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Along the Way
August 14th, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
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Another look at the tough words Jesus has for the Canaanite woman.

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets of Israel work hard to keep the Hebrew people free from the contamination of Canaanite belief and practices. It wasn’t just that their cultures and religious beliefs were very different. The prophets feared that as the Hebrew people settled into Canaan and took up the life of farmers and settled merchants common to the Canaanites, they would begin picking up the same habits of belief and practice. These practices included child sacrifice, polytheism, and idol worship. In order to remain faithful to the Covenant established on Sinai, the faith and moral behavior of the Hebrew people was important. When ever the circumstances of the people of Israel went bad, the prophets traced it to a failure to be faithful to the Covenant. Thus, even for the Jews of the first century, the Canaanites were pagans who were to be avoided when ever possible.


On the other hand, the Canaanites of that time considered themselves to be a relatively sophisticated example of the influence of the dominant Greek-Roman culture in the Middle-East. To them the Jews were a bunch of backwoods religious fanatics.


Given this background, it is easier to understand the conversation we find in today’s Gospel reading. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, the famous Jewish healer. Her daughter is seriously ill and she is grasping at straws. Perhaps this country preacher she has heard about can actually help her daughter! She sees Jesus walking along a road through her village and cries out for help. 


Typically, the disciples are uncomfortable with this and ask Jesus to send her away. Perhaps it is because they are walking through pagan territory and don’t want to be the focus of anyone hostile attention. Perhaps it is because of their prejudice against the pagan peoples that surround Israel and whom they consider to be inferior. In any case, Jesus plays along with his disciples and reminds the woman that he is a simple backwoods preacher and she is a pagan. His gifts of healing are meant for the other backwoods believers like himself. In responding this way he is mocking the pretensions to being better than others of the woman and her people, as well as the disciples and the Jewish people.


The woman sees through this bit of teasing to the lesson underneath and gives back in like fashion. In the Roman world of the first century it is the Romans and the pagan peoples of the Empire who were the masters, yet she addresses Jesus as the master and reminds him that even the dogs receive scraps from their master’s table. She sees past the barriers that people create to keep each other at a distance, she sees only someone who may be able to help her daughter. She is persistent in seeking his help. Jesus is impressed and heals her daughter.


Sometimes barriers and boundaries are good. They help us to protect and preserve our beliefs, traditions and cultural practices. They help us to defend ourselves from those who might do harm to us.


Yet, barriers and boundaries also set up false distinctions between ourselves and other people. It is easy to begin viewing others as evil and out to get us, even when there is no basis in fact for such a perception. Such a way of viewing the world leads to violence, death and destruction. Such a way of viewing the world propagates fear and keeps us from becoming a community, forcing us into small enclaves of those who are most like us.


Each of the readings this week shows the danger of placing unnecessary walls between ourselves and others. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are the children of one God. Our differences give glory to the broad diversity of God’s creativity. Our differences are not meant to place enmity between us. The woman in today’s Gospel reading knew this and helped the disciples learn that lesson. As 21st century disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be aware of this truth and act upon it.


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Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.