When I looked at Matthew’s gospel while preparing for today’s Sunday Eucharist, I had the impression that I have already heard similar stories somewhere else. Where? Oh yes, in the book of Midrash, the jewish writings. I don’t know if you ever heard if it. So before explaining why today’s story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman looks very much like a Midrash, it’s worth saying what a Midrash is.
In the Rabbis’ tradition a Midrash is an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah. (In the Bible, the root d-r-sh is used to mean inquiring into any matter, including occasionally to seek out God’s word.) Midrash then responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text, which in some type of Midrash would imply to ability of creating homilies and parables based on the text.
In this sense, Matthew’s story about Jesus and the Canaanite looks very much like a Midrash, a made up story to inquire a very important question and make connections between a new Christian reality and the biblical text. Now what was the question and what is the new reality connected to this text and perhaps the main reason of the question? Can a Canaanite, a foreigner, a pagan be part of the new Israel, the Christian community, if he/she hasn’t be part of the People of God, the old Israel? Foreigners who converted to Judaism were usually treated as a second class believers. So, how can they now become Jesus’ followers without previously been Israelites? This is the crucial question that Matthew’s gospel is trying to answer, which triggers a question about to whom Matthew is speaking to, and with whom he is engaging on this debate. It seems to me that the gospel talks to a community of people who converted from Judaism to Christianity and struggle to accept that non Jewish people can convert to Christian faith and be treated as equals to them. This is perhaps their problem: how anyone who didn’t belong to the chosen People of God can be treated the same way as us, the chosen ones? This is not a new question as we heard from the Book of Isaiah, but it is certainly a question that has been asked over and over through the history of the People of Israel, and has its grip on our current reality.
Isaiah is prophesying a time where “all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant, these I will bring to my holy mountain. (…) For my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”. Isaiah is actually predicting a future where ethnic identities and political, social and cultural differences won’t matter anymore, because God’s message will be universally equally heard by anyone anywhere. Are we there yet? Well, Isaiah’s prophecy sounds more like a idealistic utopia that never happened during Israel’s time and it is hard to see in our society. Strongly affirmed in theory and beautifully defined in International Declarations, it seems to clash with a reality of social tensions, hatred and divisions. For instance, what happened in Charlotteville a few days ago cannot be underestimated.
Today’s gospel challenges us on a personal and community level asking the same question again and again. Imagine for a second then -instead of Tyre and Sidon, the cities mentioned in the gospel- the text would you say Baghdad and Pyongyang? Just imagine that instead of a Canaanite woman, it would say a north Korean woman or Syrian nationalist (bearing in mind that this is just an example). A Jewish converted to the Christian faith would have hardly believed in the conversion of a Canaanite as well as we would probably be very skeptical about a North Korean or a Syrian nationalist converting to democracy after so many decades of Communist brainwashing or years of active terrorist violence. Now maybe this not to politically correct, but this comparison would help us to understand the impact that it would have probably generated in the early Christian community a story like the one we heard from today’s gospel. Like a stone thrown into a pond of still water, it would reverberate by generating so many circles of reflections and reactions into our congregation and local community as well. Jesus not only it eventually acknowledged the Canaanite’s faith, but also praised her faith and boldness. Fascinating! In that sense, the one who truly understood how revolutionary was Jesus’ message for the early Christian communities and the future of the whole Christianity is, without any doubt, St Paul. And he says it clearly in his letters. As a matter of fact, in the letter to the Romans, the one we heard today- he talks explicitly about the full inclusion of the Gentiles -meaning the non Jewish people- in God’s plans of salvation. Who are they? Usually, they are foreigners. What question is left to our reflection? Today’s gospel challenges us in our inner and, very often, psychological and sociological temptation of dividing the world, and our world in two main categories: in and out, insiders and outsiders, in-group and out-groups, and essentially us and them. Thi dualistic view of the world can really become an evil dynamic in our daily life, especially when we start making decisions based on these two categories. It is not just discrimination, it is more about the way it shapes our mindset and pushes us to pigeonhole people in certain boxes and being able to take control of the situation by labelling them. Think of what happened in Charlotteville: white supremacists against counter-demonstrators. This is quite common in the Church of England as well. And although I personally think that the diversity of traditions expressed in the UK is a more a sign of the richness of the Church than a sign of divisions, some people would perhaps see it a way of feeling less anxious about with whom I’m engaging with and who’s who. You are Anglo-Catholic, and he is Evangelical, but not conservative, and so on and so forth. The gospel will always challenge our mindsets and try to open our minds pushing us to the limits and beyond, to Tyre and Sidon, where a Canaanite -a foreigner, someone we already labelled and from whom we would expect the worst- would surprise us showing a greater faith that any other faithful Israelite or Christian.