“Out of the heart come evil thoughts…… These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” – Jesus, in today’s Gospel, Matt 15:10-28, NIV.
”Toilet paper was the most sought after item” – Edward Woodward, Royal Corps of Signals, speaking of supplies dropped by air in the Far East.
Today’s Gospel may have an ironic ring to it as the Covid-19 restrictions ease but emphasis remains on hand washing and the keeping of a social distance. Hand washing is used by the Pharisees to provoke Jesus by asking why his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat, as is customary for observant Jews. He calls them hypocrites and tells the crowd that what comes out of people’s mouths when they speak matters more than hand washing, before he crosses another traditional boundary by going into the region of Tyre and Sidon.
In this area, the Canaanites and Jews had been enemies since Canaan had been cursed by Noah’s son (Gen.9:25-27) – yet a Canaanite woman beseeches him for help. At first, Jesus honours the traditions of his day by ignoring her as she’s both female and regarded as a pagan enemy of the Jews. But the woman perseveres, asking Jesus to have pity on her and telling him that her daughter is tormented by a devil, which would indicate mental illness today. His disciples urge him to send her away and Jesus makes it clear that his ministry is to the Jews only – but she persists, approaches him despite the distance that should be observed between them and shows humility and respect by kneeling before him as she asks again for his help. In calling her a dog, Jesus then belittles her – yet she replies that even dogs will eat the scraps they are given. Her perseverance overcomes the barriers between them, Jesus praises her for her great faith and her daughter is healed.
The astonishing thing about this encounter is that the woman’s courage and determination seem to change Jesus’ mind – he begins to realise that his ministry is to gentiles as well as Jews. This happens soon after Peter’s lack of faith during the storm, the demands of the crowd and the challenging questions of the Pharisees, so perhaps Jesus found the unnamed woman’s faith heartening. She is unclean in terms of the traditions of his day – yet, as those who would normally avoid one another overcome boundaries and engage in conversation, Jesus finds greater understanding and the woman’s daughter is healed, as she hoped. Through the unexpected encounter, Jesus changes his mind and both meet each other’s needs – and that is the hope for us today as the pandemic rolls on. We are now having to find new ways of still relating to each other and as church through the media while social distancing and hand washing are still essential. As the battle with Covid-19 is also creating a rise in mental health issues, this incident in Canaan reminds us that there is no need for distance, cleansing or well being before Jesus is contactable today – prayer is the direct means anywhere, any time, with no need for hand sanitiser first!
All this coincides with the VJ commemorations this week as the Forgotten Army is remembered and the awful conditions of fighting in the Far East, the treatment of prisoners of war and the terrible death toll are honoured. Many nations combined in the fighting with more than 12,000 prisoners of war dying in captivity and an estimated 71,000 British and Commonwealth casualties. At the time, those soldiers overcame the distance and differing languages, religions, customs and conventions of their day as they united In the cause of freedom and peace – as Prince Charles said at the National Memorial Arboretum, “Let us affirm that they and the surviving veterans are not forgotten…. Your service and your sacrifice will echo through the years.” Yet, amidst the horror of it all, a soldier is filmed operating a machine gun whilst smoking a pipe, toilet rolls were still valued and the last Japanese soldier only surrendered in 1974. They, and their families, sacrificed so much and yet it’s sometimes tempting to think that this is a long time ago and all happened far away. As the Burma Star on one of the local gravestones in St Melangell’s churchyard reminds us, though, this is all much closer at hand than we sometimes realise. Today, we also have great challenges to face as our mindset, expectations and way of life have to change so significantly while the battle to contain Covid-19 and find a vaccine continues. It’s costly, unsettling – and vital:
Ours is a ‘today’ dearly ransomed in blood
That freely flowed ‘yesterday’.
A sacrifice, the whole
This tennis court was too poor to contain.
Gallantly they laid their lives down.
What price, what price a soul…?
From In Grateful Dedication by Easterine Kire
With my prayers,
Diocesan prayer for the week
Your compassion for all in distress is boundless.
Sustain, we pray, those stricken by disaster and unrest, in the midst of the pandemic crisis.
Give humility and wisdom to leaders and discernment to the peoples,
that righteousness may prevail,
and that in your time and your way, good may come out of their troubles.
In the healing name of Jesus: Amen.
Canon Carol Wardman