Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
Make no mistake: the story of the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman is one of the most troubling in all the Gospels—and yet it’s one of the most rewarding.
In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus meets a woman and implies that because she is a Canaanite person, she can be called a dog. It’s what we would call these days a ‘racial slur’; the Canaanites were ancient and bitter enemies of Israel, whose ancestors had led Israel away to worship idols. If this were the only story of Jesus that we knew, would he be an attractive figure?
This story is an embarrassment, it always has been. People have tried to get around it in various ways. They note that Jesus said ‘puppy’, not ‘dog’; but puppies are just as religiously ‘unclean’ as grown-up dogs.
They say that Jesus was testing the faith of this woman who was only trying to get help for her daughter. They are trying to ‘protect’ Jesus, but they are unconvincing. Again, think: if this were the only story about Jesus we had, what opinion would you have of him? Actually, I hope you’d still end up with a pretty good opinion of Jesus. I’d hope that if this was all we knew about Jesus, we’d think highly of him.
A sermon preached at the induction of Rev Henry Swindon as a chaplain at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital on 15 July.
I remember once going on a routine visit to the Renal Dialysis Unit while I was a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital. If there’s anywhere that could show the truth of what today’s reading from Romans says about creation, it’s a hospital; and in particular, chronic units like renal dialysis. St Paul writes of a creation ‘in bondage to decay’ and ‘subjected to futility’. What more futile existence could there be than sitting in renal dialysis several times a week, depending on machines to stay alive, hoping against hope month after month for a transplant to come up?
I never quite knew what I was going to encounter entering any ward, especially this one. I often felt out of my depth in the renal unit.
On this occasion in I walked, and I went up to the first bed. I’d never met this patient before. He was an Asian man, and he positively beamed a welcome at me. Before I could sit down, he announced with the same infectious smile, ‘Life is suffering!’
I thought to myself, I know where you’re coming from. ‘Life is suffering’ is how the ‘First Noble Truth’ of Buddhism is often expressed. And I had a lovely time with this Buddhist gentle man, allowing him to share the joy in his soul with me. I really hope I helped him, because by the time I left his side, I was certainly feeling really great!