A man walks into a crowded church wearing a hat. He goes to his pew, sits down, and unlike the other men, he leaves his hat on. The usher politely asks him to take off his
hat, but he refuses. Others sitting near him also make the request, telling him that his hat is blocking their view, but he still refuses.
The pastor is perturbed, too, and waits to speak to the man after Mass. He tells the man
that he is very welcome to attend Mass and that he could even become a member. He also explains the expectation that men remove their hats in church, and indicates to the man that he hopes he will conform to the expectation the next time he comes to their parish to
“Thank you,” the man replies. “And thank you for taking time to talk to me. It is good of
you to invite me to join your parish. However, I joined this parish three years ago, and have been coming here every Sunday ever since. Today is the first time anyone has spoken to me. After being invisible for 3 years, I decided to keep my hat on and I have gotten to speak to the ushers, some neighbors in the pew and even exchange a few words with the priest, who always appeared to be too busy for me.”
I think it’s safe to say that everyone here can relate to that story, and that’s why we focus
so much on hospitality here at Holy Redeemer, especially greeting and welcoming
new people, the “outsiders”. And this is what we expect from Jesus himself, but that is not what we read in today’s gospel reading about the Canaanite woman.
Theologically, the traditional Catholic position is that Jesus is fully God and fully human,
and it’s his humanity that is clearly evidenced in this story. Jesus needs some “chill time” after learning of the death of John the Baptist, so he tries to elude the crowds, but they
follow him anyway. He even leaves the safety of his home turf and goes into unclean land, a “foreign land” as Matthew calls it, where he is certain that no one will follow him. He just wants some peace and quiet.
We all have those times when we need to be alone with our thoughts, to pray and reflect, to
take a walk, to make plans, etc…so it’s easy to relate to this human Jesus who ends up saying some things I am sure he regretted after he said them. Jesus is interrupted on his journey and he is more than a little impatient and even rude with the person who interrupts him. And let’s be clear about the language: he is using a word we know all too well from our high school days, the “B” word used to refer to female dogs. That is the term he chooses to use when speaking to the woman he encounters, and it’s shocking! On the
boundary between the land of the Jews and the foreigners, the boundary between
welcoming and turning away, Jesus shows his human side.
We ourselves live at the boundary–the boundary between those who are like us, and those who are different; the boundary between life on the inside and encounter with those
on the outside. And we’d rather not be pushed outside our comfort zone, so the boundary we inhabit is an uncomfortable place to be. We’d prefer not to be bothered by those who
speak a language other than our own, we don’t want to think about what to do about the homeless or the mentally ill. We’d like to keep the boundaries of our church clear and distinct, and what we really want is to fill it with people who look like us, think like us, and talk like us. Of course, this is not where we find church at all, rather, the church is always about life on the boundary, where everything is not black and white.
At the boundary of Judea and Samaria, an exhausted Jesus meets an outsider—a Canaanite woman—who confronts him. She has a daughter possessed by a demon, and she’s heard about the compassion and healing power of Jesus, and she pleads for help,
“Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus knows what compassion is because he’s certainly demonstrated it before: he knows that God’s mercy is limitless. He also has what he believes is a clear view of his mission, namely, to gather “the lost sheep of Israel”. This woman isn’t in that category at all: she’s Canaanite, from among one of the ancient enemies of Israel. And she’s a woman besides. Jesus is tired, cranky, and just doesn’t want to take time for her, so he brushes her off.
But she persists, and because of her faith, Jesus has second thoughts about how he’s treated her, and grants her request. Jesus has an epiphany at that moment on the
boundary, and realizes that his mission to the lost ones of Israel is really a much larger mission. It may, in fact, extend to all people everywhere.
All of us who are parents or grandparents can certainly identify with the woman in the
story: her daughter is in a desperate situation and she is going to do what it takes to get some help. She’s tried doctors and home remedies, but nothing is working. This is the only option left open to her, and in the process of advocating for her loved one, the unnamed woman becomes a hidden hero of the Bible because she effectively mentors Jesus himself.
Through her annoying persistence and by her faith, Jesus is brought to a higher level of
understanding. He had already told Peter earlier that he was a man of “little faith” when Peter doubted him during the walking on water story. Unlike Peter, this foreign woman had amazing faith. It wasn’t only because Jesus was tired that he used harsh words with her, he was also limited by his own Jewishness, tied to his own narrow cultural
understandings to the point where he couldn’t see the bigger picture.
I once had a student who I learned was homeless. The place he had been renting had been condemned and was boarded up, which meant he and mom were forced to leave with no money for another place, no money to pay for utilities and phone hookup. Since he and I had a good teacher/student relationship, I pulled him aside one day and asked if I could help, giving him my phone number and telling him to have his mother call me. I was
able to pull together some ideas and resources and even enlisted the aid of another teacher. Together, we were able to provide a little food and enough money to have utilities and phone turned on in a new apartment. I had never known a homeless person before, and realizing that one of my own students was in that situation was unacceptable to me. A week or so later, I received a Facebook message from the student, thanking me for helping
him and his mother and reassuring me that through the whole experience of being
homeless and living at the boundaries of society, he had found renewed faith in God.
That is precisely where we are called to be–at the boundaries. We will meet people who seem unlikely candidates for living a life of faith, but there they are, always at the boundary! Like my student, like the Canaanite woman, they are always there!
Our mission as a welcoming parish is to all the ones who have been turned away from the
church, as well as to all the others: churched, unchurched, dechurched or antichurched. They are all God’s children and they belong to us. Our mission is to keep careful watch on the boundaries, where people are sometimes different from us, where customs and language are sometimes barriers, and where their perceptions of religion are sometimes negative. It is up to us to embrace life at that difficult place on the boundary, because although it is challenging, it is a good place to be. Why? Because there are people of great faith waiting for us to encounter them. Because the Canaanite woman is there. And because, ultimately, Jesus himself chooses to be there with us.