by The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Matthew 15:21-28
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” –Matthew 15:28
One of the memorable people of my growing up years was my Aunt Amanda. Born in England about the year 1880, she came as a young person to this country to work in the textile mills of Massachusetts. I used to visit her often as a little boy when I went with my parents to stay with family members in New Bedford before and during World War II. I will never forget a conversation we had one day walking home from an early Sunday morning communion service at St. Martin’s Church there. It was sometime in the Spring of 1940. Hitler’s success in defeating the Allies led to a siege of England, and the Luftwaffe, the Nazis air force, was devastating English cities. Amanda’s roots were at Coventry, the center of which was totally destroyed by the bombing, and she had lost family members in the blitz. As we walked home from church — I had just turned twelve — I made a remark about how much we should hate the Nazis. After all, my own dad had been sent by the Army with his regiment to Panama as protection for the Panama Canal even though the US was not at war. And my bedroom ceiling was filled with balsa wood models of British Spitfires and German Messerschmitt fighters, with which my imagination reproduced the scenes of combat we saw in the newsreels on Saturday mornings along with the latest chapter of the escapades of cowboy Tom Mix.
Aunt Amanda’s answer to me was almost fierce. “Arthur,” she said, “you must never hate anybody, no matter how bad they are.” I have struggled with her advice for the more than seventy years since then. “Arthur, you must never hate anybody, because they are all children of our God.” How was this woman, born in poverty in the grim industrial north of Britain, a mill-worker for most of her adult years until the Great Depression left her and millions of others without work, how was she so sure of God’s love?
To be sure, like all of us she did not always apply her standards consistently. Ours was an extended family of blue collar workers from the north of England, brought up as Anglicans, and like the Irish, French Canadian, and Portuguese minorities with whom Amanda’s family competed for jobs, in some sense it was easier to love the Germans at war than the neighbors down the street. Today’s Gospel reading sheds light on what we face when we come up against the cultural norms with which we grew up.
Matthew wrote his Gospel at a time when the new Christian community was growing steadily. Although the first followers of Jesus were Jews, the impact of the conversion of such people as St. Paul led to a growing mission to Gentiles. The Gospel was increasingly seen as pointed to all people, and convictions had to be stretched. “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” is a corrective to the tendency of people in times of change who tend to circle their wagons and look only at those who are “our kind.” We’ve heard that attitude often recently. I am sure it is why Matthew included in his Gospel the story of the encounter of Jesus with a woman from another culture. She was a Canaanite woman, whom Jesus met on the way to Tyre, a coastal city of pagan, not Jewish background. But even in that place, Jesus’s reputation as a wise teacher and healer of those in need must have gone before him.
It certainly took great courage for her to approach him. Women in the society of that day had no standing whatever, and the further fact that she was a gentile made her overture to him extraordinary. In response Jesus was not gentle or even kind. She is not fazed by his initial distance, and pleads for his mercy. She is direct with him, both about who he is and about her own need on behalf of a sick daughter. She enters into his world, and does not give up until he responds and heals her child. This may well have been a turning point in Jesus’s own ministry, stretching him to see the implications of his teaching about God as clearly for all people and not only those of his Jewish heritage.
One of the learnings I took from the conversation with Aunt Amanda that Sunday morning happened a couple of weeks later. In that year when my Dad was stationed at a military base in Panama, I was living with my grandparents, and I found myself in a fifth-grade class in the same shabby red-brick school my mother had attended as a child. I was a scrawny kid with glasses, and soon became the butt of bullying by a gang of boys of Portuguese descent who appeared to run the school. I decided there was no way I could beat them with my fists — a bloody nose convinced me of that. But I could run faster than they did, and in the end I think won them over by being a tad smarter than they were and readier to get along.
What does it take for us to cross the physical, mental, or spiritual boundary lines which separate people? As a commentator on today’s Gospel story writes,
“What does it take for a mother, desperately seeking healing for a child, to face down cultural taboos and cry, “I believe! and I know that you, Jesus, are the source of this healing”? What does it take for us, amid the confusing signals we are getting on all sides about what is happening in and to this world of ours, to find a place to stand on and not be driven by the winds of confusion. In Norway, where Roberta and I are going on a trip in a couple of weeks, a demented man decides that he can no longer stand the openness of his society, and in cold blood shoots into a camp full of young people who are studying how to be leaders in their government. In Britain, young people of Caribbean and Pakistani background burn busses and loot stores out of their outrage against a society they think has no place for them. The challenge before us is the one about which I owe a debt to my Aunt Amanda: How can each of us, with whatever gifts of experience and knowledge we have, respond to the boundless love of God shown to us in Jesus and lived out, however imperfectly, in our families and in the Church: how can we look to the future with hope and trust and be beacons of that hope to others?
One of the most important considerations in the story of the Canaanite woman is the fact that Jesus recognizes once and for all that there is no ground for separation based on race, religious conviction, or sexuality. The good news of God’s reign is for all, as is the healing of God’s love. Jesus is affirming by his act the vision that inspired the Hebrew people from the time of their imprisonment in Babylon that God has called us to a vision of justice and human community. Listen again to a portion of the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard earlier
Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. And the foreigners will join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants. . . .For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Isa. 56:1, 7
The passage was written during a time in which the political and social society of Israel was in significant decline. Its claim on community membership was thereby directed to all its members, especially the rich and powerful, as a nonnegotiable condition of a viable future.
Biblical faith rejects entirely the ideology of modern individualism, which views the neighbor — especially the poor neighbor in our own culture or the impoverished peoples around the globe — as an impediments to our own individual well-being. In the biblical view, there is no justification for private privileges or gifts which can be had at the expense of the community.
What Jesus did in healing the child of an alien woman was to reject the illusions of modern individualism that my personal destiny was separate from that of a gang of Portuguese kids in New Bedford in 1940, or that today’s growing separation between the one percent of the population of this country who control more of the wealth than the bottom 80% is just plain anathema to Biblical faith.
Let no one say that Christian faith lets us off the hook of struggling with the most intransigent questions of our time as well as our individual journeys through life.