Summary: Cleansing the heart and intentions is way more important than ceremonial washing of hands, even in the time of COVID-19
20th Sunday in Course 2020
My ancestors came mostly from Ireland, although the coat of arms we display in our home, that says “Cunningham,” is actually Scottish. I suppose that confirms the British suspicion that the Irish tend toward appropriating the property of others. Nonetheless, the fact that we are incorporated into the family of the true God depends on two critical decisions. First, the early Church leaders listened to the Holy Spirit telling them that Gentiles were just as worthy of and receptive to the call of Christ as the Jews. And, to tell the truth, we were more receptive. Second, the Irish monks kept the faith alive and kept on copying the sacred books and even the books of pagan antiquity, and then began with Britain to reconvert western Europe to Catholicism after the barbarians had burned down the Roman empire.
Isaiah and many of the other prophets, particularly Jonah, were very clear in the centuries prior to the birth of Jesus. The people of Israel were chosen by God, true. But in the end, their mission was to draw all of the peoples of the world to right worship in Jerusalem, and right conduct, following the Ten Commandments. Everyone who adopts the covenant God gave to Israel, and keeps the Lord’s Day holy, will offer acceptable sacrifice. And the sacrifice is what we do today, in the Eucharist, the Mass. As the Jerusalem temple was to be a house of prayer for all people, so this house, this congregation, is a house of prayer for all people. As James Joyce is supposed to have said, “the Catholic Church is ‘here comes everybody.’”
Moreover, on the other side of Christ’s lifetime, Saint Paul declares himself the apostle to the Gentiles. In today’s language, Gentiles were the prime market for this son of Israel. Paul looks forward to the end of time and tells us that just as the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus led to the reconciliation of the world to God, so he expected that prior to the general judgement and resurrection of the dead, the Jews would accept Christ as the Messiah and their Lord.
So what on earth explains this apparently horrible treatment of the Gentile Canaanite woman by Jesus Himself? Let’s look at how St. Matthew sets up the scene. Jesus starts off in His home territory, Galilee, which is in the northern part of Palestine. He’s just been in verbal battle with the scribes and Pharisees of Galilee, who are complaining that His disciples eat without the ritual purification of their hands. Jesus tries to reason with them, but their confronting language and citing of Scripture, He realizes, is even starting to get under the skins of His disciples. He’s tried to teach that what defiles a man or woman is what is inside their heart, for that is where evil thoughts, murder, fornication, adultery, theft and all the other external sins get their start. So cleansing the heart and intentions is way more important than ceremonial washing of hands, even in the time of COVID-19.
So that’s why our Gospel today begins with the words “Jesus went away from there.” He needs a rest from the constant assault of the Jewish leaders who believe that they are worthy of redemption but the common people and Gentiles are damned. They have totally forgotten that Israel’s call was and is to gather all the nations to right conduct and right worship. And here comes, as if summoned, a living parable for His disciples.
She’s a Canaanite woman with a possessed daughter. Listen, I have three daughters, and there’s no pain like having a child with a serious illness. I can only imagine what I’d feel if the child were possessed. So she appeals to Him as the rightful king of Israel, the Son of David. Remarkable. Not even many of the Jewish appellants calls Jesus by that name. What does Jesus do? He assumes the cultural attitude of a Jewish leader, certainly in mockery. The Greek literally says “but the no answer He spoke.” So she must have bugged His disciples a lot because then they came to Christ and literally screamed a request to tell the woman to get lost. Jesus answered with what the Pharisees would in violation of the covenant say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Of course, that’s totally wrong, and Jesus is about to show that it is.
The woman comes and kneels down, as a servant in the sight of her master, “Lord, help me.” That’s what Jews asked Jesus when they were out of options in an illness or other difficulty. Jesus doubles down with the standard “I’m an Israelite, and that’s special to God, and you’re not, you dirty goy” statement: ““It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Because Gentiles were dogs to the Pharisee. Now that’s as far as Jesus will go, because the woman responds perfectly: “Well, yeah, but don’t your dogs eat the crumbs that fall from your tables?” That is good humor, and it is an awesome act of humility and faith. Jesus rewards her with a word He uses only seven times in the Gospel. He calls her “woman.” When Jesus uses that word, it is always–always–a word of total affection. He is either forgiving sins or healing when He says that, and on two occasions He identifies His mother with the word, the final time on Calvary when she stands as the New Eve at the moment He is healing–redeeming the world.