Tenth Sunday after Pentecost 17 August 201
(Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Psalm 67 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15: 10-28)
“Shout Out the Good News!”
What does a conference of 800 Roman Catholic nuns gathering in Nashville, TN, this past week have to do with a story from Matthew’s Gospel of a Canaanite woman bothering Jesus to no end, this fanatic foreigner shouting out to Jesus for mercy, this uppity outsider challenging Jesus’ mission, and ultimately questioning what Jesus defines as God’s will for himself?
Maybe there is more of a connection than we might initially expect.
At the end of yet one more difficult week where we’ve struggled with the suicide death of Robin Williams; where we’ve followed the ongoing story of street riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of an African America man; where 35 people were found inside a shipping container being unloaded in England; where two Amish girls were kidnapped and abused in upper NY State; and where airstrikes have been resumed over Iraq, you would think I could find a more realistic connection between the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel with one of these headline stories.
So…..you may ask, what is so important about this conference in Nashville, the annual Leadership Conference of Women Religious?
To me, what is so important is that this group of women has been under scrutiny and investigation for the past five years, for being unfaithful to their tradition and “focusing too much on the poor and on social justice issues” [see Sr. Nancy Schreck’s keynote speech]. These women have been bothersome and persistent, and in the words of Eugene Kennedy, emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, “the charges against these good women are trying to be settled in a most dramatic display of disapproval since Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg” [National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2014].
Bothersome and persistent women—sounds a lot like a Gospel text I heard not too long ago about a Canaanite woman!
Of all the snapshots of Jesus that the Gospels give us, his encounter with the Canaanite woman is one that many people would like to rip from the pages of the Bible. No one on Jesus’ side comes out of this one looking like a winner.
The disciples keep saying, “Get rid of her; she keeps shouting after us!” Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman says, “Lord help me!” Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take children’s food and give it to dogs.” She says, “Even dogs eat crumbs!” They have a pretty good “he says” “she says” thing going here.
We already know what the disciples are thinking. They already think Jesus always acts inappropriately with women, sinners and foreigners. They are never happy about that! So now he starts talking to this crazed, ranting woman who keeps asking Him for a miracle! They know their answer: get rid of her!
And up to this point, Jesus seems to share their opinion. She’s not a lost sheep of Israel. And where does she get off using their language and calling Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David”? That’s their religious language and she’s a pagan fanatic and has no right to use such language. And finally, this time Jesus is saying exactly what the disciples want Jesus to say. You can bet those disciples standing behind Jesus were giving “high-fives” to each other with big smiles! “Finally,” they think, “Jesus has vindicated their sense of superiority over those who do not believe as they do.”
For whatever reason the Gospel writer Matthew passed this story on down to us as he did, the woman has one-upped Jesus in the game. But it’s not quite over! Jesus has one more thing to say. He looks at the woman and says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!”
And the disciples’ glee and “high-fives” come crashing to the ground. Jesus has done it yet one more time—he made the disciples look at their own prejudices and restricted views of God’s mercy!
Again, notice the impact! Last week Jesus says to Peter, “Oh you of little faith” (Mt. 14; 31). And then, a few verses earlier in the passage today, Jesus berates the Pharisees, those defenders of the faith of the children of Israel, for their rigidity to religious law. And now Jesus tells this fierce yet faithful foreigner that “she is a woman of great faith” (Matthew 15:28). Go figure!
So where is the Gospel Good News for us today?
I think of something Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister wrote last week relating to the Conference of Women Religious, that points us in the right direction. She said: “Not too long ago, when nuns wore habits, making them very noticeable, the world barely noticed them, and if they did, it was in some comical or stereotypical way. Today, nuns do not dress differently, yet all of a sudden, the world is beginning to notice them. The irony is palpable. Clearly, witness is at least as powerful as uniforms.” [From Where I Stand, August 8, 2014].
Please know that, for me, the purpose of any sermon is never to criticize another religious tradition, but always to lift up the joy of the Gospel which advocates a new freedom in human relationships. When Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “Great is your faith,” I believe Jesus is talking about faith as witnessing to the Good News of God’s mercy for all people.
These remarkable religious women have demonstrated just that! They have stood firm and persistent in sharing the Good News that God’s mercy goes out to all a suffering world. They will not be silenced, as would not the Canaanite woman. Therefore, my reason for mentioning these religious women is because I believe we need to stand with them, and never to be silent in the face of injustice!
Silence in the face of injustice is a crime. Silence in the face of abuse is a transgression of humanity. Silence in the face of government policies that do not protect children and the vulnerable of society is a felony. To not “shout out” for the mercy of Jesus is to negotiate and compromise our baptism. There is no room for silence in this church this morning!
For each one of us, there is no room for anything other than to be persistent and to be alive with the radical message of the love of Jesus Christ for all people! Amen.