First Reading Isaiah 56:1, 6–7
Psalm Psalm 67:2–3, 5–6, 8
Second Reading Romans 11:13–15, 29–32
Gospel Matthew 15:21–28
Gospel – Matthew 15:21–28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Hearing the Word
“THE SINGLE STANDARD”
At a first glance, the liturgy of this Sunday focuses on the theme of inclusion of all races and nationalities among God’s people. This view, while certainly correct, hides an even deeper message contained in the readings – the message that this all-inclusive community is formed through application of single set of standards valid for all human beings, regardless of race or origin.
The most apparent division reflected in the Bible is the differentiation between the Israelites (also called “the Jews”) and the non-Israelites, known as “the Gentiles” or simply “foreigners”. This division was simultaneously ethnic and religious as it was assumed that only the ethnic Israelites can truly be counted among God’s people, while the non-Israelites are “the Gentiles” or “the pagans” who cannot be considered as such. It was also assumed by many Israelites that they had exclusive access to God and occupied a privileged position in the human family because of their ethnic origin.
However, contrary to what many at the time assumed, the prophet Isaiah taught that membership of the covenantal community is not restricted to any ethnic group, not even the Israelites. According to him, what truly matters is the practice of justice and righteousness combined with adequate religious observance. Thus, right relationship with fellow human beings and the appropriate worship of God will allow even a foreigner to become a member of God’s people. The prophet identified a single set of practices necessary for such membership: a single standard applicable to all human beings with no distinctions and no exceptions.
The second reading of the last Sunday came from the opening section of the letter to the Romans, where Paul treated the issue of Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Today’s passage comes from the conclusion of the same section. Having stated that his fellow Israelites were wrong in rejecting Jesus, Paul concluded his arguments reminding the Gentiles that they should not feel superior or special because of their own acceptance of Jesus. Rather, he reminds the Gentiles that Israel’s rejection of Jesus made it possible for them to be counted among God’s people; they benefited from Israel’s downfall. However, Paul also emphasises that the Israelites’ rejection of Jesus is not final but temporary; they eventually will accept the Gospel and inherit eternal life together with the Gentiles. In the final line of the reading Paul indicates that the Gentiles and the Israelites equally share in the condition of “disobedience”. Prior to their conversion, the Gentiles did not follow God’s ways and were strangers to the Gospel; they lived in the state of disobedience. The Israelites, for their part, did not accept Jesus and the Gospel, hence, they are also in the state of disobedience. What these two groups have in common is the need for God’s mercy. The Gentiles had already experienced it because they were allowed to hear the Gospel and, accepting it, became believers and members of God’s people. The Israelites, while temporarily disobedient, will be shown the same mercy and, in the end, accept Jesus and have eternal life. Paul recognizes that eternal life does not depend on being an Israelite or a Gentile. He stated earlier in the letter that there is no difference between these groups because “all have sinned and lack God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). But, just as they share the condition of disobedience and sinfulness, so also they will be offered God’s mercy upon which God’s offer of eternal life rests. There are no double standards or criteria when it comes to inheriting life eternal.
The Gospel of Matthew was written specifically for the Jewish Christians and reflects a distinctively Jewish perspective. In today’s passage we read about Jesus venturing into the territory of “Tyre and Sidon”. These are the names of two important cities located outside of Israelite territory and inhabited by the non-Jews. It was a foreign land, the land of the Gentiles. While there, Jesus was approached by a woman identified only as “a Canaanite”. Canaanites were the peoples who inhabited the land of Palestine before the Israelites who had settled there after coming from Egypt. For centuries the Israelites and the Canaanites fought over the possession of the land and the two groups became mortal enemies. As a true Jew, Jesus initially refused to help this foreign woman, stating that his mission is directed only to his fellow Israelites. Even more, he seemingly insulted the woman by referring to the non-Jews as “dogs”. Dogs were considered unclean animals. Thus, Jesus’ answer reflects the view that foreigners were “unclean” in the religious sense and, therefore, not members of God’s people.
However, Jesus’ refusal and harsh words were a test of the woman’s resolve and faith. In reality, Jesus, from the beginning, intended to bring the good news to foreigners and religious outcasts. If he were only concerned with Israel, he would not have gone into the Gentile territory in the first place. Second, as an Israelite he would never have spoken to an unclean Gentile, the traditional enemy of the Jewish people, unintentionally. Finally, as a Jew he would have never talked to an unknown woman because it was forbidden for Jewish males to openly speak with women in public. Yet, Jesus engaged the woman and, seeing her persistence, granted her request. He healed her daughter and praised her faith, the faith that many of his fellow Israelites lacked. Also this reading shows that there is no double standard when it comes to receiving Jesus’ healing action and grace. There is only one single response to Jesus required of all – unreserved and persistent faith. Faith in Jesus is, therefore, a universal condition for the Israelites and the Gentiles to receive God’s salvation offered to humanity through Jesus.
