In the minds of many people, the circle is a symbol of inclusivity. We speak of a circle of family or friends, those who surround us with love and support. In such a configuration, all are equal members. There is no hierarchy of positions. Round tables are often preferred for discussions for this very reason. All participants can be seen and no one can claim a place of privilege.
But circles can also be very exclusive. Their lines define who is included and who is not. Once a circle has been formed, it is very difficult to break it open in order to add more members. Such exclusive circles can be drawn along lines of gender, race, ethnic origin, class, ability or interest, to name but a few.
One of the great sources of scandal for us is the Christian faith’s insistence on the universal embrace of God. Though we use the phrase “chosen people” to refer first to the Jewish nation and then to the Christian community, its real meaning is inclusive rather than exclusive. Ancient Israel was chosen to be the instrument through whom all other people were brought to God. There were times when the people were faithful to this call (Is 2:2-3). When they were not, God would make sure that the “outsiders” gained access: “them I will bring to my holy mountain.”
In the Gospel we find Jesus forced to step out of Jewish ethnic bias in response to the pleas of the persistent Canaanite mother. Her maternal concern and her faith in his power moved him to grant her request. His words, which sound harsh to our ears, reflect the disdain with which the Jewish community sometimes viewed those who were not members of their circle.
Paul walks a narrow tightrope in today’s reading. Throughout his ministry, he has insisted that only faith in Jesus can save, not obedience to the laws and customs of Israel. Now he must show that those with faith are really no better than those without it. All have been disobedient; all have the mercy of God available to them, because the embrace of God is not a closed circle.
We live at a time when some insist that if you do not hold the same values that they do, you are not a believer. Sometimes the accusation is even worse: that you threaten religious values. This attitude is so contrary to the universal sweep of authentic biblical faith.