1990 Aug 19 – 20th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)
Mt 15, 31 -46
“It Isn’t Right To Take The Children’s Food And Throw It To The Dogs” Matt. 15:26
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus appears out of character, harsh and mean spirited towards the Canaanite women in the story. Like the story of the feeding of the multitudes we read a couple of weeks ago, this is another occasion in Matthew’s Gospel when events and people push Jesus to define and reveal more clearly (and in the case of the Canaanite women more broadly) his divine mission.
After his walking on the water, Jesus and his disciples landed in Gennersaret. Jesus immediately began to heal all who came to him (14:34-36). Jesus’ fame was now attracting the interests of the authorities in Jerusalem. Some Pharisees and scribes from the capitol city were sent to Gennesaret to check out Jesus. These Pharisees and scribes approached Jesus and asked him why he and his disciples did not wash their hands before eating as prescribed by law. Jesus ignored their questions and directly called them “hypocrites” for disobeying “God’s command and following (their) own teachings.” Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes of instructing people to neglect the care of their elderly parents in order to pay for the upkeep of the temple. (15:1-9)
Jesus then called a crowd together and in one sentence disclaimed all the purity laws regarding food, “It’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them ritually unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes them unclean.” The disciples came up to Jesus and told him he was upsetting these important leaders from Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s not a wise thing to do. Jesus told them not to worry about them, “They are blind leaders of the blind,” he said. Peter asked Jesus to explain himself about the ritual purity laws regarding unclean foods. Jesus told his disciples that the only evil that comes from a persons mouth comes from the heart. Nothing a person eats has anything to do with what is spiritually clean or unclean. In this manner Jesus declared all ritual purity laws regarding food bogus. (15: 10-20)
As we begin this weeks Gospel we find Jesus on the run. He and his disciples get out of Gennesaret, leaving behind the important though blind Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. They enter into the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. These were pagan territories. There were few if any Jews living in this area. Clearly Jesus was trying to get away from the confrontation he started with the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem in Gennesaret. This confrontation must have been weighing heavily on Jesus’ mind. He was now in a struggle directly with the leaders of the nation, a struggle in which the stakes were very high for Jesus. All of Jesus’ attention was on the “people of Israel”. He and his disciples were in the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon for strategic reasons.
When the Canaanite women approached Jesus, he was completely caught off guard. The woman must have loved her daughter very much, a love that knew no boundaries. She broke all the social and religious rules of behavior to get Jesus to help her demon-possessed daughter. In the first place, she was a Canaanite. The Canaanites were the old pagan religion of the area. It was the same pagan religion that Jews had been fighting and competing with for centuries. No Jew or Canaanite in Jesus time would have anything to do with each other. Secondly, she was a woman. In Jesus’ time a woman would not make such a bold and public gesture towards a strange man. Her aggressive approach to Jesus was a major violation of the common and accepted social and religious mores of the time.
Apparently, Jesus’ reputation as a healer and his ability to cast out demons went beyond his Jewish constituency. In her approach to Jesus the Canaanite woman showed the greatest respect and honor for Jesus by addressing him as “Son of David,” a title her own people would have cringed at. She loudly begged for mercy for her possessed daughter. At first Jesus ignored her. Yet, she begged all the louder. The disciples went to Jesus telling him to send her away. She was making a public spectacle of herself.
Jesus’ mind was still on his parochial concerns, his conflict with the Pharisees and scribes. He told his disciples his mission was with his own people. Then the woman breaks through the circle of men and falls at Jesus’ feet. “Help me, sir,” she cried. She broke the personal comfort zone of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus reply was quick and mean spirited, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.” The women didn’t lose her cool. No personal insult, even from Jesus, was going to deter her from her goal. She uses Jesus own words to make her point. “That’s true sir,” she answers “but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from the masters table.”
Ouch! The women breaks through Jesus’ personal comfort zone and touches Jesus’ compassionate zone. This was an important defining moment for Jesus. The woman’s great love for her daughter and her bold gesture towards Jesus pushed Jesus to a new level of divine revelation. How could Jesus chastise the Pharisees and the Scribes for putting self-serving limits and restrictions on how the law of Moses must be obeyed when he, himself was setting limits and restrictions on his Fathers healing love? Jesus expanded his own self-understanding on the spot. The Canaanite woman lead Jesus to understand his Father’s love to be unconditional, unlimited and open to anyone of good faith.