Setting boundaries and dividing lines is the common human practice that helps to establish and clarify national and individual identities. With those boundaries and divisions come different standards applied to different groups. The Israelites originally believed that it was enough to be born an Israelite in order to be counted among God’s people and enjoy a privileged positon. Scripture denies that this is true. There is only one single set of standards for membership of God’s people applicable to all humanity. The first reading defines the righteous conduct towards fellow human beings and the right religious observance as the universal requirement for being counted among God’s people. The second reading acknowledges that all humanity, regardless of ethnic origin, shares the same condition of sinfulness and requires God’s mercy for salvation. Finally, the Gospel denies that ethnic distinctions play any role when it comes to receiving God’s grace through Jesus. The one universal response to Jesus, required of all, is faith. In God’s eyes there are no double standards and all artificial distinctions are irrelevant and superficial because righteous living, God’s mercy and faith in Jesus constitute the sole set of standards for those who aspire to call themselves God’s people. Recognising this, the psalmist issues his call to all humanity: “Let the nations praise you, God, let all the nations praise you.”
Listening to the Word of God
The liturgy of this Sunday teaches us two distinctive lessons. First, Jesus did not confine his mission to the Israelites, rather, he wanted all to know and enjoy the goodness of God. When one accepts the message of Christ and is baptized, the boundaries created by social and ethnic differences are no longer of value and importance. Since a Christian has put on Christ and became a new creation the differences no longer matter; there is no Jew or Gentile, man and woman, slave or free. That is the ideal. But, an objective look at African societies today shows how tribalism and ethnicity damage, not only the development of our countries, but also seriously undermine Christian identity and testimony. Christians tend to easily conform themselves to the standards of this world, which rely on making distinctions and divisions. When differences are highlighted, it becomes very easy to forego the search for the common good and to pursue perverse personal tribal or national interests while harming others. In doing so, we are becoming ever less Christian. The message about the single standard required of all Christians for an adequate response to Jesus is a great exhortation to seek the way past differences in search for being a true Christian. As Christians we have a great responsibility to carry that message of essential equality to our often troubled societies.
Another message which comes from today’s reading is that of patient waiting for God’s action rather than seeking shortcuts in life. While contemporary society has made it a common and quite normal way to seek and take shortcuts in life, the Canaanite woman sets a model for all of us to follow. Unemployment, poverty, familial issues etc., have led many youths today to join secret societies and engage themselves in immoral practices taught and demanded by these groups. Also, the “Gospel of prosperity” preached in many parts of the world, and particularly in Africa, is causing harm to many, especially youth by taking advantage of their dreams. They all insist that by performing certain rites, paying tithes to the preachers, attending special revivals or belonging to illuminati groups we can achieve quick and effortless success. These beliefs are nothing but distortions of Jesus’ teaching. The expectation of an immediate reward for religious devotion are unreasonable and false in the light of the Gospel. The one single response to God’s promises demanded of all is faith and commitment to God’s ways. There are no quick ways or shortcuts to bypass these.
Whenever we feel impatient with God we ought to follow the example of the Canaanite woman who did not give up on seeking help from Jesus, even though he seemed reluctant to respond. She waited patiently for his amazing intervention in her life. Her example teaches us that one cannot remain discouraged or idle when things do not go as expected. Rather we should engage in prayer and work that will make the reception of God’s favour possible, whenever it comes. The Canaanite woman did this in following Jesus and crying out to him for help. She waited in persistent prayer and supplication. This persistence in faith and prayer are, therefore, the attitudes that a true Christian nourishes in life, realizing that these are the standards God sets for all humanity to follow in order to receive his blessing and grace.
How can I live the experience of all-inclusive community in my life?
Am I impatient with God and seek shortcuts to get what I want in ways contrary to the Christian lifestyle?
Response to God
I thank God for the gift of life and pray for strength and perseverance to wait patiently for God’s grace.
Response to your World
What actions can we take to combat the ever present danger of tribalism and ethnic discrimination in our group, parish or larger community?
Lord, let your light shine in every part of my life so that I may be able to embrace all kinds of people as your son Jesus Christ did. May my life bring hope, joy and peace to those who need it most. I ask all these through Christ our lord. Amen.