17 August 2008

Access Denied

20th Sunday OT: Is 56.1, 6-7; Rom 11.13-15, 29-32; Matt 15.21-28
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, ROMA

Foreigners! Gentiles! Annoying, unclean women! Ah, I feel right at home. Throw in busloads of Sweaty Tourists, gaggles of Midget Nuns, schools of Language School Students, and fleets of Highly-Primped Twenty-something Chauffeurs, and you would have much more than the foreign yet fertile fields of St. Paul’s evangelizing —you would have Rome in August! Rome in August always means unbearable heat, odd odors on the streets and alleys, lots of bared skin, and the shouted music of broken Italian spoken with Babel’s accents. Rome in August (perhaps more than any other month) also means beggars. Hundreds of beggars. Everywhere. With bambini and without. Dangerously bent grandmothers. Sweet, newly-minted mothers. Men who would have made John the Baptist look tidy and clean. Beggars everywhere. And why not? I mean, why should souvenir hawkers, gelato scoopers, and tour guides get all the euros available in God’s Town? These beggars—the legit and not-so-legit—raise a question for me that the Canaanite woman in Matthew raises for Jesus. Paul raises the same question by speaking the Word to the Gentiles in Romans. However, it is Isaiah who begins this line of questioning for us with a simple declaration: “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD…all who keep the Sabbath from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain.” Our Lord’s Word this morning brings us to contemplate access, admission: who gets to hear and see and touch the Lord? Who gets to eat and drink at the Lord’s table? As preachers of His Word, to whom do we preach most readily? And most tellingly, to whom do we refuse to preach?

Jesus goes into Tyre and Sidon for a little rest and like an American tourist snapping pics of the Trevi Fountain, he is hounded by a woman screeching at him, “Have pity on me…have pity on me…” Rather than listing off all the ailments and physical afflictions of her many, many bambini, this woman yells at Jesus, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” And like most of the American tourists visiting the Trevi, Jesus ignores the woman; “[he] does not say a word in answer to her.” No doubt Jesus too has discovered that if you speak to the beggars they will follow you, demanding a bounty for your daring. The disciples, sick of this demanding woman, her screeching and carrying on about demons, go to Jesus frustrated and say to him, “Send her away…”

Now, this is the moment in the story where the question of access/admission is carefully balanced. Jesus says to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Imagine Jesus carefully watching to make sure his students are listening. The woman comes forward and pays Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus, still watching his less-than-generous disciples, repeats for the woman what he had said to the disciples, only this time he uses much harsher language: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” If the disciples were scandalized by this, Matthew doesn’t note it. But we should note: the house of Israel is composed of the children of God, the Jews; everyone else, especially Canaanite women, are dogs. Beloved children have access to the Lord’s table, unclean dogs do not.

Let’s dispense immediately with the ridiculous claim that this story is about a “marginalized woman of color teaching Jesus a lesson about radical inclusively.” Creatures teach the Creator nothing. Jesus and the woman, however, do manage to teach the disciples that access to the Lord’s table is about trusting in the Living Word and not about one’s lineage, nationality, or relative status according to the Law. The Canaanite woman is made a child of God by her faith! In her humility, she asks for help and then testifies that any help she receives will be a gift and not an entitlement. Jesus rewards her faith by giving her her greatest desire: “…the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

Let’s admit up front that more often than not we are the disciples in this story. We’re the ones wanting to protect Jesus from harm, to prevent others from defiling him or abusing his name. We will set ourselves outside the tent as guards against the unworthy, as gatekeepers against the annoying and the merely curious. With stout arms crossed across our proud chests we are vigilant against the unclean dogs sniffing around for hand-outs; those who have not earned an audience by showing loyalty; those who would waste the Lord’s time with trivialities; obviously, as his only loyal disciples, we are best selected as his secretaries, his guards, his watchers. Occasionally, we may even have to protect him from himself. Imagine if he wanted to do something stupid like sacrifice his life in order to save everyone! Everyone! Not just the deserving, the observant, the righteous, and the clean, but just anyone who might accept his invitation to join his eternal table. Oy! What a mess. Sometimes we might have to protect Jesus from Jesus. Sad but true.

