That is what it means to be ‘Catholic’.
Today’s Gospel is about crossing boundaries into a new territory that is not only geographical but also a venture into differences of culture, gender and religion. Jesus has been struggling with the painful reality that his opponents among the religious leaders of his own people do not accept him. As he crosses out of his own territory he’s accosted by a woman who’s also struggling with pain and rejection. She’s the mother of a daughter with a disability, whom she describes as ‘tormented by a demon.’ No doubt both mother and daughter are ostracised by the ancient and mistaken suspicion that such a disability is the consequence of sin.
Because of her profound and passionate love for her daughter she knows, as any parent if a child with a disability knows, that she desperately needs help for herself if she is able to continue to care for her daughter.
The response of Jesus may shock us – firstly his silence, his ignoring of her. We probably expect him to react to the woman as we want him to respond to us, immediately and positively. Is Jesus struggling with his identity, his mission, his prejudices. If we deny Jesus such struggles we minimise the reality of the incarnation, the mystery of the Word made flesh, fully sharing our humanity in a certain time and place, with a particular ancestry, ethnicity and culture – and we deny his relevance for our own struggles. The disciples want to get rid of this outsider, maybe thinking that they’ve enough trouble on their hands with a despondent Jesus. Impatient men and distraught women are not a good combination!
But this woman is tenacious and bold, yet humble. She gets down in the dust in front of Jesus and asks for his help a second time. Impelled by this faith Jesus crosses into new territory of understanding of himself and his mission to the nations. As Matthew’s predominantly Jewish-Christian community struggled with the increasing number of gentile Christians who were joining them it was significant that this encounter is told to them to see how Jesus himself had to struggle with a Gentile – and to see how he recognised her great faith.
It’s not only Matthew’s first century Christian community which needs to look carefully at its own racism, sexism and cultural superiority that we see reflected in this Gospel. You might remember the recent publicity from the Catholic Parish in Wodonga which was challenging racism after one of it Congolese refugee ministers of the Eucharist was pained by the avoidance of him as a minister of the Eucharist. They recognised that “It may be human nature to fear what we don’t know or to fear being challenged by difference,” “But, as a Christian community we have to be above human nature, we are kingdom people and it should never be levelled at a Christian community that they were in any way selective or non-accepting of difference.”
We might also see such a challenge in the riots in London and other major cities across Britain in this last week. While it’s easy to simply dismiss those involved by using such derogatory labels as ferals and low life to jump on the law and order bandwagon that will repress any such uprising, it may be more complex than and more threatening to our self-understanding than this first reaction may seem – just as it was for Jesus and the dogged Canaanite woman.