My friends, the readings presented to us this week are challenging to our comfort level in many ways—look out for Ordinary Time! First, the prophet Isaiah says simply, “Do what is right—work for justice.” But we must face the question, is that “simple” to do? In this day and age, it would appear not, when we find ourselves looking for leadership in Church and State and finding little in either place. But yet, the challenge is there—do what is right!
The second reading from Paul to the Romans shows his dilemma in doing the “right thing.” Paul has to come to the conclusion that as much as he wants to minister to his own people; he is being called to minister to the Gentiles, because they are the ones who are listening and believing.
Then, in the gospel, we see our brother Jesus ministering to his own people and basically turning his back on a Gentile woman who challenges him, “to do the right thing.” So what are we to make of this?
We have talked often here about how Jesus sayings are multi-layered and this certainly is true when he speaks in parables—there is generally a simple, surface message, for instance, in the Sower and the Seed; if you throw seed among the rocks, it may not grow—and then there is the deeper message for which Jesus told the story in the first place; if we pursue evil rather than good in our lives; we may not flourish.
In the gospel today, one, by the way, that many of us find hard to take because we find ourselves saying, “Did Jesus really mean to speak to this woman in such a rude way, when she was simply asking for help for her daughter?” His statement to her, “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” speaking of his ministry to the house of Israel as opposed to the Canaanites or Gentiles, can hardly be looked at in a favorable light, can it? Let’s leave that for the time being.
This gospel today about the exchange between the Canaanite woman and Jesus is a very good one for us to consider when contemplating what it is to be human. One of the most important things for us to remember when hearing this gospel is the reality of Jesus’ human existence—that he was totally immersed in his humanity. While true that he was God, Jesus was totally human too. This means that all of his actions aren’t always going to look perfect. That’s right; all of his actions aren’t always going to be perfect! Part of being human is to be limited, including Jesus—if this were not the case; we couldn’t say that Jesus was truly human. It’s our ability, like that of Jesus, to rise above our limitations that will make all the difference in the way we live out our Christian lives. Sadly, there were probably some who were part of the mob in Charlottesville who among titles, might have claimed to be Christians also.
Through Scripture study, scholars have let us know some of the history existing between the Jewish people and the Canaanites to help us understand Jesus’ reaction. Several cultural and social issues come into play in their exchange. The Jewish people and the Canaanites were enemies because of the Israelites conquering them and taking their land. The Jews saw their victory as a gift from God, and as a result, this made their land holy in their eyes. Any group of people that didn’t believe in their God; they considered “pagans.” Such was the case with the Canaanites. Jesus would have known this history and to a point, probably believed it.
There was also the social taboo of a man talking to an unattended woman which would have been part of his upbringing in the culture in which he lived. Jesus was completely immersed in his humanity and so when he responds to the Canaanite woman as he does, these cultural beliefs and practices would have come into play and right or wrong in our minds; they were part of his frame of reference.
The important thing that we should take from this exchange is that Jesus broke out of his humanity and did the right thing. The Canaanite woman had culture, gender and religious commitment against her and Jesus had to move past all of that and do what was right. What better way to bring someone into the fold then to show them through loving, compassionate action that there was something worth bothering over? It is really something for us to ponder—how Jesus’ humanity and divinity must have warred with each other throughout his earthly life.
That having been said, many of us, including myself, still find it difficult to think of Jesus as less than perfect or in any way biased—but this Gospel shows us that he clearly was—just like us! This fact should give us hope because Jesus had to struggle against his humanity, just as we do and in this example, we see that he had to struggle with the truth that this Gentile woman was challenging him to see.
Jesus was divine, he was human—fully on both counts—he had to struggle to be true to both parts. In this example, we see that his divinity didn’t necessarily make it easier to do, “the right thing”—to do justice, as a human being. We as humans are of God—we are divine too—becoming our best selves means to respond to the divine within us.
Scripture scholar, Diane Bergant says that if we don’t accept Jesus’ at times, shortcomings—than that minimizes the extraordinariness of those of his actions that break through the limitations of his culture, his humanity. Being completely human, Jesus became a man of his own limited time and culture—but at the same time, he was open enough to break out of that limitation.
In the letter selection today from Romans; we see Paul’s continuation of the struggle with his own people that they would accept Jesus as the Messiah, and as he comes to accept their inability to see and believe what he has come to see, that Jesus is the Christ, he knows in his prophet’s heart that he must break out of his limitations too—his love for his own people, and share the truth with those who will accept it—the Gentiles.
The notion that Jesus was completely human and for a time while with us, appeared less than perfect, should, as I said before, be a point of great hope for each of us in our humanity as we strive to be more like God. I often find myself praying with Paul—“I know what is the right thing to do, but often I do the wrong thing.” Friends, like Jesus, we are subject to our cultures, our upbringing, our limited existences as human beings.
Sometimes we get down on ourselves because we see so many problems that we can’t fix. Our humanity calls us toward having a life-giving experience while here. Enjoying all that is good, struggling with the injustice that we see and attempting to bring good and not bad to those around us. We, like Jesus, must continually break out of our limited existences, do what is right and just as Isaiah spoke of today, remembering that the promises of help from our God are meant for all of us—for no one is a foreigner,
an enemy—but all are welcome and all are friend in our Universal God’s kindom. A wonderful group in our community of which I am proud to be part of, The Winona Interfaith Council strives to recognize all people as God’s people—a noble task for us all.
In conclusion, this week in Ordinary Time calls each of us to move past our limitations as Jesus, our brother did, “get out of our boats” of comfort, as we discussed last week and attempt to “walk on the water” as Peter did.
We were all saddened and horrified to see the violence and hatred that came out of Charlottesville last weekend and the lack of moral leadership out of Washington. Let us pray friends for each other that we can be strong in the face of this and always, “do the right thing!