What is at the heart of Faith, and what boundaries does it have? These questions are powerfully thrown up by today’s Gospel story of the Canaanite woman with Jesus. Not for the first time, the Gospel challenges us deeply: asking us to consider what is at the heart of our lives and what boundaries we impose or patrol. It is a great story: very challenging, and worth reflecting on at depth. For what a contrast the heart of Faith certainly is with much of what has sometimes gone on, in the name of religion! Recent events, for example,have reminded us forcibly of the horrors of religious persecution. Our hearts and prayers go out to so many in the Middle East, and elsewhere, where people have been, and continue to be, not just oppressed but, literally, slaughtered, for their faith and culture: simply for being different from others. As people of whatever faith, or none, across the world we must redouble our efforts to seek protection for all, peace and justice, reconciliation and healing for everyone - all of which challenges flow from the heart of our Gospel story today...
So how do we respond to such differences? Do we simply do what the first disciples tried to do and try to keep those differences at bay? Should Christians and others simply try to 'send away' others who are different from us and keep our existing boundaries intact. That is what many people have done in history, sometimes with violence. Or does God call us deeper, on to something much more holy and healing?
Whom do you identify with in the story of the Canaanite woman and Jesus? Their exchange is a challenging, even a shocking, one. For, at least on a first surface reading, Jesus himself doesn't even come out of it sounding perfectly wonderful. To begin with, at least on a surface reading, he seems, dare I say, even a wee bit racist. No, he says to the
woman, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel': in other words, you belong to another culture and are not my business. Even when the woman persists, Jesus uses language which, at least on the surface, sounds quite derogatory: likening those beyond 'the house of Israel' as 'dogs'. That doesn't sound too good either, does it?! So
how do we understand this story? Is Jesus, like the first disciples, being racist, and even a bit sexist - the Gospel writer certainly seems a bit sexist, not including the woman's name! Or is there more to the story? Of course... There are two main lines of interpretation, neither of which, I suspect, is entirely satisfactory. Yet, if we wrestle with them prayerfully, each of them can both give us more light and encouragement for our own encounters with difference.
One way is to understand Jesus’ harsh words as a kind of divine shock treatment. Jesus, as the Son of God, does, of course, have divine compassion for the woman, just as he has divine compassion for everyone, of whatever background. On this reading of the text, what Jesus is therefore not rejecting the woman. Rather he is seeking to lead her, and everyone else, into a deeper awareness of what divine compassion really means. It is a very abrupt approach, but the shock is intended to transform our limited understandings of what God requires. For Jesus is calling us to be part of a much bigger, much more generous, much more compassionate God than our usual limited ideas of God. He doesn't
therefore just respond at once to the woman's pastoral need. He challenges her to go deeper and to recognise the power and love of God in him. As she does so, she then is a powerful witness to everyone else, who think they already know what God is and what God requires. 'Woman, great is your faith!', Jesus says. In other words, he says to everyone: if you want to know what God really requires, look at this woman. Yes, she is a person of a different culture, of a different age and outlook, of a different gender, of a different lifestyle, and of a very different religion: but she, not you, 'gets' it! This person from beyond your usual boundaries is actually closer to God than you are. For she 'gets' that, unlike human beings, God is not really interested in boundaries but in the sharing of love. For, as Charles Wesley put it in his great hymn 'Love Divine, all loves excelling', Jesus is 'all compassion' and God is 'pure, unbounded love'. Maybe, if you follow that line of interpretation, you can see that we too also need some divine 'shock treatment' to make sure that we don't limit our compassion, and our idea of God, to what just fits neatly into our existing boundaries. Of course, this doesn't mean that 'anything goes', but it does mean that we take time to listen to others who are different from us, rather than rushing to judgement.
That first line of interpreting today's Gospel is linked to what is technically called a 'high christology': a way of looking at Jesus based, first and foremost, on his divinity There is a second way however, linked to what scholars call a 'low christology': that is, a way of looking at Jesus, first off, from the point of view of his humanity. This line of interpretation does not try to get round Jesus' harsh, even arguably racist, words. Rather it asks us to see this story as part of
Jesus' own growing humanity. Just like us, as a human being, Jesus is limited by the human boundaries he grows up in: his own restricted perspectives of his culture, age, sex, lifestyle and religion. On a human level, Jesus can get some things wrong. His holiness, after all, is not human perfection but divine grace. For, unlike most of us, because he was 'all compassion', Jesus was able to develop beyond his received boundaries. Jesus, we are told elsewhere, 'grew in holiness'.
For full holiness is not a fixed thing but something which all human beings have to grow into, even saints, even Jesus.
Whichever way we approach Jesus’ words, we are challenged by God’s compassion, to go beyond our usual boundaries into the heart of God. So what does all this mean for you and I? Perhaps we should reflect personally on the two main characters in today's Gospel story and let them speak to us. Do we need to take courage, like the Canaanite woman, that we are also fully acceptable and welcome at God’s table? Do we, like her, need to let go of our worries and inhibitions which keep us from accepting God’s love? Do we need to persist in seeking God even when God's supposed bearers don't seem to be much help? Or, like the human Jesus, and his first disciples, do we need to let go of some of our assumptions about others – and our assumptions about what God requires – so that we can allow God’s love and compassion to flow beyond our usual boundaries, out to others? How is God calling us to develop?