A Dominican Friar (Priest) reflects on the Sunday Readings
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 Mt. 15:21-28
In his book Years of Minutes: The Best of Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes (Essay Productions, 2003), Andy Rooney makes some comments in his essay “On Mixing Flavors. “Obviously, I like to eat,” writes Andy “but I do have some rules. I don’t mix flavors. I like vanilla ice cream and I like chocolate ice cream but I don’t put them in a dish together. Friday, I went to the deli across the street and took a sandwich and a Coke back here to my office. I opened the Coke, took a gulp and almost spewed it over the papers on my desk. I looked at the label and it said VANILLA COKE. Well, I like Coke and I like vanilla but I dislike VANILLA COKE.”
My guess is that Andy dislikes mixed flavors because of the way he perceives the mixture. His perception of things is based upon what he can see, what he can smell, and certainly what he can taste. But what Andy perceives with his senses does not reveal the true nature of any mixture. Did Andy ever consider that a mixture of two or more kinds of food might provide the essential nutrients that are not found alone? For example, cranapple juice provides the vitamins and minerals found in cranberries and the vitamins and minerals found in apples. Mixed together—cranberries and apples do far more good together than they do alone. But Andy would find this out only if he looks beyond what he can see, smell, and taste to the essence of the mixture.
In today’s gospel, Jesus, like Andy, is responding to what he perceives with his physical senses. Jesus sees and hears a Canaanite woman. Jesus sees and hears his disciples complain. And Jesus spews out that he doesn’t like to mix Jews and Canaanites. After all, the Canaanites were the first people who tried to keep the chosen people from entering the Promised Land. After all, the Canaanite was a woman and women at the time Jesus lived were considered to be property and not people. After all, the woman was pleading for her child who was a female. After all, the child had a problem, which according to Jewish belief, was caused by the sin of her parents. I don’t mix Canaanites with Jews—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!” Jesus says in reply. But the woman will not accept how Jesus perceives her. She slowly and confidently challenges Jesus to see her true nature. First, she does him homage as women were expected to do. Second, she acknowledges his Jewish status over the Canaanites by addressing him as the Son of David. Third, she waits appropriately for his response to her request. But her subtle and consistent challenge causes Jesus to look beyond who she is as a Canaanite woman with a sick child to see her true nature as a human being. She like Jesus is a person of faith whose love and concern for another human being has brought her to Jesus.
I want to point out to you that at first Jesus did not say a word to the woman. It was his disciples who not only brought him the problem but had the solution to the problem—“Send her away for she keeps calling out after us.” Could it be that Jesus was slowly and consistently challenging his disciples to see beyond their own bigotry and cultural biases? And if so, what is the gospel challenging us to do?
Throughout the world but especially in the United States there is a social reality called “White Privilege”. White privilege allows white people to have opportunities and freedom that people of color do not have. Peggy McIntosh, once associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, gives us some examples of white privilege:
- White privilege is when I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- White privilege is when if I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- White privilege is when I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- White privilege is when I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- White privilege is when I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
Peggy also points out that there is white male privilege. White male privilege allows white males to have opportunities and freedom that women of any color do not have. Here are some examples:
- White male privilege is when my odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants are probably skewed in my favor.
- White male privilege is when I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
- White male privilege is when my elected officials are people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.
- White male privilege is if I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.
- White male privilege is when I am being unaware of my white male privilege.
I believe that today’s gospel is challenging us to look at our lives not only with our white privilege and my white male privilege but all privileges that belong to some and not to others. We are challenged to ask ourselves how we can work together to bring freedom and opportunity to all people. Can we look beyond physical appearances to the nature of our humanity and be united with people because our pain, our suffering, our faith, our hope, and our love have no color?
At the end of his comments “On Mixing Flavors” Andy Rooney says: “You know . . . maybe I’ll retire and go into business. I’d make an artificially flavored, fat-free, honey-coated hazelnut hot dog. You could have it with no-cal French vanilla or chocolate flavored mustard.”
My response? Right on Andy! As long as there are hot dogs available for everyone!
A Dominican Sister Theologian reflects on the Canaanite Woman
Mathew 15, 21-28
What are we to make of this portrait of Jesus? As one scripture scholar remarks, “We seem to have caught Jesus with his compassion down!” It took at least three tries for this frantic mother to get Jesus to help her sick daughter. He meets her first plea with icy silence. With his back to her; he even explains to his disciples his “Israel First” policy, making her need not part of his job description.
So, what do we make of this incident? Even though we know that Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Jews, nevertheless, it seems so uncharacteristic for Jesus to ignore her.
