Thoughts on Matthew 15: 10-28 — Father Glenn Empey


Jesus and the Canaanite woman

One out of every 113 people in the world has been on the move. They have been on the move because of war, civil disorder and oppression, and the tragic effects of severe weather. That is according to statistics from 2015.

In 2016, the number was even higher with more than 5 million people crossing boundaries to find a better life. When you look at all international migrants worldwide – people residing in a country other than their country of birth – 2015 was the highest ever recorded, having reached 244 million (from 232 million in 2013). This is the result of the greatest migration of people since the end of the Second World War.

In the gospel story passage today, the Canaanite woman had not crossed any boundary. It was Jesus who had crossed into a new land of Tyre and  Sidon. Now this was not a migration as such but it was Jesus crossing a boundary into a new land.

The story begins simply enough with the Pharisees questioning Jesus about why he had not observed the Jewish laws of purity by washing his hands. His response was a parable about what actually defiles a person and that hand-washing was not one of them. Susan Butterworth,¹ a student at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notes that the Pharisees were claiming “…that Jesus and his disciples were breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus replied that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. What goes into the mouth is flushed out into the sewer; it is a passing, temporary uncleanliness, unimportant. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Evil intentions such as murder, theft, and lies are what truly defile.”

You could look at the recent tragedies in Charlottesville and Barcelona as the outcome of what truly defiles a person. They are at two extreme poles of the same dilemma. I’ll focus on Charlottesville for now.

In Charlottesville it was what was described as the largest white supremacist gathering in US history.  And it would appear that one of the underlying motivators is directly linked to migration and its effects which the demonstrators said are destroying their culture and way of life. When those connected with the demonstrations and the supremacist movement quote Scripture as one rationale for their concerns – which is what media would put under the spotlight — Jesus’ words about what defiles a person should be shrieking in their ears, you would think. There are those who do hear and understand Jesus’s words who are peacefully making that known in Charlottesville and elsewhere although the media lends less focus on that. Nonetheless, clergy and people in the community of faith have been making their voice heard.

It is all very hard to understand and to process. I find it especially difficult as an ‘old white guy’ who is among the demographic that has been branded as the emblem of white privilege. This is a complex issue that cannot be seen through any one set of eyes.

The world is unsettled. That unsettlement reaches also into our country. Instigators of unrest capitalize on the confusion to extend demonstrations to a major university campus, U of T in Toronto. Fortunately the administration of the university will not be buying in. That doesn’t mean that there are not problems around race and about privilege that fester beneath the surface in this country.

In searching to gain some basis for understanding, it seems to me that the world order is undergoing a major shift of some sort. People are fleeing areas of unrest and for many, many it’s not because they really want to leave their homeland. It is because they must leave in order to survive.

It’s getting less to be a north-south / east-west kind of world and more a global intermingling. In North America in particular, there is also the realization – and re-visiting of how history is interpreted — to recognize and acknowledge Indigenous people justly and to eschew the false doctrine of discovery which most certainly arose from a ‘white’ world-view. There are other examples as well.

There are many crossings of boundaries taking place. The boundaries are geographical and historical. They are also psychological. There are boundaries to be crossed in the mind… and in the mind-set through which a person sees the world.

As I say, this can feel like turmoil. I’d say it’s only a very small taste of the turmoil those who are forced into fleeing their homeland must feel. Anyway, it gives us at least some basis of imagining how that must be for them.

So, a cry goes out from a woman in the land of Tyre and Sidon, a foreign land. Her cry is one for healing, to implore Jesus to heal her daughter. Our cry may be one for understanding, and how to understand as boundaries shift on the ground and in the mind where the demons of confusion can whirl around.

The woman does not give up even when she is initially rebuffed by Jesus. She persists. You and I can also persist. It seems to me that you and must persist. We’re called to persist.

Jesus had crossed a boundary into a foreign land. And in a way, the woman also crossed a kind of boundary in reaching out to Jesus even though she was not of the People of Israel, the Jewish people, then the traditional people of Jesus whom he came to serve. And Jesus connected with her beyond the previous traditional boundary.

For the woman it was a matter of profound faith. For Jesus it was an extension of his love, compassion and empathy. For us, it is also a challenge of faith in persisting to understand, to understand how to  cross boundaries on the ground and how to cross boundaries in the heart.

Jesus’ example and his teachings are signposts that point the way.

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