What makes a person righteous? How does a person become defiled, or unclean, and how can a defiled person be restored? How far can the compassion of Christ extend? Are there any limits to God’s grace? These are among many questions that Matthew and the early church struggled to understand following Jesus’ ministry among them.
Today’s gospel lesson tells of a remarkable time when Jesus himself was confronted by a bit of his own blindness and prejudice. Jesus had just finished explaining to his followers that true righteousness flows from the heart of God, rather than from strict adherence to religious traditions and practices. Just then he was confronted by an “outsider,” a Canaanite woman who begged him to show compassion and free her daughter from demonic possession. Jesus first ignored her, then talked about her with his disciples, then actually insulted her. But she would not go away until he truly saw her and answered her plea.
There is no way to explain what happened next except to say that Jesus had a change of heart. The One who had showed such abundant compassion when he healed and fed the multitudes by the lakeshore was now reciting a list of reasons why this stranger should NOT receive his compassion. It was within his power to help, but Jesus said no…until through truly meeting her face to face he had a change of heart.
The church in every generation since has struggled to become like Jesus in this one essential aspect: having the humility before God to change our hearts—to alter the disposition of our hearts toward those we so easily call “enemy,” or “outsider,” or “unclean”. To banish hatred, and seek love, so that strangers and enemies may also receive the grace and love of God.