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

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 8/16/2011 - 1:01pm
Thank you so very much, John, for your  caring thoughts and prayers for my family and those many others in need of God's help.  It is such a blessing to us to have a person with your sensitivity in a position of teaching younger people in a Catholic college environment.  I think much of our difficulty is in the ignorance of people as to the worth of our children as children of God as much as any other persons and the insensitivity to the suffereing of families.  I wish you God's blessings in your vocation.

My first thought after reading your response to my comment was about your wife's family and the exceptional care they gave to Stacy.  His longevity having spina bifida is testimony to their loving care.  His loss must be very painful for the family.  Who better knows how precious these children are to us and to God.  You and your family have my sincere sympathy and prayers.  God bless you all.
JANICE JOHNSON | 8/14/2011 - 11:35pm
Thank you John for your reflection and Leo for your comment, both of which I appreciate very much.  I put myself in that era in another aspect of the Gospel, that of the Canaanite woman and I find her a great inspiration to me in this present time.  She teaches me how to pray with persistence and determination in the belief that Jesus has the power to answer prayers.  I know what it is like to be "different", an outsider in society as I suffer along with my disabled children who do not find much acceptance  and understanding in the outside world in which we live.  It takes a great deal of courage, which I sometimes lack , to  go into that world and advocate strongly for the vulnerable.  The Canaanite woman was desperate for help and forceful.  She wouldn't take no for an answer, even from the Lord.  I think I can speak for many older parents of disabled children, besides myself, who are quietly desperate and very frightened  as to what will happen to their children when they die.  The church, by and large, does not have much to offer and in this horrible economic time,state and federal benefits are being cut.  As we get older, many of our network of parents of special needs children have died or are incapacitated.  I recently lost a friendship that had been very supportive and meaningful for me.  So, on many levels there are reasons to grieve.  On the other hand are the many joys that our children continue to bring us day after day.  We desperately love our children as the Canaanite woman loved her daughter.  We can be humbled and face rejection and many of us do, for the love of our children just as she did for her daughter.  In an entirely different culture and time, we can look to her for daily inspiration of great love and faith.
Leo Zanchettin | 8/14/2011 - 9:23pm
Thanks, John, for these reflections. As I was reading this, my mind lighted on the following sentence: "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."

I found in this observation not one but two elements that would be troubling for a faithful first-century Jew. The first, as you point out, is the sudden opening of Judaism to Gentiles, who had long been considered unclean and unworthy. As the accounts in Acts and the Pauline letters show, this was traumatic enough for many Jewish Christians. But to add insult to injury, not only were the Gentiles now part of the people of God, their entry into the faith seems to have coincided with another traumatic element: the teaching that this Jesus fellow was divine. Now, not only did the Jews have to deal with Gentiles, they also had to deal with the threat of polytheism. (Of course, our doctrine of the Trinity-three divine Persons, but one God-is old hat to us. But it wasn't to the first generation of believers.)

I wonder if that didn't make it all the harder for Jews to accept Gentiles into their faith. I wonder if some didn't look at the message preached by Paul as being more than a little contaminated by a sort of pragmatic syncretism-"Well, if we talk about more than one god, we may get more Gentiles in our camp."

Part of the reason I mention this is that some synagogues already had their fair share of "God-fearers"-Gentiles who accepted the God of Judaism and who worshipped the One True God but who were not considered fully Jews. There were also a smaller number of Gentiles who had embraced Judaism completely and underwent a rite of circumcision-a sign of full incorporation into the Jewish faith.

So there were already some precedents of Gentiles being part of the people of God. Or at least there was more ground for this than there was for the claim of Jesus' divinity. As you read Acts, it seems that both can account for the opposition that Paul and his mission faced in Jerusalem.

I may be generalizing too much here, and I admit as well that it doesn't take away from the main point of your post. If it was hard for some Jews to welcome Gentiles into this new way of being Jewish, imagine how hard it must have been to accept the thought of a divine Jesus!