None of the artifacts of my childhood and youth are more obviously out of date than the maps with which I studied and learned world geography. Large sections of Europe and Africa and Asia have undergone political transformations. Old boundaries are erased in some places and in other places new boundaries are created. And when there’s a shift in power or a change in boundary, one or more countries gets a new name at the same time.
For instance, when I was young, there was a country called the Soviet Union—most of us called it Russia for short. It had borders, a flag, a capital, a national anthem, a seat at the U.N., and a well-known dictator for a leader. It was communist, of course, and that fact alone seemed to make everything else about the Soviet Union irrelevant. Most of us knew little or nothing about the ethnic and linguistic and religious diversity of the Soviet Union; all we could see were those nasty “Russians.” Then, with the collapse of European communism in the early ‘90s, we started to hear about Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and Belarus and Moldova and a bunch of other countries that has previously been subsumed into the Soviet Union, countries including—and this is a confusing one to American ears—Georgia. They all have different languages and different cultures and each one has a distinct sense of national pride. “Who’dve thunk it,” back when we were building backyard bomb shelters and practicing hiding under our desks at school in case the “Russians” attacked us.
But now, in the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing about a region even the Advanced Placement geography students were probably not aware of—a region within Georgia called South Ossetia. Apparently the majority of the people in South Ossetia are ethnic Russians, so their sympathies lie with Russia, while the President of Georgia is openly pro-western and pro-American. So they want to separate from Georgia and join Russia, and this is what has sparked the armed conflict that is making everyone who pays attention to is just a little be nervous because some think that Russia is out to re-create the old Soviet empire.
Now, I bring up Russia and Georgia and South Ossetia, not to offer my own commentary on world politics, which would be less than meaningless, but because I believe the situation in those places stands as a particularly apt metaphor, a model, a microcosm, an illustration, of the fundamental human condition of alienation and division. In the time and place in which our Lord Jesus walked this earth, it was the divide between Jew and Gentile that dominated the social landscape. It was this element that came into play when Jesus and his disciples made an excursion out of their native region of Galilee, which was predominantly Jewish, northward into what would now be southwestern Lebanon, an area that was predominantly Gentile.
A resident of that territory, a woman, approached Jesus and begged him to have mercy on her and deliver her daughter from the demon which possessed the girl. And when she made that request, Matthew’s gospel tells us, Jesus simply ignored her. He made no answer. Jesus and his disciples and this woman were experiencing the disconnection and brokenness that defined the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. But it was certainly nothing unique. We are estranged and cut off from one another in countless ways: person from person, family from family, region from region, race from race, generation from generation, women from men, nation from nation, and, sad to say, even church from church.
But, to her everlasting credit, this Canaanite woman seemed unwilling to simply accept the status quo of alienation. She persisted in her plea. She made a pest of herself—so much so that Jesus’ disciples seemed to get irritated at him for not acting more forcefully to send her away. But she persisted all the more. Even when Jesus himself made his discouraging remark that his mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and not to Gentiles like her, she refused to take No for an answer. In her steadfast resolve to be in relationship with Jesus, the Canaanite woman stands as an archetype, a shining example, of the kind of faith that moves mountains and changes lives, the kind of faith that sees participation in the life of Christ as the highest good of human existence. Her faith is an emblem to us of the only source of profound and lasting unity among human beings, the only antidote to the generational and ethnic and political and social divisions that characterize and define our lives, and that is common participation in Christ.
Jesus finally grants the woman’s request. For her and for her daughter, his merciful action was an occasion of deliverance and joy. But for the rest of humanity, it has a much larger implication. It strikes the first hammer blow against the dividing wall of hostility that separates us. The early church took this incident as implied permission—indeed, a mandate—to carry the gospel of Christ not only to Jews, but to the whole Gentile world as well. Perhaps they recognized that the seeds of Jesus’ radical action of responding to the cry of a mere Gentile are found several centuries earlier in the writing of the prophet Isaiah:
The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants . . .
those I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
It was certainly a concept that St Paul was familiar with, as he writes to the Gentile Christians in Rome about the eventual reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ:
If you [meaning his Gentile readers] have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted [that is, through faith and baptism] , contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree [that is, the heritage of God’s own chosen people, Israel], how much more will these natural branches [meaning, the Jews] be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Common participation in Christ, expressed in faith like that of the Canaanite woman, is the only source of profound and lasting unity among human beings. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of our Creed— a tree on which have been grafted branches from every people, language, tribe, and nation: Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka … every tribe and nation—the Church is the wrecking ball that assaults the wall of hostility that divides one person from another.
I read an article in a church publication back in the time when the former Yugoslavia—another exaple of what we’re seeing now in the former Soviet Union---when Yugoslavia was torn and bleeding, an article that first warmed my heart, and then disturbed me. It talked about an Episcopal parish on the east coast with a wonderful ministry of hospitality toward refugees from the former constituent parts of Yugoslavia. They supplied housing, food, clothing, and companionship for individuals and families whose lives have been uprooted by armed conflict in their homelands. This is wonderful, and is of the very essence of the Church’s mission.But one of the parishioners was quoted in the article to the effect that their goal is “not to make Christians” out of the refugees. I think I understand the motive behind that comment, and it’s a good one. It expresses a desire to respect the freedom and dignity of the refugees, to honor the faith tradition which may already have formed them, to not be coercive in any way or to attach strings to the help they were providing. But it made me sad, nonetheless, because it reflects an attitude that robbed that parish’s refugee ministry of its potential to be a sacramental sign of the ultimate reconciliation that the gospel brings us. It’s like trying to breathe with one lung, or walk around town with only one shoe. It’s better than nothing, but it’s less than the full deal. A dry roof and a full stomach and a helping hand is a good start—probably even an essential start—in the process of overcoming the radical estrangement that divides us. But it falls way short of accomplishing the mission. Without a common relationship with God in Christ, there is only a superficial basis for unity. It is temporary, and will not stand up under pressure.
Under the communist government of the Soviet dictators, the Soviet Union convinced the world—maybe even convinced themselves—that they were one people, one nation. But when that system and that dictatorship fell, the unity of the Soviet Union proved to be a mirage. It vanished like smoke on a windy day. We hear a lot today about “diversity.” It is commended to us as something to “celebrate.” To the extent that this means there will be an array of different ethnic cuisines available for my palate to appreciate, I’m all about celebrating diversity! But celebrating diversity will not cure what ails us as a human race. It simply attempts to make a virtue out of necessity. It throws in the towel on unity and just accepts division. In the end, it only prolongs our agony.
The great faith of the Canaanite woman is a beacon to us today, a beacon drawing us to “holy communion” with Christ, and thereby with one another, calling us to be grafted on to the one tree that is the Tree of Life. In the words of our Psalm:
“Let your ways be knows upon earth,
your saving health among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all . . . the peoples praise you.”