Isaiah 56:6-7
Foreigners … I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
In the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy, foreigners were non-Israelites residing in Palestine. They could become Israelites by adoption. Deuteronomy also said that all Canaanites were excluded from this privilege, it allowed Egyptians and Edomites after three generations, Moabites and Ammonites after ten generations. The reasons for this are the problems of the false religions that these different nations had, and their ongoing relationship with Israel.
Some of the relationship was because of blood, as in the case of the Moabites and Ammonites. Some of it was because of the length of time they spent with the Egyptians – hundreds of years, and there were probably some mixed bloods, so there was an allowance for Egyptians and Edomites to join the covenant of Israel after a few generations of living in the land and accepting the laws of God.
Now, the reason the Canaanites were not allowed that same privilege was because of their choice to maintain their false religions, even after Israel had conquered the land. They were a stumbling block for the Jewish religion.
This is a good background for understanding why we hear what we hear in the gospel. But, do not believe that Jesus was somehow prejudiced. No, it is more likely that he understood the prejudice of his people, and probably his own apostles, and was testing them so that they could understand the foolishness of that prejudice. He understood full well, as God, what this woman was asking for and how far she was willing to go to obtain the grace of healing.
Jesus is making a very important point. There is no one… NO ONE… who is unworthy of the attention of God, or the mercy of God, or the blessings of God, or the healings of God.
As I said, in ancient times, there was a reason for this type of prejudice: it helped to maintain the integrity of the faith. When God laid out the covenant in Deuteronomy, he wanted to make sure that this covenant he had with his people would remain strong and as pure as possible. But mixing in other people who did not understand the covenant ran the risk of them bringing things into the faith that did not belong, as far as God was concerned.
Now, by the time we reach the days of Jesus and his apostles, the Jewish faith was well-established. The risk of the faith being perverted by ideas coming from other religions and other people was minimal. They had withstood the influences of the Greeks and the Romans. They had withstood the effects of Assyria and Babylon. They were sure of the truth of the covenant with God through Abraham.
But, maybe because of some of their sureness in the Jewish faith, they put down others, such as the remaining Canaanites. It is certainly true that they put down the Samaritans. The Samaritans were a mixed breed of Jews with other nationalities forced on them by the Assyrians. So, “true Jews” despised the Samaritans, the Canaanites, and especially the Romans.
So when this Canaanite woman asks for a healing, Jesus wants to overcome some of the cultural prejudices that existed in his fellow Jews, maybe even in his apostles. I do not think there is an easier explanation for the reaction of Jesus. He was preparing his apostles for what was to be the fullness of his church. At the risk of placing something in the mouth of Jesus, he did not intended to be only for the Jews, despite what he says here.
No, Jesus’ work was intended for all of humanity. It was only during the time before his crucifixion that he focused exclusively, or almost exclusively, on the Jews. And the biggest tragedy of our faith today is that there are many people who still have a hard time dealing with those who are different. It takes a lot of work to overcome this inclination toward excluding “the other”. It is hard to break down walls. But, that is the core of what we are called to do.
How long will this take? Deuteronomy gave three generations to distant cousins. It gave ten generations to those who were on the edge of understanding God’s work. How many generations will it take for us to overcome these problems in our own society? In our own parishes?
I wish I had an easy answer. I know my understanding of cultures has changed just in the last couple of years as I have tried to learn Spanish. I know that we have a long way to go. And, looking at the history of the United States, these are problems that will be around with us for many more generations.
But the work has to begin somewhere. Why not make that “somewhere” be right here, right now? As I am in Assumption Church this weekend, I am here because we are in need of building a new reality of culture here in Southeast Omaha.
We now have four different churches, each with a different culture, plus two that have been closed since two thousand fourteen, that we are trying to work into an integrated community of faith. This kind of adjustment is not easy. I know because I have had to do it before in other parts of the diocese. Father Bond was involved in this in one parish assignment that he had. Now, we have been asked to take on one of the biggest jobs of combining communities that the diocese has ever seen.
Our goal is to honor everybody’s history, and look to the future knowing that Jesus’ desire is to bring healing into each one of our hearts. We need to be open to what he is calling us to, and to work together that we will not just be eating scraps that fall from a table, but can enjoy the full banquet of our Catholic faith.