Let us prefer nothing to the love of Christ;
and may he bring us all to everlasting life.
In today's Gospel we hear the remarkable story of a Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter. "Canaanite" signified "pagan" to the Jews of Jesus' time. The area of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast northwest of the Jewish region was where those called pagans traditionally lived.
The woman was obviously desperate. Jews had nothing to do with pagans. Why, they would barely speak to the Samaritans! Besides that, women didn't ordinarily speak to strange men. Yes, she was desperate, all right -- desperate to find some help for her daughter. That much is obvious.
It is also obvious that this woman knew something about Judaism, and about Jesus. "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David." "Have mercy on me" is a cry of the afflicted often found in Scripture, especially in the Psalms. And in using the title "Son of David," she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. No doubt his fame had spread as far as Tyre and Sidon, but perhaps, too, her recognition was divinely inspired. "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David," reminds us of the blind men sitting by the roadside in Chapter 20. "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David," was their cry. Jesus touched their eyes, and their sight was restored, and they followed him.
Those blind men, however, were Jews. The cry of the Canaanite woman was not so welcome. At first, Jesus didn't answer her. And his disciples urged him to "send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." Even Jesus seemingly tries to brush her off. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But this woman is not easily discouraged. "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table," she answers.
"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." Here lies the key to the whole story. It is her faith that makes the difference. "Great is your faith" -- compare this to the words we heard addressed to the apostle Peter in last week's Gospel: "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Peter was a Jew, Jesus' friend, and one of the chosen twelve; yet this Canaanite woman had shown greater faith than Peter. And her faith is rewarded.
There are certain implications that could be drawn from the story of the Canaanite woman and her faith. You might ask, for instance, who are the Canaanites among us today? Who might a modern Christian want to see Jesus send away? Who would we modern Christians not welcome into our fellowship? And what message do we send, knowingly or unknowingly, to "the others," the Canaanites in our world?
A Jewish woman, no longer active in her own religion, has told of being repeatedly chased home after school by "Christian" children who threw rocks at her and yelled, "Christ-killer!" She is an agnostic now, she says. She doesn't know if there is a God or not, but it doesn't really matter to her. The actions of those so-called "Christians" took care of that.
A dark skinned family, in the wake of the disaster of September 11, suddenly found themselves shunned in the neighborhood where they had lived for years. "Nuke the ragheads!" signs appeared on their front lawn. It has always been like that. Children and adults were once brought from their native lands and enslaved, right here in "the land of the free and the home of the brave." In the 19th century, "No Irish need apply" signs once discouraged recent Irish immigrants to the United States from seeking employment. And Ireland itself is still split by sectarian, Roman Catholic-Protestant conflict. Loyal Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. German-Americans were called "krautheads." Many people automatically assume that all Italian-Americans belong to the Mafia. People from the Ozarks are called "rednecks." Jews and Palestinians remain enemies.
"They'll know we are Christian by our love," the words of the song say. Not by hate. Not by fear. Not by excluding anyone. We humans keep on drawing circles where only "me and mine" belong. The circles, some people think, will keep us safe. The circles will keep "them" out -- whoever they may be.
But the funny thing is, God keeps drawing bigger circles. God's circles are not meant to keep out anyone. God's circles are meant to invite people in. And isn't that a good thing for us all? If that weren't the case, we might risk finding ourselves on the outside. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants...these will I bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." God invites the people of all nations to God's holy mountain and it certainly isn't the place of Christians to ask God to send any of them away.
One other implication in this story is the importance of faith. "Woman, great is your faith." The Canaanite woman claims her place in the kingdom based on faith. In fact, the kingdom of God depends exactly on this kind of faith, rather than the particular family or ethnic group to which we belong or the socio-economic status we might have attained. "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David," was the cry of this pagan woman whose prayer was heard and whose faith was rewarded. We echo her prayer today: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us. Amen.