A number of years ago I participated in a study trip with a group of Catholic social service leaders.
One of the teachers was a theologian Prof Roger Burrgreave. Many years earlier the professor had discovered the work of a Lithuanian Born French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and had applied that work to Christian theology.
As an aside, in Levinas’ later years he and Burrgreave became great friends. Burrgreave used to meet with Levinas in his apartment in Paris on Monday afternoons and talk philosophy over a glass or two of Cointreau. The philosophy of Levinas is pretty dense so I guess the Cointreau helped.
Levinas argues that the “other” always makes a claim on us.
The “other” is not me, yet an encounter with an “other” makes a demand on me. This demand arises before I can express, or know my freedom to affirm or deny it. Just as a crying baby creates a demand, to which a parent must respond. I think another way of saying it is that- When I encounter the other and the other has needs, the other makes a claim on me. I did not look for it but as a human being, once I have seen that need I have a responsibility to address it; it is not a matter of choice, regardless of whether or not I take up my responsibility, the responsibility exists.
This deep responsibility to humanity seems to me to be, at the same time, an invitation to share in divinity. Such a profound commitment to humanity calls forth from us the compassion, understanding, mercy and salvation that we rely on from God.
The Gospel this morning speaks to us of an encounter between a woman who was suffering and the one who is fully human and fully divine.
St Matthew presents this meeting between Jesus and the woman she is not one of his tribe, she is not a daughter of Israel, but she is not a dog either despite Jesus’ taunt.
She is a human being, she is suffering, and her little girl is suffering deeply, tormented by a devil. All of this pain and suffering makes a claim on both the divinity and humanity of Jesus.
Now along with Jesus and St Matthew the evangelist we see beyond the woman’s tribe to her humanity. This suffering woman is much more than just a Canaanite; she is smart, witty – “well if I am a dog, do the decent thing and feed me some scraps”-, she is a caring mother, she has faith. Her humanity is on full display.
Through his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus sees her vulnerability and her faith, her need and her pain; he experiences her wit and her humour- it makes a claim on him – he loves and cares for her - and so comes to understand that the time has come for him to take his mission of salvation to all humanity. And that matters.
Like the Canaanite woman, most of us do not share Jesus’ Jewish heritage but we do share his humanity and now we understand that in his divinity he has come for all people and wants to exclude no one. We can come to understand also that in our humanity and faith we too share in his divinity.
In a way, we owe the Canaanite woman of the Gospel a great debt. The encounter between her and Jesus leads to the broader proclamation and understanding of Jesus’ mission of salvation that includes us.
In turn, we are now obliged as human beings, as individual Christians and as a church to be generous with God’s mercy- to hear all the voices and cries for help that make a claim on us; we cannot simply dismiss those voices as the voices of a secular, pagan world. God loves those voices too, salvation is the proper destiny for all - no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and healing.
16 August 2020
Fr Joe Caddy