What Labels Convey
August 14, 2005
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
A religion teacher brought a clear glass jar into her classroom that was filled with a yellow substance. She asked the class, “What’s in this jar?” At first the children were not sure, but after examining it and smelling it and even tasting it, they realized that it was honey. “It’s honey,” the children said.
“Good,” said the teacher. Then she took a piece of white paper and wrapped it around the outside of the jar and fastened it with tape. She wrote on the paper: Vinegar. Holding up the jar again, she said, “Now what’s in this jar?”
“Honey,” all the children said.
“But the label says its vinegar.”
“It’s honey, just the same,” said the children.
The teacher seemed satisfied and she put down the jar and looked directly at the class, “What you have learned about jars,” she said, “apply to people.”
In our world, people come to us with labels: labels of race, income, religion, and culture. But we would be amiss if we were to confuse the labels from the real people that we encounter. In fact, as followers of Christ, we are called to be very wary about what labels convey because they are often at odds with the real people we meet. Jesus deals with labels in today’s Gospel. He is in pagan territory and a Canaanite woman comes up to him. She is a Gentile, a non-Jew. In the culture of Jesus’ day, there was a prejudice against Gentiles, that they were unable to have a genuine relationship with God. For a while Jesus participates in this prejudice. He refuses to heal the woman’s child, saying that his ministry is only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. But the woman persists, and in time Jesus recognizes her faith and heals her daughter.
As far as I can tell this is the only scene in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind. Instead of relating to the woman with the label “Gentile,” he perceives her as a genuine woman of faith. What Jesus does in the Gospel, we are called to do. As followers of Jesus, we are asked to deal with people, not through the labels they bear, but as the people that they are.
For example, the label “Jew” still carries a negative association in many Christian circles. Catholics have worked diligently since the Second Vatican Council to repudiate the erroneous claim that Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death. We have tried to echo the powerful statement of today’s second reading that the gifts and call of God to the Jewish people are irrevocable, that they still remain the beloved, chosen people of God. Yet it is still easy to find slurs and jokes that characterize Jews as unbelievers, as money-grabbers, as people who would manipulate their own influence for their own benefit. To accept that prejudice is sinful and it is contrary to the Gospel. We who follow Christ are asked to deal with other people in truth, not according to the false and prejudicial labels, which are often found in our environment. If we claim to be believers, we must not say, “This is the way Jews are. This is the way Moslems are. This is the way alcoholics, or homosexuals or people of a different race are.” We must ask ourselves whether we are viewing others through our own real experience or through the prejudices that labels can convey. To allow our lives be directed by the half-truths of labels is a serious flaw. It places us in direct opposition to the design of God.
God makes people. We make labels. So instead of letting our lives be directed by the prejudices that a label can carry, we are obliged to discover and to respect the real people God has made.
The Gospel and Boundaries
August 17, 2008
Matthew 15: 21 – 28
There are many ways to explain what it means to be a Christian, many paths by which we might describe how to follow Christ. But today’s Scriptures present us with a very practical description: a Christian is one who reaches across boundaries. We live in a world of boundaries. We are divided, time and again, one against another. Our planet is divided into different countries separated by distinct languages and customs. Our city is divided into neighborhoods. Some of us are white, others are black or yellow. Some of us are gay, others are straight. Some of us are rich, others are poor. Some of us are male, others are female. Sometimes the argument is made that these divisions are healthy and that we will be most happy and most safe when we remain separated from one another. When this viewpoint is translated into social policies, it gives rise to segregation, apartheid, or designing the master race. It is a sad fact of history that a society divided does not lead to peace but rather to violence, war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, or holocaust.
People of faith should be the first ones to recognize the fallacy of accepting divisions among us, because our Scriptures present to us with a vision of unity. In the first pages of the Bible creation is described as a gift from God in which all that is made is good. All humanity, male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God. The Hebrew prophets look forward to a day when all people will be one. Today’s first reading from Isaiah describes a day when all people will worship together on God’s holy mountain. So both in our origins and in our future the scriptures describe a unified world. But today’s world is one of many boundaries. And overcoming those boundaries is a real challenge.
In today’s Gospel Jesus struggles with boundaries. He withdraws from Israel to Canaanite country, and a Canaanite woman comes and asks him to heal her daughter. The Canaanites were not Jews. They were pagans who worshipped many gods. Their sacrifices were seen by Jews as abominations. Most Jews of the time would withdraw from Canaanites. They would not interact with them. Jesus seems at first to follow this approach. He does not respond to the woman. And when she presses her case, he insults her, calling her a dog. But the woman’s persistence, cleverness and faith win out in the end. Jesus heals her daughter. Jesus reaches across the boundary of religion, race, and gender and gives the woman an example of God’s love.
You and I, as followers of Christ, must imitate his example. To be a Christian, it is not sufficient simply to live peacefully in our own subdivision of the world. We must remember the intention of creation and the promise of that future day when all will be one. We must work to build God’s kingdom which is a kingdom of unity. We must do what we can to tear down the walls which divide us.
Parents here hold an essential responsibility. They are called to explain to their children the ways in which the world is divided and how it is God’s intention that those intentions cease. Young people returning to school – particularly high school and college—will enter an environment with much more diversity. Their faith calls them not simply to remain in the comfort of their own clique but to reach out to someone who is different, to try to build understanding and perhaps even friendship. All of us in our neighborhoods and in our jobs must remember the vision of Christ to treat those who are different from us not only with toleration but as children of God. In this political year, when we exercise our right to shape our government, our decisions should be guided by the gospel. Those candidates who call for inclusion and solidarity merit our support. Those who base their platforms on exclusion and fear do not reflect God’s vision for the world.
We live in a world marked by boundaries, but as Christians we understand that those divisions are not according to God’s will. We are called to build God’s kingdom, a kingdom where people can be one. To do this we must first identify who in our life is the stranger, the foreigner, the Canaanite. Then, following the example of Christ, we should reach across that boundary and offer an example of God’s love.
The Day Jesus Was Wrong
August 16, 2014
Today’s gospel passage is unique. As far as I can tell, it is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is wrong. Now we are not used to Jesus being wrong. Almost always, Jesus teaches and reveals God’s truth perfectly. And whenever he debates with his opponents, his arguments win the day. But here, in this encounter with a Canaanite woman, Jesus takes a stand that is contrary to the will of God. How is this possible? Don’t we believe that Jesus is divine? How can God be wrong? We do believe that Jesus is divine, and we also believe that he is fully human. And it is in his humanity that he is influenced by his culture and that he acts at times with incomplete knowledge.
These human limitations lead Jesus to make the wrong decision in dealing with the Canaanite woman. As a devout Jew, Jesus treasured the close relationship that God had established with the Jewish people. They were God’s children. Non-Jews, Gentiles, were not as close to God. Although they were certainly God’s creatures, they did not belong to God’s people. Jesus believed that his ministry was limited to his own people. He expected to find faith only among his fellow Jews. So when this Canaanite woman, who was a Gentile, comes and asks him to heal her daughter, Jesus jumps to the conclusion that it’s none of his business. At first, he simply ignores the woman. The text tells us that Jesus did not say a word in answer to her pleading. But when she persists, he not only rejects her request but also insults her. He says “it is not right to take the food of the children” (that is the Jewish people) “and throw it to the dogs” (that is the Gentiles, like you). In responding in this way Jesus was wrong. In his humanity, he was influenced by his culture and by his belief that God’s action in him was limited only to his own people.
But Jesus always is a model for us, and this is especially true in today’s gospel. Because when Jesus realizes that he is wrong, he changes his mind. When he sees this woman’s faith, he comes to understand that God is calling him not only to minister to his own Jewish people, but to the Gentiles as well. And once he sees this, Jesus repents. He changes direction. He heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
This gospel is telling us that we, like Jesus, can be influenced by our culture and can often act with incomplete knowledge. Therefore it must be our goal to locate the prejudices that we carry and to repent of them. It might be the prejudice that a person of a different race, religion, or sexual orientation does not deserve our respect. It might be the confidence that violence or coercion is the best way to protect our family or our country. It might be the belief that someone who has hurt us should not be forgiven. All of these beliefs can seem to be just part of the culture, just business as usual. But they are contrary to God’s will. And once we realize it, we must pray for the strength to reject them.
If Jesus could be wrong, there is every reason to believe that we can be wrong as well. That is why we must pray to our Lord, who changed his heart to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman, to change our hearts so that we can be better instruments of God’s love in our world.
The Courage to Speak
August 20, 2017
It’s been a difficult week: violence and death in Charlottesville, violence and death in Barcelona, concrete reminders that we live in a polarized and embattled world in which we are feeling less and less safe. The media is full of accusations, denunciations, and blame. What stance should we take as Christians in such an environment? The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel provides a direction. In a setting of fear she speaks what she believes is true. This woman believed that Jesus could cure her daughter, and so she cries out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” To make this request she had to overcome the fear she would not be heard because she was a woman in a male-dominated society and the fear she would be rejected because she was a Canaanite seeking help from a Jew. And even after Jesus’ initial rebuff, she continues to cry out, “Lord, help me!”
This Canaanite woman is an example to us, the example of courage to speak truth in a setting of fear. What is the truth we believe? You can answer this question as well as I can. We know that Jesus is opposed to violence. He teaches that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. He asks us to turn the other cheek and pray for our enemies. So when people in our family, our workplace, or school begin to suggest that a particular person or group should be shot, attacked, or hurt, we need to find the courage to speak out and say, “No, that is not what I believe as a Christian.” We believe that Jesus came to save all people and that every person is a son or daughter of God. So when people around us begin to imply that any particular race, religion, sexual orientation, or culture is evil and deserves our hate, we need to find the courage to say, “No, that is not what I believe as a Christian.”
The biggest mistake we could make is to think that the issues of violence and hatred do not apply to us. We cannot say it is not my problem because I don’t live in Charlottesville or Barcelona. I am not a Jew or a Moslem. When it comes to issues of hatred and racism, history has amply shown that we either stand or fall together. An attack against any particular group is an attack against us all.
During Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, many Germans decided to keep quiet and see what would happen. They watched as the Nazis targeted one group after another for elimination. The ineffectiveness of this silent approach has been immortalized in the words of Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor. He writes:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Like the Canaanite woman, we need to find the strength and courage to speak the truth of what we believe in a fearful situation. We must speak Jesus’ message of nonviolence, inclusion, and acceptance. We must speak out for others, because we stand or fall together.