“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty… For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.” (1982 Hymnal #469)
This familiar hymn expresses what we have seen and learned about Jesus and his love.
And then we read today’s gospel story.
Jesus’ attitude in this gospel is at the least, unexpected, and perhaps we might even say, shocking. Not that Jesus’ comments aren’t often shocking, at least to the establishment of his time. But his attitude today is not directed to the religious authorities but rather to a distraught Canaanite woman seeking help and healing for her child. His compassion is lacking in this encounter which is what makes it seem out of character to us. And we wonder why. Is Jesus just having a bad day or is there another explanation?
The Canaanites were ancient foes of the Israelites. Canaan was the grandson of Noah so the conflict went back to the days of Genesis. And since the time of Abraham, God had promised the Israelites the land of milk and honey—the land, the property, of the Canaanites. There were well-fought battles over this area. The animosity and lack of respect between these two peoples was long standing. By the time Jesus was on earth this was entrenched in both groups and at best they avoided each other. At other times they hurled insults at each other and called the other names, such as dog.
As in most cases of prejudice the beginning of the “pre-judgement” has to do with a level of fear and wanting to be safe and protected. The ancestors of Jesus and of this woman had fought and probably died over the land. There is a reason behind their attitudes toward each other, at first. Later the original reason may be forgotten or no longer hold truth as the prejudices become a part of each group’s implicit bias toward the other.
Here is a modern day example of a desire for safety turning into prejudice. In south east Urbana there is a large University housing unit known as Orchard Downs. These apartments are mainly for student families who are often from other countries. Many are new drivers and many are Asian. Wanting to remain safe, people in my neighborhood give a wide berth to cars going in and out of the streets near Orchard Downs. (Remember, at the beginning there is usually a reason for a concern.) However, when that concern broadens to the conclusion that all Asians are poor drivers, it becomes a pre-judgement, a stereotyping that may or may not be true of a particular individual. And this is the point to reexamine those biases.
Over much time this is what had happened between the Israelites and Canaanites. The animosity and prejudices between the two groups had become ingrained and quick to be expressed.
So, in this morning’s passage from Matthew, the woman who approaches Jesus has at least three such prejudices against her. By looking at her one can tell she is a gentile, a different religion than Jesus and his followers; perhaps she is a worshiper of Baal, perhaps multiple gods. She is from a different culture; she is a Canaanite. And she is a woman.
To a practicing Israelite she is unclean times three and to be avoided, as if she did not exist. This is what Jesus and his disciples saw, three stereotypes in one person coming to bother him. And at first this is what Jesus did. He ignored her pleas, seeking to avoid her and her requests. His cultural group and his religion taught him that she was unclean.
As the encounter continued Jesus did answer her. He said that his ministry was for the Israelites, thinking she would go away. But then Jesus’ denial went a step further by implying the common derogatory term for her group of people. It is here with his crass remarks, we wonder, is this the same Jesus we know and worship? Where is his compassion?
One school of thought among Biblical scholars is that Jesus acted in this way as a teaching tool to show his disciples that their ingrained attitudes were against God’s love for all. Perhaps this explanation has merit, however, when Jesus used a teaching tool such as this, he generally has gone on later to explain his reasoning to the disciples privately. That did not happen in this instance.
Another school of thought cited by some Biblical scholars is that this was early in Jesus public ministry, before his deep compassion had been invoked. From this perspective, in today’s encounter Jesus was moved by a particular woman and her actions. This point of view comes from the basic understanding that creation was not just a one-time thing. Rather, God has created; God does create; and God will create. There are times that God makes a new creation, takes a new attitude, turns in a new direction. This interpretation holds that this particular incident was a pivotal moment for Jesus in his ministry. Through this woman his understanding of the abundance of God’s mercy spreads to the entire world, rather than one small group of people.
So let’s look at what that unnamed woman, the three time loser, did that helped Jesus to broaden his ideas. First the woman acknowledged Jesus’ lineage by calling him Son of David; others had not yet done that. By naming Jesus in this way, she recognized him as the fulfillment of what the expected Messiah would be—in David’s lineage. She also called him Lord, recognizing his position of authority. And she used the time honored password of a follower of the Christ, the Kyrie Eleison. She asked Jesus for mercy. Today we still pray using the same words as she did, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me”.
Finally she knelt in front of him, a posture reserved mainly for kings in Jesus’ time. She knew that the Jesus she asked for help was the Messiah, the Christ, and she was among the first to make that connection.
Her dialogue answered Jesus objections to her by asking for just a bit of mercy, even a crumb.
Her manner of approaching Jesus, as well as her words, caused him to see past the pre-judgements of an outcast coming to him and instead to see the individual she was. Interesting that her insight came first; she had definitely seen who he was—the Messiah, the Christ. She hoped that the mercy allotted to the Israelites would be more than enough to flow over to her. And of course it was. Through her persistence and her faith in what Jesus could do, she received the mercy she requested of him.
This pivotal event assures that we too can ask and receive the same mercy. Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me. Kyrie Eleison.
There is a wideness in God’s mercy that is big enough to include us all.