Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The Canaanite Woman

Second Sunday in Lent
8 March 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Coronavirus has rather overshadowed all other events in the past ten days and we could all be excused for missing other important news

But just before the crisis, the issue of social inequality hit the headlines once again

The Landmark England Review written by the distinguished epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot was published and made for very dismal reading

As Sir Michael said in his report, the last ten years have seen

“rising child poverty, decline in education funding, an increase in zero hours contracts, a housing affordability crisis, a rise in homelessness, to people…resorting to food banks in large numbers, to ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope”

Above all, there has been a decline, for the first time, in life expectancy

The poorest women in the North East of England now have a 10% shorter life expectancy than their more affluent counterparts

As the report says “the damage to health and wellbeing is similarly unprecedented”.

Put another way, we have created an underclass which is all around us although most of choose not to look

The reference to an underclass in the past fortnight, peculiarly, coincided with a catalogue that we received in the parish office

We received a brochure from the “Dalit Goods Company”

Their catalogue seeks to promote good made by the Dalit community in India and the proceeds are then used to support them – see the goods on the table

As their website states

“For over 3000 years the caste system in India has meant that if you were born as one of the 350 million outcasts, that is, born outside of the caste system, then your opportunities in life are extremely limited. That is limited in education, healthcare, even where you worship. This group of people were formerly called untouchables but prefer to be called Dalits which means down trodden or oppressed”

Without pushing the comparison too far, this description has a peculiar sort of resonance with Sir Michael’s report

Just as India has a down trodden and oppressed class

We too have created our own underclass

To quote again, “ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope”

I never cease to be amazed in life by the value of life experiences

Seldom are any life experiences wasted and this includes the three years I spent in a classroom as a School Chaplain

Unbeknown to me at the time of appointment at Sherborne, I was required to teach the six Great Faiths  

I found the teaching and learning of enormous benefit

I obviously had to teach Hinduism

For those of you who know little about Hinduism, they have a caste system which was supposed to have been abolished in 1950

Despite its abolition, it still exists and is broadly split into four different divisions

At the top of the caste system are the Brahmins or priests

This is then followed by the Kschatrya who are the kingly or warrior caste

Under them come the Vaisha or merchants

And bottom of the caste system come the Sudra who are labourers and servants

You can decide for yourselves which class you belong to

But, at the heart of their religion is the belief in re-incarnation

Put simply, the better you behave in this life the greater your chance of advancement in the next

You climb a ladder which eventually leads to what is known as Moksha (enlightenment)

Interestingly, I am fairly sure that I have been the inadvertently on the receiving end of the Hindu caste system in my own lifetime

I was once travelling in a train whilst I was serving in the Army

I always refused a first class ticket because I thought it was an extravagant waste of the public purse – I still do

One day, whilst travelling to London an Indian guard insisted on moving me to first class

Presumably, being in uniform, he believed I was, literally, in the wrong class

However, below all the categories I have just mentioned are the Dalit

They are the underclass who don’t even belong to the caste system

They are literally the “out-castes” and they perform the most unpleasant tasks in society

I used to show the boys a video about the Dalits working in the sewers of New Dheli

Not surprisingly, many Dalits are killed through fumes or drowning

Interestingly, in Indian literature, narratives about the Dalit are sometimes disguised by substituting dogs instead of Dalits – such is the lowliness of their status

But this reference to dogs brings me onto the difficult reading from the New Testament  

It is not Jesus’ finest hour

First, he refuses to engage with the woman who is shouting at him in desperation

Then he makes it clear that he has only come for “the lost sheep of Israel” not her

Finally, he delivers the cruellest blow of all when he says

“it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

Jesus is pointing out to her that, not only does she belong to the wrong tribe [or caste], but seems to suggest that Canaanites are no better than dogs

As we know from the story, the woman’s persistence pays off and her daughter is healed

However, the story leaves a somewhat perplexed

There are some possible explanations as to Jesus’ conduct

First, holy men and women can have bad days

Like the indignant Pope Francis when he recently slapped a woman hand in St Peter’s Square

Jesus was fully human and, as we know from the Bible, could get very tired

This is one explanation for an event which is distinctly out of character

More plausibly, Jesus had made it clear, earlier in the Gospel, that his mission, and that of the disciples, was to “the lost sheep on Israel”

Indeed, it was their first mission statement

Jesus had come to save, not everybody, but just “His people Israel”

This is undoubtedly true but still is not enough to excuse this conduct

There have been other attempts to explain away his conduct one of which includes reference to the translation of the word dog.

This could, mean “small dog” which is arguable less disparaging than a “large dog”

At its most generous, it could mean something that is harmless and helpless

But, the overwhelming lesson from the reading is the faith of the Canaanite woman

Her faith is so great that she is not prepared to let anything get in her way

As Jesus says “Woman, great is your faith”

In this period of Lent, it reminds us to be persistent in prayer whatever obstacles or temptations might be placed in our way

But returning to the Landmark England Review there is another dimension to this story which resonates with our modern time

And that is that the future breaks into the present and does so continually

The Canaanite woman radically changes Jesus’ ministry and the future of the Christian Church

From this moment onwards, confronted again by the faith of Gentiles, Jesus’ ministry is re-shaped to focus on all men and women, regardless of caste

The same could be said of our own political times

Indeed, the challenge for those of building the Kingdom of God here on earth is no different from what it was for Jesus

Although we seek to build the Kingdom, we too are daily challenged by new events

Events, which like the underclass, are normally hidden from view but suddenly thrust upon us

Unlike politicians, we cannot simply put the problem into our pockets

They are not going away and have to be addressed

Perhaps the greatest lesson from the reading this morning is to emulate the life of our Lord

Not to ignore the Canaanite woman or the report of Sir Michael 

But to refresh and reshape our vision too

And perhaps, if we are capable of learning this lesson, then our Lord may be able to say to us as he did to the Canaanite “Great is your faith”