August 16, 2020 at St. Peter the Apostle in Naples, FL
Isaiah 56,1, 6-7 + Psalm 67 + Roman 11, 13-1, 29-325 + Matthew 15 21-28
Matthew writes to a church that consists primarily of Hebrew converts. As a way of addressing a problem, he tells them this story. The root of the problem is that they have all grown up formed in their Hebrew faith to believe that they were special, chosen and favored by God. They were God’s “Holy People”. Probably making matters worse, Jesus, who had inspired their conversion and was the center of their community life, was also a Jew. Their status, their identity is being challenged all around as Pagans, Roman, Gentiles, Samaritans, and Canaanites were responding in faith to God’s call. Suddenly their special place, their very identity is being called into question. As always happens when one’s identity is challenged, they withdraw, become defensive, act offended, becoming rude, selfish, oppressive, and sometimes violent.
Matthew sees this happening, and in this story, he holds up the apostles as an example of this haughty and privileged attitude. Then he puts Jesus out there as an example of how this problem is to be resolved. Jesus changes his mind. When confronted with the reality of that woman’s need and the gift or power he has, everything changes. Matthew tells us that she did him homage. That is a detail that would have amazed everyone. This audacious woman with two strikes against her: her gender and the fact that her people, the Canaanites, were traditional enemies of the Jews, risks the scorn of her neighbors and friends by coming to Jesus of Nazareth. She breached her gender role by approaching a man for help. Then she defused the ethnic antagonism by calling on him as “Son of David”, thereby showing respect for him and calling on the Jewish tradition that makes kings responsible for the welfare of widows, orphans and foreigners. She calls him, “Lord.” With that, something breaks open. Jesus, the very image of the church remembers who he is, and what the Father expects of him. The prayer of this woman came from her heart speaking to heart of Jesus. Out of mercy and compassion, Jesus shares what he has with someone he may have first thought didn’t deserve it, had not earned it, and so, had no right to it.
This is not so much a story about the power of prayer or persistence as much as it is a story told to the privileged who have forgotten why they have been so gifted. The Living Word of God still speaks to the privileged of every age; to people like us who sit in this comfortable air-conditioned church or in comfortable air-conditioned homes enjoying all that the internet and computers can offer. People like that woman who have nowhere else to go come to us, to this country, and to this church asking for help. There are still some like the apostles in this story who insist that they should be sent away because they bother us. Yet, Jesus is among us still the teacher who reminds us who we are, why we are here, and how to respond. The privileged can learn something today not only about how they must live as worthy recipients of God’s gifts, but also about the power of humility to soften hardened hearts.