At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
In our Gospel lesson we read that a Canaanite woman called out [to Jesus], “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
For background it is important to note that the Canaanites were a loose federation of tribes who occupied the “Promised Land” before Abraham arrived to claim it in the name of God. The Canaanites had a long history of conflict with the Hebrew people dating back to Noah shortly after the flood, centuries before Abraham.
The story is that Noah got drunk, took off all of his clothes, and passed out. His son Ham walked in on him and ridiculed him to his brothers. Noah was so humiliated and infuriated that he put a curse on Ham and all his descendants, who later became known as the Canaanites. An aspect of this curse was that the Canaanites were to be slaves of Noah’s two other sons, Shem and Japheth. As you may guess, the Canaanites weren’t too keen on this. (Gen. 9:20ff)
Several centuries after Abraham, when Moses was trying to retake the Promised Land after the Children of Israel escaped from their Egyptian slavery, it was the Canaanites with whom they often engaged in battle. There was no love lost between Jew and Canaanite.
To make it even worse, there’s a passage in Deut. 20:17 in which God calls for the destruction of all Canaanites and in Zech. 14:2, Canaanites are specifically excluded from worship. You can see the basis of a pretty deep seated animosity. So in light of all this, it would not be possible to overestimate the “chutzpah,” the brass, the audacity of this Canaanite woman. She ruffled a lot of feathers by approaching Jesus as she did.
We read in the text that this woman rushed up and knelt before Jesus, begging for help for her demon tormented daughter. He couldn’t ignore her any longer, so said in reply: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
This is a significant exchange; in Biblical times, dogs were not the revered pets that they are today in our society. In the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 7:6, Jesus states, Do not give dogs what is holy… And then in the Revelation to St. John of Patmos, chapter 22 verse 15, it says, that some will be excluded from the heavenly city and the list includes…dogs, and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
The Greek word for dog is Kuon, it is the basis for our word “Cur.” Even now, as then, in much of the mid-east, dogs are slinking street creatures that function as scavengers and sentries. These curs were and are nobody’s pets. To add to the insult, the word Jesus used in the Gospel lesson is kunaria, the diminutive form and it means yappy little dog.
I think that with a twinkle in his eye, Jesus was comparing the Canaanite woman to the yappy little lap dogs that many Canaanites had as pets, something that disgusted Jews of that day. And the woman was quick enough to get it. By implication, He was referring to her. He was comparing her loud persistence to a little dog that would not shut up. And this is what’s fascinating to me, she agreed. Note her esponse: “Yes Lord, yet even the kunaria, the yappy little dogs, get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
I think Jesus then laughed. And then I think that with great warmth and humor in his voice he said, “‘Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
In contrast, recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, are not a laughing matter.
One of the more insightful statements about that horrible situation came from Archbishop Charles Chaput (SHAP-you) of Philadelphia who said: “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.” * I find his words uncomfortable, but we have to listen to them. Getting personal, I was raised in a family in which racial and ethnic slurs were commonplace. I suspect that many of you were too. When that kind of language permeates our psyches when we are young, it tends to stay put indelibly. It affects us both consciously and unconsciously, individually and our society as a whole.
Let’s take a minute to look at Archbishop Chaput. He is a member of the “Prairie Band of the Potawatomis;” He’s the second Native American bishop and the first Archbishop. His father is French Canadian and his mother is a member of the Potawanomi nation.
The Archbishop’s words have a political import, but they are also theological.
To talk about the original sin of the United States makes perfect sense. Not far from Charlottesville is Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. He is the one who declared that all men are created equal, and he enunciated a doctrine of human rights, but he also owned slaves, including Sally Hemings who was the mother of his six children, who were also slaves. That he mistreated not only numerous black people, but his own flesh and blood as well, represents the most breathtaking hypocrisy. This manifests the original sin of which Archbishop Chaput speaks; a Constitution that speaks of liberty for all, but which denies it to some on grounds of race.
Ironically Charlottesville is named after Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III of England. Evidently she was a black Queen whose ancestors came from Africa, which is irony indeed.
When Archbishop Chaput speaks of original sin, he refers not just to the sin at the beginning, but the sin that endures. America today, despite the promise contained in the Constitution, is not a land of equality and great social mobility, despite having had an African-American President. Things are better along racial lines, but they are a long way from being fixed.
Archbishop Chaput, of course, is of Native American stock on his mother’s side, and therefore has a special insight into questions of race. We should not forget that our country existed before Europeans “discovered” it, and that their settlement of the land was anything but peaceful.
Our current troubles, of which Charlottesville represents but the tip of the iceberg must make anyone sad, but the question remains: “What is to be done? The Archbishop rightly points out: “We need more than pious public statements.” He goes on to say: “If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unravelling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”*
I find this “original sin of our country” of which Archishop Chaput speaks is manifest in other areas. It’s tied up with what punsters are calling “identity politics.” I interpret this to mean that we are getting tribal in our country; we want to be with folks who are just like us and we are suspicious of anyone who is different. There is also a strong reaction to what I like to call the politics of guilt and pity. Many are tired of being blamed for the problems of others, particularly if it has to do with being “politically correct.” Unfortunately, all too often, there is an overreaction to folks of color who have a legitimate beef because of serious discrimination. Yeah, I get it. We don’t like aspersions of guilt being thrown on us and we often over react. But we do have a problem. The oppression against others, especially against people of other races is real.
The Sin of Adam and Eve, the Original Sin, led to dissension between these first two human beings and it has been passed on to us. The reconciliation that heals such dissension comes from Christ Jesus, himself. He is the one who undoes the damage inflicted by our first parents. Moreover, He is the great sign of unity, as He died and rose for all, black, white, brown, Canaanite and Jew . The Redemption wrought by Jesus is the foundation of human dignity as it shows that He thought we were all worth dying for. So the Archbishop is right to call for conversion of heart.
Ours is a deeply religious nation. A reflection on the foundations of our expressions of faith would be a good place to start to address the injustices of racism. And we can look to Jesus and the Canaanite woman as an example.
*STATEMENT OF ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP. REGARDING RACIAL VIOLENCE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA
Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted. We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence.
But we need more than pious public statements. If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.
+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia