the Lord is at hand. That day is here, NOW, and, with the Canaanite woman's intervention, Jesus too comes to see this more clearly and embrace it more fully. In some ways this shift in vision, a shift the Church herself is called upon to make, parallels the two different ways we have of understanding the term Catholic: the Latin sense of universalis which means universal but leaves some outside the circle however large it is drawn, and the Greek sense of Katholicos which is universal in the sense of leaven in bread where no one and nothing is left excluded or untouched and unfed.

For women, and especially for women religious in the Church this Gospel comes at a significant time. The LCWR has just concluded their annual meeting, this year in Nashville. What will the result be? Do we have a teaching Church that is also a docile Church? Can Bishops and Roman Dicasteries truly listen to and learn from women of genuine faith who ask that ideas of mission and ways of communicating truth be stretched in ways perhaps Jesus himself could not have seen becoming necessary? Were the silences that occurred in the meetings truly contemplative silences where all may be changed, or were they only one-sided respites allowed as an interlocutor planned his or her next intervention in what had, at best, ceased to be a true dialogue? My own prayer is that both the LCWR and the hierarchy reflected long and hard in the spirit of Jesus' own docility on this Gospel lection at some point; further I pray that they and the Vatican dicasteries involved in the oversight of the LCWR especially spend time with it in that same spirit in the next weeks and months.