What happens when God truly does something new in our midst? The readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time give us a glimpse of how the extraordinary manifests itself in day to day life and events, though we might not think it extraordinary any longer. We have lost the sense of wonder of what God did when he invited in the Gentiles to share in the covenant. What is new has become old, the way it is, and so there is a tendency to think it has always been that way. For those of us accustomed to the way things are, we ought to put ourselves in the shoes, or sandals, of the Jews almost 2,000 years ago who were shocked that the Gentiles were now members of the people of God. It is not that the Old Testament did not point the way to what was to come, just that it is difficult in every time and age to accept change.
Isaiah 56 spoke of a time when the peoples of all nations would come to worship the one true God and join the Jews on the holy mountain. But the reality of such a time seemed distant and mystical. The covenant agreement with God asked that Jewish worship be holy, set aside from impurity and other nations, in honor of God who is holy. When would this change and how would it be known? It seemed clear that when God acted it would be majestic and obvious: God had done it. Yet God is the God of the small, still voice as much as the powerful, rushing wind. His ways are stunning in their fulfillment and imperviousness to conventional human wisdom.
Listen to the disciples of Jesus, men of the Jewish law as is he, as Jesus receives the Canaanite woman who pleads for the wholeness of her daughter: “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us” (Matthew 15:23). Jesus seems to take their side, the side of the covenant in reality, when he states bluntly that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman, though, does not back down after showing Jesus homage, a form of worship, by kneeling before him, even in the face of what appears to be sharp rejection. She simply states, accepting Jesus’ power and ability, “Lord, help me.” When Jesus goes on to tell her that “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” she does not back down but presses her case. She understands and acknowledges who Jesus is and answers him that “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus accepts her faith, and the woman herself, and heals her daughter. In the face of rejection and humiliation, her love for her daughter has overwhelmed her: she knows Jesus can do it and she will not back down. She ignores her own possibly hurt and bruised feelings for the good of her daughter.
Some have seen in this tense encounter a rejection of the other on the part of Jesus, but this does not take into account the reality of the covenant or the time period. The expansion of the covenant to include all is indeed happening, happening before the eyes of the disciples, who are not willing initially to accept that God is acting now through Jesus to make the promises of Isaiah 56 a reality. Jesus provokes from the woman a genuine act of faith in him and in so doing shows her that she is right, she is welcomed and loved by God. And in accepting her, he demonstrates to his apostles that the time is now, that Gentiles too are children of God.
It is a mystery, the Apostle Paul says, how God acts and when he does. In Romans 9-11 he muses on the fact that the Gospel in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection had taken firm root amongst the Gentiles, those formerly outside of the covenant, and had withered amongst many of his Jewish compatriots. Paul is certain of a few things though as he struggles to make sense of the new ways in which God has acted: the Gentiles are a part of God’s covenant people now; the Jews, though they seem to have rejected God’s saving actions in Jesus, will never be rejected by God; and the Jews in fact will with the Gentiles ultimately be one people of God: “for God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” It is up to us to be open to God’s mercy in each day, for it is not always with might and power, but with the daily, face to face encounters that God’s love and acceptance of all are made known. The woman who risked rejection for the love of her daughter shows us that God is ready to accept us all, even when we are not prepared.
John W. Martens
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