I want to propose an addition to the church calendar this morning, a new feast day. A feast celebrating a moment in the life of Jesus, like the Presentation or Ascension or Transfiguration. This morning, I want to propose the Feast of the Conversion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For in Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we have the perfect gospel reading for such a new feast day.
Conversion. Being turned around. Having one’s mind or outlook on life changed. Radical transformation. We don’t usually associate such words with Jesus. But if we adhere to our creeds and take the full humanity of Jesus every bit as seriously as his true divinity, then we might at least entertain the notion of Jesus’ conversion.
The church’s existing Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle reminds us that no one turns themself around under their own initiative. Paul’s outlook on life was radically changed by an unexpected encounter with another person – the Lord Jesus. Just so with Jesus’ own conversion – it occurred through the agency of the Canaanite woman.
So consider again the gospel reading for this Feast of the Conversion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus has withdrawn from his homeland of Galilee – maybe to escape the crowds and their demands – and gone off to the foreign region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman, a Gentile and thus not a member of Jesus’ people, comes crying out, shouting even, publicly in the street for Jesus to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Familiar work for Jesus, at least back home among his own people in Galilee. The Canaanite woman keeps crying out – repeatedly – annoying Jesus’ disciples until they implore him to send her away, even though she is at home and Jesus is the foreigner. Out there on the street, Jesus does not respond at all to the woman’s outcry. To justify his silence, Jesus says to his disciples, but not to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
Later, inside a house presumably, the Canaanite woman comes again and kneeling before Jesus asks for his help. This time, Jesus does have something to say to her. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). An entire ethnic and political outlook on life is packed into this one sentence – an outlook asserting superiority and exclusion. Jesus and his people are the children, the sole and rightful claimants to healing and wholeness; the Canaanite woman and her daughter and all their Gentile people are the dogs, unworthy of God’s care and advocacy. There is only so much health and worth to go around and Jesus knows where the line of separation is drawn.
Inside the house, the Canaanite woman adopts a different strategy to secure Jesus’ help. Having called attention to her need on the street, she now stops shouting. She chooses not to push back directly at Jesus’ superior and exclusive words with a demeaning insult of her own. Nor does she allow his words to silence her. Instead, she non-violently, but irresistibly, deflects Jesus’ words and reflects them back to him – transformed. “[Y]et even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (27). Gentle but courageous. A bit of common wisdom she and Jesus could share despite the line of separation between their peoples, their histories, and their religions. These words of the Canaanite woman turn Jesus around, change his mind and outlook on life radically. “‘Woman, great is your faith!” he replies. “‘Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (28). That’s the conversion of Jesus.
Before his conversion, Jesus’ words and even his silence are all three times “no” to the Canaanite woman. Not a single word did he answer her. Not sent to any except the house of Israel. Not right to throw the children’s food to the dogs. The Canaanite woman also addresses Jesus three times. Her words are all affirmative and invitational. They even anticipate liturgical language we use to this day. Eleeson me, Kyrie – Have mercy on me, Lord. Lord, help me. Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table (BCP 356, 117, 337). The Canaanite woman’s words, her faith, her faithful words, convert Jesus. Jesus learns to listen. Jesus learns to see someone from a people other than his own as worthy of health and wholeness, of God’s care and advocacy. But only because the Canaanite woman first found her voice and used it both to cry out and to deflect and reflect back words of superiority and exclusion changed into words of inclusion and solidarity.
Matthew sets the stage for this conversion of Jesus earlier in his gospel when he recalls Jesus drawing the same line of separation between himself and the people of the Canaanite woman. In the story of the sending of the twelve apostles, Jesus gave these instructions, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, enter no town of the Samaritans, go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6). Much later, Matthew will attest to the genuine depth of Jesus’ conversion. Just before he is arrested and interrogated and executed, Jesus enters the Jerusalem Temple – the temple of his people, throws out those buying and selling there – agents of superiority and exclusion among his own tribe, redressing those words about not throwing children’s food to the dogs. Having been converted by the faithful words of the Canaanite woman, Jesus dares to overturn the tables of the money changers, his people again, not foreigners. No longer any talk about crumbs under the table for the inferior and excluded, instead overturning the very tables of superiority and exclusion. There, toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus quotes one small portion of our reading this morning from Isaiah to justify his work of throwing out and overturning, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (21:13). On this Feast of the Conversion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should hear the fullness of Isaiah’s words sounding through Jesus’ abbreviated quote: “a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:7-8).
The collect Father Jay prayed on our behalf at the beginning of this mass asked God for grace “to receive thankfully the fruits of [Christ’s] redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” Prayed on the occasion of Jesus’ conversion, this means receiving the work shared between Jesus and the Canaanite woman and following their side-by-side footsteps beyond this worship space out into the world. So I wonder, as individuals and as members of organizations and communities and peoples, where do we need to learn to listen – even, especially, to folk we might be tempted to consider inferior and unworthy of care and advocacy? Who among us needs to find their voice? When do those voices need to cry out publicly and when do words of superiority and exclusion need to be non-violently, but irresistibly, deflected and reflected back as an invitation to inclusion and solidarity? And whose great faith might convert us both to listening and finding a voice, both crying out and deflecting and reflecting back?
In his New York Times op ed piece from this past Tuesday, David Brooks echoes something of the shared wisdom of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and applies it to the events of the week. Brooks writes:
“The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hated-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined.
“But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.
“In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty….It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding that there are no easy answers…that can explain the big political questions or existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding the balance between competing truths – between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity….
“Modesty means having the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it. Modesty means being tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain. Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning….”
Brooks concludes, “[modesty is] superior to the spiraling purity movements we see today. It seems like a good time for assertive modesty to take a stand” (The New York Times, Tuesday, August 15, 2017, page A23).