Once again in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ compassionate response helps him define and reveal more of his true divine self and mission. Jesus tells the women she has great faith. He told her, her daughter was healed that very moment.
90 08 19 Culture, Gender and The Church In The 21st Century:
The first major struggle within the early Church was the long-standing separation and animosity between Jews and Gentiles. The First Council of Jerusalem was called to decide if Christian Gentiles would have to first be circumcised before they could be baptized. The Holy Spirit working through St. Peter and St. Paul helped persuade the Council members to accept the Christian Gentiles without circumcision. (Acts 15) This opened the faith to the whole Roman Empire and marked a major turning point in the development of the Church.
In today’s Gospel story Jesus was challenged to expand his understanding of his missions. The Canaanite woman helped Jesus see that his Fathers love was not only unconditional and unlimited; it was also open to anyone and everyone of good faith. This story in Matthew demonstrated to its original readers, who were mostly Jewish Christians, that Jesus’ saving grace was not limited to anyone people or cultural experience. Matthew was re-enforcing the conclusions of the first Council of Jerusalem by recording this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Today as we look past this decade of the 90’s and into the 21st century, the church is facing a challenge to its development and growth every bit as monumental as the one dealt with at the First Council of Jerusalem. Since the First Council of Jerusalem the Christian experience has been dominated by a Western European Cultural bias. This bias is understandable, given world and church history over the last 2,000 years. Though understandable this bias is no longer acceptable. We are at a turning point in Church development. Other cultural traditions are asking for equal and fair treatment. Differing cultural experiences found in Asia, Africa and the Americas want to embrace the Gospel of Jesus on their own cultural terms. They complain that for too long the Church’s Western European cultural bias has been forced upon them. They want to embrace Jesus without a bias cultural pre-packaging.
A multi-cultural expression of the Faith is especially challenging to the Roman Catholic Church. We truly are a worldwide Church and our “catholicity” pre-supposes a multi-cultural make up. Yet we have a long way to go before we can honestly say we are a functioning multi-cultural Church.
A major stumbling block for the Catholic Church is embracing a function multi-cultural expression in the organizational design of our churches governing structure. An all male celibate hierarchy with its monarchical, one-man rule character is incapable of fostering an inclusive multi-cultural Church. In the years to come our Church is going to need to be open to new and varied forms of leadership and decision making bodies.
A critical indicator of how honestly our Church is responding to the multi-cultural challenge of the 21st Century will be how quickly we resolve the issue of equal access for women to our leadership and decision making positions in our Church’s governing structures. The longer we delay women’s equal access to these important positions in our church the more estranged our Church will become with the majority of the men and women in our society. Our all male Catholic hierarchy would do well to take a lesson from the Master in this weeks Gospel story. When a forceful woman confronted Jesus in need, he was able to transcend his cultural and traditional limitations and enlarge the circle of his Father’s healing love to include the Canaanite woman. The same kind of cultural and traditional re-evaluation is needed today by our Church leadership to enlarge the circle of membership in the Churches governing structure.
90 08 19 – Over The Hump:
I got up this morning and looked out the long thin window in my cell onto the parking lot of the County Court House. It was right around sunrise and the rays of the sun were shining on the parking lot tree that stands just outside my cell window. The particular angle of the sunrays and the time of the day made the leaves on the tree a bright yellow. I took a second look. As the sun rose in the sky the leaves turned green again. But I know the change is coming and fall is not too far off.
With the month of August I’ve started the second half of my six-month sentence. My new location in South Dakota has been a welcome change. It is like a whole new experience. My spirits are high and I want to make the best of the time I-have left. I’m over the hump. Hopefully, it’s all down hill from now on. Fall is not far off.
Fr. Frank enclosed the following poem:
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark, dank of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body; this is my blood?”
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying
“This is my body; this is my blood?”
Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
Brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it for him now.
By Frances C. Frank (mother of 3 grandmother of 3)