Ordinary Sunady 20: 17th August, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
During World War I a Protestant chaplain with the American troops in Italy became a friend of a local Roman Catholic priest. In time, the chaplain who moved on with his unit was killed. The priest heard of his death and asked military authorities if the chaplain could be buried in the cemetery behind his church. Permission was granted. But the priest ran into a problem with his own Catholic Church authorities. They were sympathetic, but they said they could not approve the burial of a non-Catholic in a Catholic cemetery. So the priest buried his friend just outside the cemetery fence. Years later a war veteran, who knew what had happened, returned to Italy and visited the old priest. The first thing he did was to ask to see the chaplain's grave. To his surprise, he found the grave inside the fence. "Ah," he said, "I see you got permission to move the body." "No," said the priest. "They told me where I couldn't bury the body. But nobody ever told me I couldn't move the fence." (Bits & Pieces, November 1989, p. 24).
As human beings we are almost unavoidably dualistic. We divide ourselves into Catholic or Protestant; Anglican or not; Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic; saved or pagan; gay or straight; young or old; refugee or resident; Lib/Nat or Labor; rich car driver or poor user of public transport; and the list goes on.
Today's gospel story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is set in a first-century Middle Eastern dualistic context, just as sharply defined as the present-day conflict between the Palestinian Territories and Israel. It is a dualism divinely sanctioned from the violent days of first settlement in the land of milk and honey, as recorded in the book of Exodus 23:23-24, when God says through Moses: "When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them." Deuteronomy 20:17, a passage on the rules of warfare, is equally clear concerning the Canaanites: "You shall annihilate them ... just as the Lord God has commanded," and there are similar divine edicts in the books of Joshua (3:10), 1 Kings (9:20-21) and Ezra (9:1).
On the cover of this week's pew sheet there is a detail from a manuscript illumination, painted by the fifteenth-century French artist Jean Colombe (1430-1493). It depicts disturbingly the racial disdain of the disciples, and even Jesus, towards this pagan Canaanite woman from out of Galilee, across the Phoenician border.
"Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David," she shouts annoyingly, "my daughter is tormented by a demon." You can see one of the disciples urging their Lord, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" Jesus mutters to the disciples in embarrassment. But the unnamed woman persists. She is vulnerable, even in potential physical danger from this group of foreign men, but she kneels before Jesus and begs, "Lord, help me." Jesus still ignores her, he even humiliates her further, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." "Yes, Lord," she replies, "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then something quite remarkable takes place, something that happens nowhere else in any of the gospel stories. Jesus changes his mind. This is a pivotal moment in the gospel of Matthew, much like the story of Peter's vision of a sheet containing unclean animals in chapter 10 of the Book of Acts. To understand it more fully we need to go back to chapter 1 of Matthew's gospel, the genealogy of the Messiah. In our Lord's family tree there are veritable skeletons in the closet; two Canaanite women in fact, Tamar and Rahab. The books of Genesis and Joshua tell of how these two outsiders, enemies of the Jewish people, became integral to Israel's salvation history. In today's gospel story it is as if this unnamed Canaanite woman has leaped out of Matthew's genealogy to remind Jesus: "Hey, Lord, I am family too!" The entrenched duality dissolves. Our Lord's heart is opened and his mind is changed: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish." And the daughter is healed.
I wonder who the Canaanite woman might be in your life at this time? In my life? In our life as a church? Or in the life our county? Perhaps people who are seeking asylum, or ordained women, or gay and lesbian people seeking justice and equality, or perhaps she is someone more personal, someone you have written off or don't get on with. Perhaps you could picture this person kneeling before you, begging you to change your mind, to be compassionate.
The gospel stories, and especially this story, were not written to make the hearers feel comfortable, but to shake us up, and to encourage us to listen for the voice of God in the plight of the outcast, the stranger, even the enemy. May our hearts be open to that still small voice, and to the persistent call of the gospel, and may our openness lead us into a place of deeper compassion and love.
And you never know ... we might just be inspired to move a fence or two while we are at it.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.