If we go back to earlier episodes in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, we hear Jesus preaching his sermon on the mount where he says, “Love your enemies!” He then puts these words into practice, when he compassionately welcomes the Roman Centurion. He opens his arms to this enemy. He praises his great faith and heals his servant. We see him cross another boundary, as he reaches out to heal the outcast leper.
In yet another scene, his boundless mercy scandalizes the religious leaders of his day as he enjoys a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. So, this story of a Jesus pushing away this poor mother in a rather insulting manner gets our hackles up! What’s going on? Why did both Matthew and Mark include this story in their gospels?
Maybe it’s not about healing as much as it is about boundaries and being open to the presence and call of God in new and unexpected possibilities.
What will help us as we grapple to understand today’s story is to reflect first on our basic faith in Jesus. What do we believe about his humanity? Most of us were raised with a strong creedal affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. We believe he is the Incarnation of God, the Word made flesh. Less accentuated in our religious formation was the equally important doctrine of our faith: Jesus was fully human, like us in all things but sin. We need to keep these two truths in balance. The problem is we often favor his divinity and neglect the truth of his full humanity. We perceive Jesus as more divine than human. Taking this perspective, we would justify Jesus’ harsh treatment of the Canaanite woman by asserting that he knew all along what he intended to do and was merely testing this woman’s faith. In other words, his gruff rudeness was for her own good.
But what if we took a more balanced perspective that appreciates Jesus’ full humanity? As the persistent woman seeks to persuade Jesus to hear her cause. Jesus, unfortunately, only saw and heard her through the preconceptions of his own religious heritage that convinced him that his mission was limited to Israel. As we know from our own experience, healthy boundaries require us to humbly acknowledge our own limitations. We can’t do it all. We need to set priorities, maintain a laser focus, and be willing to say “no” to the expectations of others that threaten to divert us from our mission.
The danger, however, is that sometimes the single-minded pursuit of our goals can degenerate into individual and group bias that blinds us to the needs of others and diminishes our own humanity.
When the woman with her dogged determination turns up the pressure, Jesus sharply rebukes her, but she is more than equal to the challenge. If he is going to call her and her people “dogs,” she will remind him that the dogs always get the scraps that fall from the table.
With her masterful wit, she won his full attention. I imagine Jesus throwing back his head and howling with delight. He had been concentrating on boundaries, nationalities and religious restrictions, while she dedicated her whole self to the well-being of her child. As Mary McGlone playfully quips, “She hounded him into remembering the bigger picture.” Now Jesus looks at her softly with eyes of love. As he looks into her eyes, he sees the eyes of God looking back at him from across the human divide. At that moment, he knows with certainty that God’s saving love is meant for all people everywhere, especially the last and the least. He praises her great faith and grants her request for healing.
Now this rather dicey story of Jesus, whether we like it or not, shows a very human Jesus, capable of growing and learning from others. This incident with Jesus must have left his disciples in total shock. Here this pagan woman who had no right to make any claim on Jesus actually got him to rethink his position, to accept the validity of an opposing perspective, and to change his course of action for the better. He exemplified the same kind of openness and flexibility he demanded of others. This story makes his baptism and temptations in the desert all the more believable. It gives more credence to his Gethsemane prayer. Portraying him as a real human being who matured and learned, who struggled to accept God’s will even when it challenged his own assumptions, preferences or desires.
“We can’t ignore the fact,” says Mary McGlone, “that in the four gospels the only times we see Jesus obviously change his mind comes in response to requests by women: from this woman and from his mother during the wedding celebration at Cana. Perhaps the Gospel writers recorded this one because it showed just how true Jesus was to his option for the marginated”—even to the point of opening himself to women as his teachers. Jesus learns that when his vision needs broadening, God will send the unexpected, even disrespected teachers.”1 Whether we are learning with Jesus, or challenging boundaries with the Canaanite woman, we need to take some time to reflect on the diversity of people and events that God uses to get our attention in the hope of changing our minds.
I am sure you would agree that the horrific event of white supremacist terrorism which took place at the hate rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past week mirrors to us our own deep rootedness in white supremacy. Through these faces of terror—the faces of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members—God calls us with urgency to be about the work of our third enactment2 on embracing diversity. If we can more deeply own our own sinful story of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance in America, we can write our own redemptive ending. May we learn to live our lives in such a way that Jesus Christ our Savior, Dr. Martin Luther King and all those who gave their lives for civil rights will not have died in vain.
1 Mary McGlone, “Dogged Determimation,” NCR, Vol. 53, no. 22 (August 11-24, 2017), 19.
2 Third Enactment of the Adrian Dominican Sisters: “Rooted in the joy of the Gospel, we will embrace and nurture our rich diversity, commit ourselves to deepening our relationships with one another, invite others to vowed and Associate life, and expand collaboration for the sake of the Mission.”
Sara Fairbanks, OP