And other times we might have to protect friends and family from the truth of the Word. Of course, what we are really protecting is our comfortable relationships, our prized friendships. Just as we sometimes do not preach the whole gospel of Christ’s saving grace in order to protect Jesus from Jesus, so sometimes we skip over the hard parts of the gospel because they tell us what we do not want to hear, demand from us what we do not want to give. Maybe we fail to preach the whole Word because those to whom we are preaching share with us an ideological agenda that we know is nothing like what the Lord has spoken to His prophets or to His Church. Our timidity in the face of possible aggressive opposition in effect denies access to those who need to hear the Word preached in its entirety. Or perhaps we leave out what we know our audience does not want to hear so that the applause at the end will be louder, longer, and more appreciative of our talents. Regardless, we might as well tell the Canaanite woman, “Yea, dogs do get scraps from the table but dogs also get kicked out the back door! Now get outta here!”

Normally, we ask questions about access/admission to resources in terms of who has the resources and who doesn’t; who distributes and who receives; and who gets what and why. Our questions this morning—to whom do we preach and to whom do we refuse to preach?—can be understood in these terms as well. But let’s frame these questions in terms of our commission from the Lord, vowed to in our own baptisms, to preach his Word to all nations, teaching everything that he taught, and baptizing all the willing in his name. As baptized Christians and preachers of the Word, we are not little McJesus franchises marketing and selling McGrace and McSalvation. We are not Christ-Marts or Jesus.com’s or Messiah, Inc. We do not own God’s grace. We do not market God’s grace. We do not buy or sell God’s grace on the NASDAQ or the NYSE. In no shape, no form, no fashion, have we ever, do we ever, or will we ever control the distribution of God’s grace to His people. Our vowed task is much more difficult: by our daily obedience to the Word and our faith in God manifested in the world, to all who will see and hear we are to bear witness to the abiding effects of God’s grace in our lives, living lives of deep charity, quick mercy, and enduring hope. Whoever sees your faithful witness, hears your faithful witness will have access to the Lord’s Word precisely because as you witness—as you bear out testimony—you manifest the Spirit of the Lord. He is there. Right there. With you. Shining out and drawing in any who will see, any who will hear.

Isaiah reports that the Lord said to him for us to hear: “Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed.” As you walk out of your house each morning, ask yourself: today, who will see and hear the Lord’s salvation because of my witness? To whom will I reveal the Lord’s justice?


  1. Awesome, just awesome. I'm glad to have read this, considering that the homily I heard on Sunday was completely opposite - that Jesus learned a lesson of compassion and inclusivity from the Canaanite woman. That Jesus was "a man of his times", and while His initial responses were not scandalous to the apostles, it was the woman's persistence and faith that showed Jesus that His mission was to everyone and not just the Jews as He originally thought. Such watering down and dribble is so frustrating - so thank you for the good commentary!

  2. An additional comment, if I may. Since you're a Dominican, chances are you'll be able to answer this question. Can Dominican nuns ever preach during Mass? I live near a Dominican Motherhouse in Oxford MI, and every year around the feast of St Dominic, they hold a conclave at the Motherhouse, and at the Sunday Mass at the close of the conclave, one of the nuns (usually the Superior or visitor from another house) preaches the homily. I was told that they have permission to do so - permission from whom, I don't know. I know that Canon Law states only ordained men are permitted, but I have no clue about this "special" permission. Last Sunday (the 10th), I left during the start of the homily, taking my two sons with me, when "Sr Connie" came up to deliver the homily. We were able to make it to another Church nearby in time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

    So what's the straight poop on this? Did I do the right thing, or was this an acceptable exception? Thank you!

    ps: you can reply at my blog if you'd like. I posted about this last week.

  3. Larry,

    Thanks for commenting...

    I'm sorry to hear that Catholic priests are still dragging out that old 1983 reading of this passage and passing it off as profound theology. For the most part, they get the "marginalized woman teaching Jesus a lesson" nonsense from what is called "a christology from below," that is, a very, very dodgy view of Jesus that radically diminishes his divinity in favor of his humanity and leaves him to be little more than a first-century, male-chauvinist pig who needs the enlightenment of the marginalized to wake him up to his messanic mission. I hope the sheer stupidity of this notion is sufficicent to render it useless for you.

    As for sister preaching...canon law, the GIRM, and several recent documents on liturgical practice make it painfully, painfully clear that only an ordained minister may preach the homily at Mass. Now, since we are the ROMAN Catholic Church, there are always a few exceptions...and thus lots of possibilities for abuse. But on a normal Sunday morning at a parish Mass, only the ordained minister should be preaching.

    Thanks again, Fr. Philip, OP

  4. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Thank you, Fr Philip! This was well worth the long wait :) And the "McJesus franchise" selling McGrace and McSalvation was excellent.