My house will be called a house of prayer for all people,
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers others to them
besides those already gathered.
Last month my husband and I were shopping in Santa Rosa, California. On an overpass above the freeway, dozens of people were gathered in a protest against welcoming the tide of parentless children crossing our nation’s southern borders. This homily will not be about immigration reform, but no matter where we stand on the issue, our readings today are a clear call to welcome the “other” in our hearts, to know that all people are welcomed in God’s house. Our human consciousness can create deep divisions because we so often accept that our way of seeing reality must be God’s way. Feelings of fear and of superiority that make us pass judgment that our people are the chosen people, happens now as it has happened through history. Yet, there are voices in the Bible as far back as David and the psalms, who have proclaimed that God’s love spills over racial identity and cultural boundaries.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all nations upon earth.
At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans he states that God’s message of salvation was proclaimed “to the Jew’s first and then to the Greeks,” but it is clear that it is the Gentiles who have been most receptive audience. From the context of the letter, a reader might assume that these early non-Jewish Christians have started to feel that they have replaced the Jews as the chosen people. Paul asks outright if this is so, but then answers immediately: God does not rescind promises. He uses himself as an example, a former pharisee and a strict observer of Jewish law. God was faithful to him and called to him despite the fact he was responsible for the death of some of the first Christians. Paul emphasizes, perhaps trying to break through the smugness of his readers, that God has not forsaken the Jews, will never desert them; nor will the Gentile Christians be forsaken. Today God does not abandon the world either, even when people abandon Divine Love by believing their group is the “in” group and people who are different “less than.” There is no hierarchy of identity in which God metes out love.
The gospel lesson then is one of the most challenging ones to wrestle with. When the Canaanite woman approaches him, Jesus appears to…appears to… act like a jerk. Some translations offer the more politically correct label of the “Syro-Phonician woman” because there were no Canaanites left by the 1st century. The term was a racial slur. It’s impossible to say if the author of the gospel used the word deliberately in the narrative or not, but the beginning of the scene resonates with a prejudicial world view. Jesus’ first response to her is no response, as though his silence states that she is not worthy of his attention. Then when his disciples bug him to get rid of her, he announces that he was “only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” This is interesting, since he has led his disciples into Gentile territory, where the woman has found him. His reticence to engage with her is especially intriguing as she has done nothing but to honor him and be insistent he hears her plea. She is not asking anything for herself, but for her daughter’s healing. She bows to him, recognizing him as Lord, showing she knows he is the Messiah, a concept those closest to him are struggling with, even though they’ve seen him walk on water and perform a host of miracles. And then Jesus compares her (and by proxy, her people) to dogs who do not deserve the Israelite’s spiritual food. She indeed is the underdog here, and, brilliantly, she does not put up a defense against his treatment of her but offers the rejoinder, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
Was this the moment that Jesus realized He was on Earth for all humanity? Or did his understanding of the universality of his mission proceed the event? What point is made right before this scene? Words that come out of our mouths can defile us. Is this why he lead his “group” outside of their native territory? Were the the words he spoke…seemingly to defile the woman…expressions used about those “Canaanites” whom they believed could not be heirs of the Kingdom of God? Was he holding up a mirror?
A friend of mine who has studied Buddhism at a very deep level had never heard this story. When I shared a draft of this homily she presented an insight that broke open the story even more: “In a more eastern spiritual tradition when a disciple ‘recognizes’ a Spiritual Master (and I mean a true heart recognition) then immediately the Spiritual Master will test the disciples ego so to speak. It feels to me that that is what Jesus did and she responded from her heart which is a non-egoistic response. All of the disciples around Jesus were tested at the same time and their responses were reflected back to them as well. A true Spiritual Master does not have empathy with the ego and so when a ‘real’ disciple approaches there are the ‘lions at the gate’ that must be addressed for a disciple to be taken on. This is how I understood the story and found it to be a beautiful example of egoic transcendence and Heart Recognition of the Divine.
“Woman,” Jesus says…an address that unlike today had connotations of respect… “great is your faith!” This was recorded with an exclamation mark. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Three daughters of Palestinian Doctor Izzeldin Abeulaish, ages 13, 15, and 21, were killed by an Israeli tank shell in 2009. Despite this, he proclaimed that he would not hate. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian quotes him. “I have concluded if my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I accept their loss. I promised that I would fight with the only means available to me: wisdom, courage, strong words, and meaningful actions. But what I have learned from that war was that all of us (Palestinians and Israelis both) take a defensive position to justify our acts. Only when we start to take responsibility and reconcile ourselves to new thinking will we get a different result… We are like conjoined twins and any harm induced to one will impact the other. We have no choice but to work together to heal our wounds, wipe out our tears, and, while learning the lessons of the past, look forward.”
Doctor Abeulaish has welcomed the other, his enemy, into his house. Let us open our hearts and be glad that God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all people.