We are now in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel that lead from the Sermon of Parables (Mt 13), on the hidden power, to the Sermon on Community (Mt 18). The Lectionary gives us five Sundays on these chapters, plus the Transfiguration (Mt 17), to explore the community built by that hidden power.
The first two readings give us our theme. We have one of Isaiah’s many readings on “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.” They will become Israelites: they must “keep the sabbath” and “hold to my covenant.” They will come “to my holy mountain,” that is, Zion, the temple mount, in Jerusalem, to offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And so the Temple of Israel will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”
On the same theme, in our second reading from Romans 9-11, St. Paul says that although he is the “apostle to the Gentiles,” “the call of God” to Israel is “irrevocable.” In short, although Jesus is for all people, not just those born into Israel, he calls us into Israel. Jesus does not end the Old Testament, but makes it available to all – because Jesus gives us the grace by which we can both fulfill the Law and become the true Community of Israel, the Church.
These readings give us the crucial background for our strange, and at first disturbing, Gospel story. A Canaanite woman cries “Have pity on me, Lord.” Jesus mercilessly ignores her, then says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Only when she comes up with a clever come-back does he heal her daughter. Not what we expect from Jesus.
But once again, the Lectionary gives us a hint of the context. Our reading begins, “At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” At what time? From where is he withdrawing?
As we saw last week, after the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, and John the Baptist is killed. Then Jesus feeds the five thousand, walks on water, and heals many. He is rejected, but he shows his power to save. The theme last week, remember, was Peter’s profession, “Lord, save me.”
In the immediate run-up to this week’s reading, the Pharisees accuse Jesus for not following all their rules about hand-washing. Jesus says, not that traditions and the Old Law are bad, but that the Pharisees have lost the sense of the Old Law, and even break the Law in the name of petty “commandments of men.” For “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man. . . . But the things which come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile the man.” Our actions matter, and laws and traditions matter, because they express what is in our hearts, which is what really matters.
And so we come to the Canaanite woman. Jesus goes out of Israel, away from the Pharisees, to Tyre and Sidon (on the coast, northwest of Israel), to talk to a Canaanite woman.
Key for understanding this passage is Jesus’s rabbinic method of teaching. Remember, as a twelve-year-old in the Temple, he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and questioning them. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” Questions teach.
With the rich young man (Mt 19), Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good?” Then Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which is right – but Jesus knows it is not the whole truth. His half teaching provokes the rich young man to say, “What do I still lack?” Jesus doesn’t just state the truth. He provokes.
Study the dialogue. The woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” The foreign woman acknowledges him as Lord of mercy and as Israel’s messiah. She knows what’s going on – she knows that in Jesus, she must join Israel.
“Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.”
The disciples respond, “Send her away.” And to them – not to her; he is calling them into this lesson – he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” On the one hand, he is sent to Israel. Israel is key in all of these readings. But he is sent to “the lost sheep,” to those who cry, “Lord, save me,” “Lord, have mercy,” not to the Pharisees with their self-sufficiency. Israel is about the promise, about hope, not about possession. (See Romans 4.)
The woman continues to call “Lord, help me.”
He responds to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to dogs.” But this is a puzzle, both for her and for the disciples. He doesn’t say, “No, I won’t help you, because you are a dog.” He gives a puzzle.
The disciples think of Israel as zero-sum: to give to the woman is to “take the food of the children.” But the Canaanite woman knows that God’s grace is super-abundant, over-flowing, scraps falling from the table. We must join into Israel, but there is plenty of room in the Temple.
Whether born in or out of Israel, we become true Israelites not by hoarding our self-sufficiency but by calling out to the super-abundant mercy of God.
In what areas of life do you find yourself hoarding instead of trusting the Lord’s super-abundance?