A Humble and Contrite Heart

Juan de Flandes - Christ and the Canaanite Woman c. 1500

 A Humble and Contrite Heart
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, August 14, 2011.
[Is 56:1, 6–7.  Ps 67:2–3, 5, 6, 8.  Rom 11:13–15, 29–32. Mt 15:21–28.]

We hear in today’s Gospel the story of the Canaanite woman, and with it, some of the most difficult and challenging and coldest words attributed to Jesus.  
And yet in these few verses a great story unfolds: It is a story of who is “in” and who is “out.”
It is a story that needs the clarification of Jesus’ divine mission; his need as a real person in history to work within the confines of the culture;
and it is a story of the offer of salvation to all people. 
Today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us to expect this:
“The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…  them I will bring to my holy mountain… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Psalm speaks of this:
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.”
Saint Paul speaks of this:  “I am speaking to you Gentiles” he says; “God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” 
And yet here in Matthew’s Gospel we hear of an encounter between a woman and Jesus, and we hear that Jesus “did not say a word in answer to her.”   
We hear that he ministers only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter a woman who is definitely and outsider:  one of the “outs” - twice removed.  She is a woman in a man’s world. Women in those days in general did not have the social status of men.  And this woman is also “out” in that she is not of the house of  Israel.  She’s a foreigner. 

Indeed, she is not of Israel according to history.
And Matthew’s account of this dialogue (unlike the account in Mark’s Gospel Mk 7:24–29) is almost brutal. 
Matthew identifies this woman as a Canaanite:  and this brings back images of the ancient curse of the tribes descended from Ham, the son of Noah. 
So the woman is not only an outsider, but from a group held to be accursed.  A group particularly contrary and odious to the Jews. 
But I can’t help thinking that when this woman set out from her own place—her own little house;  Jesus was also setting out from Gennesaret to go toward this district. 
Why is Jesus going forward out of Israel to the land of the Gentiles, and why is this outsider woman coming toward Israel?  It is as if opposites are moving toward each other. 
What motivates each of them to move toward the other?    
Is it fate, or “kismet,” or written in the stars? No, we don’t believe that…
It’s God’s divine plan.  It is the will of God. 
Jesus moves to keep a "divine appointment."  In a word, it is “faith” that motivates this encounter.  

Fresh from his encounter with the Pharisees and their challenges, Jesus comes in his way, and the woman comes in her way, to another challenge. 
Jesus had just told the Pharisees moments before leaving for this journey, that they “honor [him] with their lips, but their hearts are far from him.” 
He also told his disciples, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.”  There, he was referring to words that defile a person. 
And yet, what are the very next words the Gospel reports that come out from a mouth and into the ears of Jesus?  
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David.”  
Words of love, words dripping with the sincere plea for mercy, for healing, for wholeness.  Words from the mouth of an outsider.   

But they are words  from the mouth of a woman who so loves her daughter so much that she has literally identified with her. 
          “Have pity on me," she says.  
If you have pity on me, you will heal my daughter.  This will be the result of your healing pity on me.  
That’s what the woman says. 
She comes motivated by the great good of love:  love seeks the good of the other and love bears with the other. 
You might say that this love has made her “triply” an outsider – because the world tells us to take care of ourselves and let others worry about themselves.
So in the few words of the Gospel we learn a lot about this woman: how despite her outsider status, her “other” and separate status, she has great humility and great trust.  She reaches out over the no-man’s land of racism and sexism for totally pure motives. 
And Jesus response?  Silence.  Deafening silence to our ears. 

In fact, his first words come in reply not to the woman but to the disciples, who want to send her away. 
She is bothersome, she might cause a scandal, she is disruptive, she calls out. 
And Jesus’ statement of his mission is not to her, it is to the disciples:  he is, “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 
Exclusive.  Selective.  What did that say to the heart of that woman…
And they talk about among themselves, as if she weren’t even there!
And then this woman who is still not recognized has the humility and the perseverance to come closer and do him homage.  Jesus’ reply to that might seem to be one of the coldest in the Gospels:
It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.” 
And even this doesn’t deter the woman.  She says:

          “please, Lord, because even the dogs  eat the scraps from the table.”
She is desperate, but not without faith.  She’s a woman who doesn’t give up.  If lack of faith were an issue, she would have been gone at the outset.
But she is motivated by love: love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things, as Saint Paul teaches us.  The love that makes her humble even to the point of being humiliated for the good of her daughter. 
Sound familiar? Humble to the point of being humiliated? 
Take a look at the cross:  naked, beaten, cursed at, spat upon, and hanged from a tree.  Humiliated for the sake of the love of all people….
So this woman’s love must have been a mirror of Jesus' own love…
In the face of that love, Jesus replies and upholds her faith.  He cures her daughter. 
But it is not the cure that should interest us.  It is the dialogue. 
It is the persistence of this woman, this Gentile…  
     The only other time in Matthew’s Gospel where we really look at a Gentile encounter in any detail is back in chapter 8, where a Centurion comes asking for a healing for his servant.  And the Centurion says:
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  Just say the word.” 

We’ll say that in our own way just before Communion today: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you… only say the word….”

Both the Centurion and the Canaanite woman are Gentiles. 
          Both come to Jesus.  He doesn’t come to them.
          Both ask not for themselves but for another. 
          Both demonstrate great faith. 
          Both cures are effected by Jesus from a distance—and that certainly shows his lordship over time and place. 

These two great stories of healing reach out over time, over the cultural confines that – especially in today’s reading – prevented Jesus in his historical realness on earth… from dealing directly with the woman at first. 
These stories teach us humility, they show us that we have to seek and ask and do homage and persevere.  They are stories about prayer.
But it is not because God likes to see us grovel. 
It is because we have to show ourselves the experience of a true heart, of clear intention, of trust only in God. 
That is the lesson of today’s Gospel, my friends. 

After the priest offers the gifts to God at the altar, he prays almost under his breath, “Lord we ask you to accept and bless these gifts that we offer with humble and contrite hearts.” 

David tells us in Psalm 51: “A humble and contrite heart, Lord, you will not spurn.” 
Whether it is David’s heart, or the Centurion’s heart, or the heart of this Canaanite woman. 

And so because of her great faith and pure heart, this Canaanite woman moves from being an “outsider” to being an “insider”: she becomes a spiritual daughter of the first rank—made so by her faith.   
We, too, are outsiders, and we need to know how to long and yearn and journey from our own safe places to call out for God’s mercy and be heard. 
We need to know, like the Canaanite woman that we have no bargaining power, we have only the force of love which goes beyond the norms – that kind of love calls to Jesus because it reflects and echoes the very love of god. 
Because for Jesus, the lost sheep of the house of Israel has become all of us who hear the call to be gathered together into the peace, and the joy, and the love that will break down all barriers and help us all to enter into the kingdom of God. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.