How many of you are intrigued by your family history?
Several years ago I became hooked on genealogy. When I was out of work I kept sane by researching my family history. Since then I have built a tree of some 5,000 family members as far back as 1679 in Germany, 1588 in England and 1599 in Mexico.
One thing I learned that is common to my ancestors was that they were willing to take amazing risks. They always lived on borders. They colonized, emigrated and homesteaded, in Plymouth Colony, New Spain, the Dakota Territory.
My great grandfather Ludwig Josef Stoltz, for example, as a teenager left his family behind in the Dakota Territory around 1890 and went as far away as the railroad would take him. At that time the last stop was El Paso. He settled there and learned Spanish to speak with his new wife Apolonia, although for decades he slipped into German every now and then when he was frustrated.
My family’s global trek throughout history, from Europe, Asia and Africa over thousands of years, makes me who I am.
Maybe that’s why the idea of the Pilgrim Church, popularized by the Second Vatican Council, appeals to me so much.
This concept of the Church imagines us as a pilgrim people, traveling through every time and place and culture.
As we travel, we teach something to everyone we encounter and in turn we learn something from every culture and age and people that helps us to better understand who we are. We, the Church, are changed, our assumptions are challenged, much as travel broadens the mind.
In today’s gospel we get a rare glimpse of Jesus changing his understanding of himself as a result of someone he meets in a distant land. He’s really pushing his boundaries. The story takes place in what is today Lebanon.
There is only one other scriptural story besides today’s account of the Syro-Phoenician woman where we see Jesus struggling with his mission: the three temptations in the desert. There Jesus tries to imagine what his role is. Shall he live a life of physical ease? Should he gain followers by dazzling us with massive, dramatic miracles? Or just assume raw secular power to compel us?
And in today’s reading Jesus gains a new understanding of his mission. While he previously assumed he was sent only to Israel, today a persistent woman teaches him that his mission is much more than that. Eventually, he will send his disciples out to teach the entire world.
For centuries we’ve been troubled by the fact that Jesus refers to the Canaanite woman as a dog. This was a derogatory term used by Jews of that time for the Syro-Phoenician, or Canaanite, people. It was highly insulting, similar to racial slurs we’re all aware of today. Even today calling someone a dog is an insult in semitic cultures.
Jesus is about the last person you’d expect to refer to anyone in such an insulting way. And yet, there it is, recorded by Matthew. Jesus, it seems, is acting in the way expected by his culture.
That’s one approach to understanding this passage; he uses the slur because he heard others use it, and hasn’t really thought it through. He doesn’t intend to hurt.
But then he realizes that he is sent to this woman as well. It’s a breakthrough for Jesus; it changes his entire outlook.
It may be a bit out of character for us to think of Jesus as learning and changing his mind. Some of us were taught to think of Jesus as a sort of divine robot who, as a human, merely went about fulfilling predictions to prove his nature and then marched on unwaveringly to his final cosmic destiny. But that view of Jesus is actually an ancient heresy. And it has one of those ancient-heresy names. It’s called Monophysitism.
The idea that Jesus could learn and even change his mind is an ancient tradition.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, then we have to learn how to change our minds. We have to learn how to learn from others, from different cultures, from art and music, from our own age. We are a pilgrim people.
Really, when you get down to it, isn’t this abut exploring the frontiers of our own hearts? To evangelize and be evangelized, and to cross borders that often exist within us? And if I can cross the borders of my heart, anything is possible.
From Jesus today we learn to challenge our assumptions.
Who might I assume is an enemy, who really isn’t? What idea do I think is dangerous, that really isn’t?
And is there someone I might think is not worthy of my time, who really is?
If Jesus can change his mind, can I?