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 hat 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. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Between the 19th and 20th Sundays in Year A, Mt 15:1-21 are passed over. In order to provide a context let us briefly describe the events which leads us to Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. What is one subtext in this encounter is the role of religious traditions in the light of the gospel of Christ. After all it is tradition that Canaanites are “other” and not part of the covenant promises – or so the tradition was understood.
Jesus’ three acts of power in Mt 14 (feeding the 5,000; walking on water; and the healings at Gennesaret) are followed by a controversy with the Pharisees and scribes. The specific issue for debate is the disciples’ failure to observe the rules of ritual purity/cleanliness as exactly as the Pharisees did (v. 2). The Pharisees had received and built up a body of tradition designed to ensure the observance of the written Law. Their intentions were good: if one does not break the traditions then one will never break the commandment/Law and then God will never again punish the people by Exile. The people will remain a covenant people; at least so went the thinking. The Pharisees also saw the special Levitcal (priestly) rules as having value and helping obtain holiness and so they also wished to extend to all Israelites the rules that originally applied only to members of priestly families on the grounds that Israel is a priestly people. That is the background in Mt 15:2 where they expected Jesus and his followers to observe the rules of priestly purity spelled out in Lev 22:1–16.
The first part of Jesus’ response (vv. 3–9) attacks the Pharisees’ idea of tradition. Jesus argues that sometimes their tradition leads to breaking the clear commands of the law (vv. 3–6). The commandment about honoring one’s parents is stated in the law both positively (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and negatively (Exod 21:17). But the Pharisees’ tradition, according to Jesus, allows a person to place property under sacred vow as a means of preventing the parents from having access to it. Thus a pious fiction provides the excuse for disregarding and getting around a sacred obligation encouraged by the law. The words of Isa 29:13 are used to brand such behavior as hypocrisy. The tradition that claims to protect the law actually violates it.
The second part of Jesus’ response (vv. 10–20) concentrates on the specific issue of ritual purity. The statement in v.11 to the effect that there is only moral uncleanness is very radical, since large parts of the Old Testament law concern ritual uncleanness contracted by touching and by eating certain foods. Only a firm faith in Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the law could allow Matthew and his community to accept such a revolutionary teaching.
To the basic statement in verse 11 are joined a very harsh judgment on the Pharisees (vv. 12–14) and an explanation for the disciples of Jesus (vv. 15–20). When informed about the Pharisees’ offense at his teaching, Jesus denies their spiritual roots (v. 13) and condemns them as blind guides leading others to destruction (v. 14). Peter’s request for an explanation of Jesus’ teaching in verse 15 assumes that “parable” means “mystery” or “riddle.” Jesus’ explanation in verses 17–20 merely expands and makes concrete the radical statement in verse 11. Moral purity alone is important, and the evil designs of the mind make a person morally impure and issue in the kinds of action forbidden by the Old Testament. The complaint raised against Jesus’ disciples in v. 2 has no validity, because the developed tradition of ritual impurity and purity has no validity.
A Thought or Two. The Pharisees are easily dismissed, after all, they are the antagonist in the narratives. A more optimistic reading of the context is that the Pharisees are the ones who have lost the spirit, heart, and compassion of the Law. There is nothing wrong with wanting holiness to be a goal and desire of all the people. But the assumption that the rules and traditions of the Levites are the path of holiness for the people errs in that it assumes the Levites exist in a hierarchy that places them closer to God. In addition, when one forgets the bases of the traditions and whether they are “t” traditions or “T” traditions, then only problems lay ahead.
But there is the potential Pharisee in everyone of us who relies upon “t” tradition too heavily. What would be the reaction if all the Catholic Churches removed the holy water fonts? The end of faith and time as we know it? Doubtful, but certainly, the pastor who allowed it! What happens at the moment that you reach to dip your fingers into the water of the font and discover the font missing? Do you eventually reach the point where you muse, “Well, it was always there to remind us of our baptismal vows, the one we will renew in the Creed, the ones we received at the beginning of our journey of faith, the ones I remember on this journey today into the heart of the Eucharist.” Holy water fonts are wonderful, but are “t” traditions meant to remind you and lead you to the “T” traditions.
And there is the potential Pharisee in everyone of us that presumes upon the “T” tradition in the wrong way. What could be said about the person who comes to Reconciliation every week, confesses the exact same sins, and in between makes no effort in prayer or action to effect change in their life? What is the difference between magic and a sacrament? Some find that a shocking question, but I think it a good one to help uncover one’s heart. An anthropology professor once told us that magic is the idea that one can do the exact thing, say the exact words in the right order, all at the right time, and then one controls the power of the gods. “If I go at the appointed time, know the right words (Bless me Father for I have sinned…), confess my sins, then I GET forgiveness (emphasis pointedly added). I have done the right thing with the right words at the right time so I have earned, am owed forgiveness”…such is magical thinking or heartless juridical accounting where faith should be.
A sacrament never controls God or God’s power, it relies upon the promise of God, and so as we have been told, we ask and believe that what we have asked for is given: God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Forgiveness is mercy from God and is never earned, but only received as gift for the asking. Such is the way of faith.
The Catholic “t” traditions are plentiful and there to help the faith. They are good. It is the Pharisee within that can introduce the merely juridical or magical attitude upon the good.