In the Name...
There's a scene I recall from one of the Frankenstein movies made in the 1970's. In this movie, the creature is given refuge by a rival doctor. When that doctor's two Chinese servants enter the room, the creature turns his disfigured face aside, but, the doctor comforts him with the words, "Don't worry. We all look alike to them."
I know, not terribly PC these days, but ethnic humour and cultural stereotypes are as old as man. So, how easy is it to save 15% on your car insurance? Shakespeare wrote some of his roles in regional dialect for comic effect and the Greek playwrights two thousand years earlier had done the same. In the right context, it can have an innocent place. The danger is always when it becomes an outlet for prejudice.
The belief that certain tribes or cultures are special or superior to others has been around for a very long time and such beliefs were very much alive in the society in which Jesus lived. It is recorded that a rabbi named Hananiah travelled to Athens to dispute with the Greek philosophers. They asked him many questions and one of the questions they asked was, "Where do you say is the centre of the world?" Hananiah pointed to the ground where he stood and said, "Here."
Now, why did they ask that question? Because in the Greek temple at Delphi was an object known as the "omphalos" or the "navel of the earth" and the Greeks believed that the further away from it you lived, the less civilized you were. On the other hand, the Jews believed that since they were the Chosen People, wherever anyone of them was standing was the centre of the world. The Greeks divided the world into civilized or barbarian. The Jews divided it into Chosen or not.
And, back in the days when he was a good Pharisee, St. Paul had certainly agreed with this. The Jews were the exclusive people of God and the only way to become one was to be born one. It was a closed shop. No admittance. So, to become a Christian, and accept the concept that God loved Gentiles also, was a huge step for him. Imagine then his distress to discover the opposite view starting to develop among Gentile converts from paganism. They were claiming that, since the Jews had rejected Christ, the Jews were now rejected by God. Ergo, Jews could not become Christians! The Church was for Gentiles only.
Well, Paul was not exactly thrilled with this nascent heresy, so, in his letter to the Romans, from which we heard this morning, he reminds the Gentiles that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable". In other words, God has not rejected the Jews as a people despite the actions of individual leaders. We may recall the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once famously remarked, “nations can be neutral, individuals cannot”, and the lesson of the Gospel today is that individuals - not nations - accept or reject Christ.
In fact, today's Gospel addresses the human tendency to divide the world into "them" and "us" in a highly dramatic way. First, Jesus tells his disciples that God is more concerned about how people treat each other than he is with ceremonial purity and then he has a bizarre run-in with a Syrian Arab woman who is described as a Canaanite. This description is striking because, at the time of Jesus, Canaan did not exist, and had not for centuries.
Way back when, the Canaanites had been the Old Testament capital "E" Enemy. Their gods, Baal and Ashtoreth, were always at war with Yahweh. Their queen Jezebel had tried to kill the prophet Elijah. But, that was hundreds of years before. To call this Syrian Arab woman a Canaanite would be like calling a modern-day Spaniard a Visigoth. But, her historic heritage is noted to emphasize that she had no business dealing with Jesus the Jew, or he with her.
Time and geography have obscured for us the power of this encounter, but, two thousand years ago there were no affirmative action policies. People stuck to their own groups and kept relations with outsiders to a minimum.
That this non-Jewish woman would ask a Jew for a favour is shocking enough. That she is descended from the evil Canaanites more than justifies Jesus' response.
Because, he doesn't respond. He refuses to speak to her. That surprises us, because that's not the Jesus we know. He always spoke to everybody about everything. And when she throws herself at his feet, he calls her a dog, one of the oldest insults in the book and still used today.
But, that is the great lesson. He ignores her, he insults her; in other words, he treats her exactly as any other Jew would have and as any Arab would expect to be treated by a Jew. He doesn't do anything that anybody on either side would have found strange or shocking. But, she does. She doesn't give up or get angry. She believes that Jesus has the power to heal her daughter and she doesn't care that he isn't "one of her" and that she isn't "one of him." He calls her a dog and she retorts that he can call her whatever he likes as long as he does his job.
Which is why Jesus responds, "Woman, great is your faith". In other words, woman, you understand the way God thinks and the way he wants people to behave. Your background is nothing to him and shouldn't be to anybody else. Your faith is everything and that's what counts.
And so, in this incident, Jesus teaches his disciples that dividing the world into "them" and "us" is more than just impolite or politically incorrect, it can actually interfere with the work of God. The very thing St. Paul saw happening in Rome.
Mahatma Gandhi said that while reading the Gospels he came to realize that the major social problem in India was the caste system. He considered becoming a Christian and went one Sunday to visit a church. At the door, however, the European usher would not admit him, but, being helpful, told him where he could find the nearest mission church for native Indians. Gandhi reflected, “If Christians have caste also, I might as well remain a Hindu.”
It's more than unfortunate, it's tragic, that many Christians go along with making and preserving secular barriers based on class, race, language, gender, politics, whatever. Christians are supposed to be above that. But, it's a constant struggle, even for the best-intentioned, because prejudice is so easy to do and so easy to justify. That's why we need to hear what Jesus said to his disciples that it's what comes out of our hearts and mouths that determines the reality of our faith in our lives. And that's also why we need to hear the message of the Canaanite woman - "Don't be afraid."
Don't be afraid to challenge barriers wherever we find them, especially if they're interfering with God's work. Like her, don't react with anger or give up in despair. Be persistent. Be even, as she was, sarcastic. Be a reminder of what our faith is supposed to stand for - even if it's not socially or culturally fashionable. And remember, even if other humans reject you for doing so, God won't.
Because, we really do all look alike - to Him. What makes us stand out is how we stand up for his people.
In the Name...