What would Jesus make of today’s identity politics? I guess the question for me is raised by today’s gospel passage that sees our Lord, rather unaccountably, play the identity card. A non-Jew, described quite specifically as a Canaanite woman, comes to him begging for help; and he replies that he isn’t here for her. He is here to gather the lost children of Israel, that is, the Jews. For him, Jewish lives matter.
Now, we could excuse him using arguments we hear today: “No, it isn’t that other lives don’t matter, but in this particular situation there is a need to elevate the plight of the Jews, prioritize them.”
I’ve recounted in my preaching on several occasions the dire state of the Jewish people in the first century. Dispersed throughout the Roman world and beyond, a remnant hangs on in what we call the Holy Land. Their leaders are either corrupt or incompetent; they are more self-serving and self-concerned than true servants of the nation; they are arrogant in their presumption that they are the only ones fit to lead, and many are just cynical politicians exploiting the people’s predicament. The people of Israel have legitimate need of a saviour—that is beyond dispute.
Now, the Canaanite woman, who is she to demand Jesus’ attention? Think about this. She is Canaanite. That is, she is a member of a nation that is historically an enemy of Israel. It was the Canaanites who sent their chariots out against Israel. It was the Canaanites from whom Israel wrested the land and established themselves as a new nation-state in the ancient world. They are the villains of Israelite history; and most certainly, they don’t, and this woman doesn’t, worship the God of Israel.
Now I said at the outset that Jesus’ unwillingness to help her can’t be accounted for. Why?
Well, Jesus, much earlier in Matthew’s gospel, had visited the land of the Gadarenes, that is in the region known as the Decapolis. I’ve explained before that this was a region of pagan settlement. Certainly, there were Jews living in the area as well, but you’ll know this story: Jesus encounters demon-possessed men. He casts the demons out and puts their evil spirits into a nearby herd of pigs. Jews don’t eat pigs. Jesus is in a non-Jewish community; and indeed, he is in the midst of people settled in that area quite specifically to displace Jews. Why would he help them? But he does.
Now with reference to our story today, why would he help those pagan Gadarenes without the least objection then, but not this Canaanite woman now?
Even earlier, before casting out the demons, Jesus does a favour for a Roman centurion. You remember that story. The Roman comes and asks for his servant to be healed; and Jesus does it right then and there, without needing to go to the Roman’s home. Now, we might then think that the servant is Jewish, but just as likely the servant is not. We don’t know. What we do know is that it was a Roman, a non-Jew, a pagan, who asked for Jesus’ help.
Again, why help an official of the occupying imperial forces holding down the people of Israel, but not the Canaanite woman who herself is a member of a defeated people, and really represents no threat?
Do we not now suspect that Jesus is trying to make a point?
Recall the text: the disciples respond to her first, not Jesus (he doesn’t answer her, but has the disciples do so); and they try to get rid of her. Failing, they ask Jesus to tell her to get lost. And he knows the reason: the disciples understanding of the Messiah is that he is only sent to rescue Israel, and Israel understood as being just the Jews. But Jesus has come for everyone. And what he then demonstrates, something he does throughout the gospels whenever he encounters this attitude of privilege on the part of Jews, he shows them that faith, and by that we can understand faith as a belief in the reality of justice, mercy, truth and grace, and so on, are not restricted to just one nation, one people, but are foundational to every human person. And so, every human person who recognizes this, ought to have access to these things of God.
He knew the Canaanite woman would show this to the disciples. And it’s not an instance of Jesus being a mind-reader, he could see it plain as day by the very temerity of her to approach him as a Canaanite, as someone who has been labelled as an enemy, worse than a dog to the people of Israel, and yet she came.
Canaanite lives matter.
I have a problem with “social justice.” The problem simply being one shared by St. John Paul II when he spoke and wrote about the concept of social sin, which is the flipside of the concept of social justice. The social justice movement is ostensibly about addressing societal injustices, that is, social sins against justice? This is where I make my connection to thought of that great saint, theologian and pope. For St. John Paul II argued from the tradition of the Catholic faith that ultimately all sin is personal. Only persons can sin. Societies don’t sin. Racial groups don’t sin. Ethnicities don’t sin. Individuals sin. And only individuals can bear the responsibility for sin.
He wrote in his apostolic exhortation on the Sacrament of Confession, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,
“Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community. This individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt. But it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people.” (RP 16)
Now the important thing for us all to remember is that while all sin is personal, and responsibility lies with the individual; sin does have a social dimension.
While the secular world can talk about “victimless crime” that is nonsense in Catholic thinking. Every sin, to one degree or another, has a consequence for others, and it is often in the form of injustice for some, and corruption for others. And those who suffer injustice may respond in resentment and violence, sinning themselves; and those corrupted come to rationalize their sins as harmless, as something everybody else is doing anyway, and so spread sin like a viral infection.
Saint John Paul wrote of this creating a “communion of sin” that drags down the individual sinner, but also the Church, and the whole human family. (RP 16)
How do you stop it? What is the treatment? What is the vaccine? How do we stop sin from destroying a society?
I’ve mentioned G.K. Chesterton before, the great convert and Catholic writer who wrote a celebrated book entitled, What’s Wrong with the World? There’s an apocryphal story, might be true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be, that someone wrote to him, long before he wrote his book, asking just that question: What’s Wrong with the World?
His reply was this:
G.K. Chesterton, esq.
As I say, we can’t verify that story, but if you’ve read the book, those two words are an excellent and accurate summary both of Chesterton’s book, and of Catholic teaching.
The way we put the world right is not to practice selective justice, reverse discrimination or condescendingly excusing the sins of some based on social categories of race, sex, religion, etc. We don’t absolve ourselves from sin because it’s society’s fault; nor do we lay blame on whole groups: it was to the disgrace of Christians that for too long, “the Jews” were seen as those responsible for Christ’s death on the cross; even as our Lord spoke of forgiveness for all those individuals who were complicit in the gross injustice of his execution, when he said, “Father, forgive them.”
According to the prophet Isaiah, the Lord’s mandate is simple: “Maintain justice, and do what is right.” And you do so even as you are a victim of injustice, even as others fail to do “right” by you, for “my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed.”
Jesus came for everyone because everyone matters: men of power; and women of no account; noble ladies and blind beggars in the street; Romans, Gadarenes, Canaanites, Israelites, Greeks, Canadians, Britons, Indians, Americans, Chinese, Ethiopians, and so on… which is to say, he came for people, not nations nor clans nor tribes, because all are in need, and in their coming to him in earnest, they themselves set aside prejudice, ancient grudges, fresh insults, to speak with the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who, unaccountably, was Emmanuel, and remains God among us; and to ask humbly, but sincerely, for his help.
We are to be Christ in this world, this world of Dundas, this world of the Hamilton-Niagara Region, this world of the GTA; and we are to be for everyone whose faith is great enough so as to be humble enough to ask for crumbs—and we must be grateful enough so as to be generous enough to offer, not crumbs, but true bread and true drink, to offer ourselves to them for the healing of the world.