by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“As for the outsiders who now follow me, working for me and loving my name…they’ll be welcome to worship the same as insiders…” Isaiah 56, 1, 6-7

Jesus said: “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” Matthew 15, 21-28

Today’s gospel-reading clearly indicates that Jesus was truly a man of his own time and culture. It demonstrates that he was well aware of the racial and religious prejudices that were very much alive in Jewish society and in the cultures of surrounding nations. Matthew even gives the impression that Jesus was influenced by those prejudices. It matters little whether this story describes an actual event in the life of Jesus or whether it was framed by Matthew to encourage the Gentile members, especially the women, of his fledgling Christian community. It also points to the fact that Jesus, unlike so many of those around him, was sufficiently open-minded to allow his opinions to be modified by the wisdom of others, even by the wisdom of the most unlikely – a foreigner, and a woman, to boot.

This gospel-story of the Canaanite woman is an appealing one, because it relates to experiences that many of us have had. Who among us has not had to deal with the loud and persistent bleating of somebody demanding attention? And hasn’t our response been something like that of the disciples: “For heaven’s sake, give her what she wants. That will shut her up!”? Moreover, we have all known what religious intolerance and sectarianism feel like. People of my generation will probably remember tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s and 1950s. As Catholic, primary school students, we used to taunt students attending State schools with: “Catholics, Catholics ring the bell while the Publics go to hell.” Youngsters who changed from Catholic to State schools were labelled by some teachers in State schools as “Weeds from the Pope’s garden”. As children, we were told by the Sisters and Brothers teaching us that it was a sin to stop and listen to the Salvation Army band playing in the local park on Sunday afternoons, or to accept “holy cards” from them. Religious prejudice still survives in more subtle, sophisticated forms.

Fortunately, Vatican II ushered in changes that not only led to a marked decrease in religious intolerance, but also acknowledged that God’s Spirit had been present in some ways in cultures and religions throughout the history of humanity, and that God wished to embrace all people. Today’s first reading from Isaiah states explicitly to the Israelite people who had returned home from exile that God wants to include everyone: “And as for foreigners who now follow me, working for me, loving my name and wanting to be my servants – all who keep the Sabbath and hold fast to my covenant – I’ll bring them to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56, 6-7).

This reading paves the way for the story of the encounter between the Canaanite woman and Jesus that is the focus of today’s gospel-reading. It is important to note that this story comes immediately after an argument Jesus had had with the Pharisees when they complained about the disciples failing to wash their hands before eating. After calling the Pharisees hypocrites, Jesus announced to the crowd who had witnessed the argument: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is these that make a person unclean. For from the heart come evil intentions…These are what makes a person unclean” (Matthew 15, 18-20). In today’s gospel-reading, what comes out of the mouth of the Canaanite woman comes from her heart.

The encounter that she and Jesus had was not for the faint-hearted. In confronting Jesus directly, she broke all the rules of the social etiquette of the time. Women were regarded as unreliable, so had no right to speak out. It was certainly seen as inappropriate for a woman to address a man directly, especially in public. She was a foreigner, and, as such, had no credibility. Worse still, she was a Canaanite, belonging to a nation that had the reputation of being Israel’s bitterest enemy. Yet she came out fighting so vigorously and persistently that the disciples urged Jesus to give in to her demands, just for their own peace. In her outburst, she tried to shame Jesus into doing what was regarded as his duty to people who were foreigners. The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy make repeated references to that duty. For example, Exodus states: “Don’t abuse or take advantage of strangers; you, remember, were once strangers yourselves in Egypt” (Exodus 22, 21).

But Jesus seemed to meet fire with fire. After initially ignoring her, he went on the attack with a racially insulting slur: “It’s not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to dogs” (Matthew 15, 26). This response reflected the attitude of Jewish men of his time. But the Canaanite woman, refusing to be silenced, ended up besting him in their verbal jousting. Her response came from her heart: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table” (Matthew 15, 27). Jesus was humbled into submission, for he recognised in the way she had responded that her words echoed the message he had earlier given to the crowd: “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and they are what makes a person clean or unclean.” Effectively, the woman told Jesus that “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” were not all hearing and accepting his message, and that she would take advantage of the scraps they were dropping. That extraordinarily brave woman opened Jesus’ eyes, and he came to admire her intense love for her daughter and her deep faith that he could drive away the demons that were troubling the child.

But where do we fit in all this? None of us is ignorant of the rising swell of rejection directed at the refugees of wars and conflict to which many of our countries have contributed, or have ignored by doing nothing. We are familiar with the fear-mongering created by politicians whose popularity at the ballot boxes is increased in proportion to their rhetoric about barring refugees and asylum-seekers. After all, there might be terrorists among the largest number of refugees our world has ever seen. It would be strange if there weren’t. But why punish all because of a few? Today’s readings prompt us to ask ourselves what kinds of bigotry or racial and religious prejudices do we harbour within our hearts. Do we applaud the fear-mongering of our political leaders as a way of rationalising ourselves into justifying a “me first” stance? Somebody once asserted that the way in which western society and our Church have dealt with the issue of child abuse would be very much better had we invited the women among us to address it. Are we as open to the voice of women as Jesus was to the voice of the Canaanite woman? I leave the final words to Pope Francis who, in a mid-flight interview from Mexico to Italy in 2016 said: “A person who thinks only of building walls – wherever they may be – is not Christian”. What do I wall in and whom do I wall out? Today’s readings call me to reflect on questions like these.