And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”
At so many levels, it’s amazing to think of what the account of the Canaanite woman means for us. First off, just the fact that Christ lifts this account of a pathetic foreign woman in dire circumstances to the level of an eternal Gospel episode proves His words, “The last will be first.” Her person, her life, and her great faith have been proclaimed from lecterns and pulpits for two thousand years.
Second, the stages of how the episode unfolded is packed with catechesis on faith. So far we’ve meditated on her prayer, the Kyrie, rooted in the Psalms, lifted to divine status by its inclusion in the Gospel, and given to us to pray in the liturgy – the Kyrie runs our own prayer. Then we confronted the terror of facing God’s silence, as the woman did after her first petition. We’re not done with this catechesis by any means.
Today we run into the next challenge to her faith, a challenge all too many people have and is the reason many people leave the faith. That’s rejection by the church. “And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’”
The disciples flatter themselves here. She wasn’t crying out after them. She’s crying out after “Jesus, Son of David.” How often do you hear churches bragging about all the things they do for their membership or the community, overinflating their importance?
No, no, no. True faith isn’t crying out to the disciples for community programs or fun congregational activities. True faith cries out to the Lord Jesus for mercy. If ever the disciples, or any congregation, confuses that truth – echoing the disciples’ misperception: “They cry out to us!” – their foundation will crumble, to say nothing of the fact that congregations organized on human community-building principles will, well, cut out the Kyrie in favor of other things.
When the one with true faith prays the Kyrie, he’s praying to the Lord, and the Lord answers. The church run properly defers to the Lord, and this it does by its minister understanding that he speaks “in the stead and by the command” of Christ. He delivers Christ’s word, His absolution.
Well, already with the first congregation ever – the disciples – we have things amiss. As a result, they turn away a woman praying her Kyrie. Again, how many people leave the church because of the church? “I believe in Christianity not Churchianity.” “I like Jesus, just not His followers.” “The Church is just full of hypocrites.” “I believe in God, but don’t believe in the institutional church.” On and on we could go.
Bunk. If the woman shows us anything, true faith fights through the sinfulness of a congregation. The woman didn’t say, “Hey Jesus, how about if you and I connect separately so we can have some ‘me and Jesus’ time – I don’t need those other guys.” Jesus doesn’t come separately from those other guys. There is no “me and Jesus.” There is the Church, His body, with warts and all.
So faith has to fight through the institutionalism of the Church.
Another thing is going on in today’s age with all this “anti-institutionalism.” Really, it’s another facet of the Gnostic virus we’ve been contemplating. Institutions are what you get when you have people. Anti-institutionalism is what people think can happen when people are abstracted from the social aspect of their bodies and reduced to cogs in a grand ideological vision.
Put simply, communism or totalitarianism is the end result of anti-institutionalism. “Hey, we’re going to run a system without institutions. If everyone just does X, Y, and Z, there will be no need for all the little competing institutions.” Of course, X, Y, and Z is a meta-institution and requires a special kind of enforcement – brutal – all of its own.
Couple this danger with the fact that many people today can live “outside of institutions” and congregate at their own leisure through electronic media, and you actually have some dangerous kindle for a totalitarian fire.
By contrast, we should expect institutions, like families, congregations, community organizations, leagues, etc., all the things guaranteed by the freedom of assembly. And when you have these, you will have politics. You will have “hypocrites” who abuse the mission of the institution. You will have cliques within the institutions. You will have all the negative effects of any gathering of humans.
And those same effects will be in any congregation. Keep in mind, another phrase to describe a congregation is “Sinners Anonymous.” There are two things that bring a congregation together, that they confess to be sinners and that they confess Jesus to save them from their sins.
So it shouldn’t surprise us if there are, well, sinners at church. A congregation is like a dysfunctional family combined with a poorly run business.
Yet – and this is true for all institutions – what are we giving up in terms of learning how to be patient, to communicate diplomatically, to work with others, to moderate our principles for the greater good, to forgive past wrongs, and to nurture all the traits required any time a social unit develops? Is this one of the many reasons why we are becoming a divided culture? Because people’s idiosyncratic ideas – metastasizing in isolation without the tempering of social interaction – are allowed to fester into extremes?
So institutions are necessary and develop good traits. And if they don’t, like the woman, it’s not an occasion for quitting on society. It should be an occasion for committing to the institution’s principle all the more, especially when that institution is the church whose principle is the Lord.
This is what the woman did. When the disciples lost focus on the mission of their group, she kept the focus. The Lord, meanwhile, was teaching His disciples their own little lesson about who the church receives in her midst.