Brenda and I did a lot of cleaning and reorganizing around the house.
Our two older boys have moved out,
we’ve done a shuffle of the girls’ bedrooms,
and we’re trying to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff
that we’ve accumulated over the years.
One thing that helps us to organize
is to put things into boxes and label them.
It makes it easier to remember where you’ve put things.
We’ve got boxes with the boys’ names on them,
we’ve got boxes labeled “Christmas,”
and we’ve got boxes labeled “winter clothes.”
What works with stuff around the house, though,
doesn’t work with people.
That’s the trouble the Canaanite woman has in today’s gospel.
She’s been put in a box labeled “Foreigner. Enemy of Israel. Dog.”
Jesus has withdrawn to the borders of Israel,
he’s near the territory of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile country.
He’s kind of taking a break
after having had a conflict with the Pharisees.
And while he’s resting,
this woman keeps calling out after him and his disciples
to heal her daughter.
In Mark’s gospel she’s simply called a Greek,
a Syro-phoenecian, a non-Jew.
That would make her outsider enough.
But in Matthew’s gospel she’s called a Canaanite.
It’s a label his audience would have understood immediately,
a box they were quite familiar with,
but not because they used the word all the time.
Nobody in Jesus’ time used the word Canaanite anymore.
Matthew’s using it to emphasize his point.
He’s writing to Jewish Christians
and some of those Jewish Christians weren’t too happy
about the Gentiles being accepted in the Church.
Some of those Jewish Christians were thinking,
“We’re the chosen people,
We’re the ones who have been waiting for centuries for the Messiah.
Jesus came to us.”
Matthew wants to help them understand
how radically universal Jesus’ embrace is.
so he uses the word “Canaanite.”
Not just a Gentile, but an enemy of Israel.
This outsider, this enemy of Israel,
dares to come forward to Jesus and ask for her daughter to be healed.
Jesus responds with silence.
“Yes,” Matthew’s audience thinks to themselves, “that’s right.”
“Ignore her, she shouldn’t be there.”
Next, the disciples ask Jesus to send her away.
“Right,” Matthew’s readers think,
and they would be nodding their heads in approval,
especially when Jesus says,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
they would have loved it when Jesus said,
“It’s not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs.”
That’s what the Israelites called foreign enemies: dogs, or even swine.
That was the label on the box. Dog.
And after all, Israel is God’s chosen people, his covenant children.
Jesus has come to them first and foremost.
But the Canaanite woman has a great comeback:
“Even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.”
She acknowledges that Jesus has come to Israel first.
Yes, they are the ones who’ve been waiting.
They are the chosen people.
She acknowledges them as the children of the covenant.
“But surely there’s enough for me, too,” she says.
“Surely there’s enough
just in the table scraps
for my daughter who’s ill.
Can’t you spare even a little crumb?
A crumb is all I need.”
And that’s where Jesus breaks open the box and rips off the label.
This foreigner, with no knowledge of the Law or the Prophets,
knowing nothing of Temple worship or purity rituals,
unfamiliar with Abraham or Moses,
She knows Jesus so well
that she’s not put off by the silent treatment,
or by the disciples trying to send her away,
or by insults.
She simply wants Jesus.
And he responds, “Great is your faith!”
No one else in Matthew’s gospel gets this kind of compliment.
The message to the early Christians and to us is clear:
All are welcome.
The Chosen People may have been the first to receive the Good News,
but the Good News is for everyone.
There are to be no more Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
There is only Christ, and we are his Body.
Today’s gospel is just as relevant today
as it was to those first Christians.
Do we see Christ in the Other,
especially in those who are different from us?
There are so many ways to be different today.
So many people can seem foreign to us,
both outside the Church and within it.
The foreigners in Jesus’ time were called dogs.
We have our own names for people who are different.
We create boxes to put people in,
labels to tag them with, some of them very cruel.
We hear them on TV shows and Internet videos,
we post them on social media sites.
Sometimes we put ourselves into boxes.
It’s these boxes that lead to prejudice.
It’s these labels that lead to bullying.
But Jesus reminds us today that God sees past boxes and labels.
There are no foreigners in the promised land.
There is only Christ and his Body.
So the first message of the good news today
is that if we feel boxed in or labeled,
individually or as a group,
God sees our faith.
We can draw strength from the example of the Canaanite woman
who refused to give up,
who was assertive.
And the second message is that boxes and labels don’t belong
in the People of God.
When we put others into boxes,
then what we get is what’s happening in Iraq
and in other war-torn parts of the world.
If, instead of welcoming the foreigner,
we fear them, label them, or put them into boxes,
then we can never trust or accept them,
and violence is the inevitable outcome.
And as Pope Francis said when speaking of the situation in Iraq,
“Violence generates more violence;
dialogue is the only path to peace.”
This Sunday, the United States bishops have invited all of us
to pray in a special way for peace in Iraq.
Maybe this would be a good time for a family rosary,
or a visit to the Blessed Sacrament,
or a special prayer over dinner.
The Christians and other religious minorities
who are suffering in Iraq, Syria, and other countries
know first hand what the Canaanite woman felt.
Like her, they have been persistent in their faith,
despite encountering great resistance.
Like her, they have been calling and calling for help.
Will we meet them with silence?
Will we tell them to go away?
Or will we recognize their great faith?