Community and boundaries—that’s what all of today’s readings are about. In the reading from Isaiah, chapter 56, the prophet boldly revises the boundaries of the faith community of Israel. Today’s reading omits verses 4 and 5 of the chapter, which is the boldest of these revisions. There the prophet writes “For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who…hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls a…name better than sons and daughters.” The prophet’s inclusion of eunuchs and foreigners in the faith community explicitly contradicts the words of the Torah in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Isaiah redraws the boundaries of the faith community to make it more inclusive. But for the prophet, the faith community maintains its distinct identity and still has boundary. That boundary is the covenant and the sabbath. It’s a permeable boundary. Anyone who wishes can cross it and will be welcomed. All they have to do is they accept the covenant and keep the sabbath.
Today’s Gospel is also about boundaries. When we read the gospels, it’s evident that Jesus was a revolutionary boundary crosser, but in today’s Gospel, he seems out of character. He has crossed a boundary, of course. He left the Jewish province of Galilee and entered the Greek territory. There he is surrounded by gentiles whom many of his fellow Jews consider unclean. But when one of these foreigners approaches him and asks for help, he is unresponsive. She’s a woman, of course, and a foreigner. Matthew uses an archaic word to describe her. He calls her a Canaanite. Canaanites, as you will remember, were the original ur-enemy of Israel. They no longer existed and the term was no longer used. And Mark calls her a Syrophoenician, using the contemporary term or inhabitants of the area. Matthew uses this archaic word, Canaanite, to emphasize her foreignness.
This woman keeps crying out to Jesus for help. She’s creating a scene and there’s probably a crowd around, since crowds usually follow Jesus everywhere he goes. His disciples are embarrassed and urge him to send her away. He doesn’t exactly do that, but he does tell her, “I can’t help you. It’s not my job to minister to foreigners.” This woman will not give up. She’s fighting for her daughter and she believes Jesus can help her. She falls on her knees and begs him, “Sir, help me!” Then come those horrible words of Jesus. “It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.” Most people would have taken offense at these words and walked away in a huff, perhaps throwing a few choice curse words at Jesus as they left. For the sake of her daughter, this woman was willing to accept Jesus’ insult,” but she also stood up to him. She believed that even dogs had their rights. Her words obviously touched Jesus deeply. We could even conclude that she converted him to a new understanding of his vocation. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience. I think this woman was one of his teachers. Jesus’ willingness to accept the lesson she offered suggests that he perhaps also learned from her humility.
This woman was a determined and effective advocate for inclusivity and justice. Through her encounter with Jesus, she helps him enlarge his understanding of his mission and of the boundary of the new faith community he is forming. It remains a distinct community with its own unique identity and so it has a boundary. But that boundary is no longer the Torah or even sabbath. It is Jesus himself. And when we observe Jesus in the gospels, we see that he always points beyond himself to God, the Holy One, whom he reveals as Love. Perhaps we can say that the boundary of the community is Love Itself. And this boundary is permeable. Anyone who whose heart is open to God’s Love belongs to this Community, which Jesus refers to as the Reign of God. When we harden our hearts to love or restrict our love to the members of our own religious, racial or national tribe, we exclude ourselves from this community.
It’s impossible to reflect on these texts without relating the vision they offer to our present situation—or even to the whole history of the church and the world. The issue of boundaries has plagued the human community as long as it has existed. And faith communities have by no means been immune to this plague. How much suffering and death have we heaped upon one another to defend boundaries and keep our communities culturally, racially, or religious pure, to exclude or exterminate heretics or foreigners? We have now reached a time when defending our boundaries can lead to the destruction of the planet itself as a hospitable environment for life. As Martin Luther King said, we’ve come to a time in which the question is no longer violence or nonviolence, but nonviolence of nonexistence. When will we ever learn?
Obviously not yet. Dark forces appear to be gathering strength. Charlottesville is just the latest sign of that. But we have not yet blown the world up and perhaps we won’t. In this very fragile time, it’s important that we, like the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel, persist in our advocacy with boldness and determination as individuals and communities. It’s essential that we be indefatigable advocates for love and peace and justice and offer our love and peace to all, even our most hateful and dangerous enemies. For me, this has never been harder than it is now, because it seems so hopeless. But as the Canaanite woman knew, Jesus can help us. He never gave up hope for the world. If he had he would not have taught us to pray, “Your reign come, your will be done.” Whenever we pray these words we commit ourselves to the struggle to protect and preserve the earth and all its creatures. I believe this petition is also intended to renew our hope and our confidence in Jesus, who taught us to pray it. As the Canaanite woman knew, Jesus can help. His message and way of life can save the world. Our mission is to spread them by word and example.
This is exhausting and often unrewarding work and we seldom have victories to celebrate even in the best of times, to say nothing of today. But fortunately, in our exhaustion, we have places like this to come for encouragement and renewal. We come here to breathe in the Love of God. But we do not stay here. We leave renewed and energized to reenter the world and continue the struggle as we breathe that love out into the world. Or course this work is, beyond us. And so, acknowledging this, we cry out with this anonymous Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel, “Jesus, help us.”
Let us pray for our nation, that the Spirit of Jesus will lift up leaders from among us and empower them to calm our fear, champion justice and lead us toward reconciliation and peace.
Let us pray for the Church, that the Spirit of Jesus will lift up prophets who will courageously confront the forces of fear, hatred and greed that threaten our nation and the world and boldly proclaim the coming God’s Reign.
Let us pray for all who suffer from the plagues of violence, poverty, ignorance and disease and for all those who minister to them or work to change policies and systems that oppress them.