Sr. Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, Th.D.
Is 56:1, 6-7; Rom 11:13-15, 29-32; Mt 15:21-28
The woman was a nuisance, behaving like that, and besides, she was a Canaanite, a foreigner, one of the old proverbial enemies of Israel. What could be worse? "Get rid of her!" the disciples cry. Jesus tries to comply, first by ignoring her and when that no longer works, by insult.
But wait: Jesus and his followers were up north in the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside the land of Israel. They were the foreigners! What was Jesus even doing there, if — in his own words — he thought his mission was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? In foreign territory, then, he has no mission. Yet here is one staring him in the face. He tries a strategy: she will be so insulted by being compared to a dog that she will go away. But it doesn't work: she just swallows the insult and throws it back to him. Such verbal sparring is a familiar tactic in ancient conflicts, often seen in the Gospels, but almost always among males, as for example, between Jesus and the Scribes or Pharisees. Such a match is unusual between a man and a woman. Yet Jesus admits defeat and gives her what she asks because her faith enables her to overcome all obstacles.
This unnamed Gentile woman is called a Canaanite by Matthew. This is probably in itself an expression of contempt. The name was no longer used in his day; it recalls ancient Israel and its conflicts. The woman is also a mother. She asks nothing for herself, only the healing of her beloved daughter, who is beset by a demon. Whether this means what we would call demonic possession or physical illness is impossible to say, since she gives no symptoms. Most illnesses were understood to be caused by evil spirits inhabiting both mind and body. The mother is not entirely ignorant of Jewish claims, though. She addresses Jesus as "Son of David," a messianic title. So she is engaging in a cross-cultural leap of faith. In her own land, she reaches out not only to a foreign visitor but to his religious faith that is not hers. The acknowledged power of Jesus transcends national and ethnic boundaries.
The other two readings assigned for today are remarkably attuned to the same theme. In the first reading, the author of this chapter in Isaiah, writing later than the time of the original prophet Isaiah who lived in the 8th century BC, proclaims an openness of the Jerusalem Temple to welcome all people who will come in good faith and will observe the basic laws of Israel, keeping the Sabbath holy and living their responsibilities to God and to each other according to the stipulations of the covenant. Ethnicity is no longer the important factor; rather, faith in the one God and willingness to live a just life are the determining factors. The benefits of the covenant are available to all people. Everyone who has faith and lives justly is welcome on "my holy mountain" and will be made joyful in "my house of prayer" which is for all peoples. This author wants to say that post-exilic Israel, that is, in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, opened its doors to the stranger and the alien. Not everyone shared that sentiment, to be sure, and it would have surprised some of the prophet's readers, but it is proclaimed here as what should be.
In today's second reading, Paul continues the same theme of the openness of the community of followers of Jesus to all people, whether Jew or Gentile — which means anything other than Jew. With Paul, there has been a significant shift. He sees himself as apostle to the Gentiles, and calls himself that in this passage. The Isaian writer of our first reading has described the inclusion of people from all nations into Israel's worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. All are welcome, provided they recognize that there is the one true place of worship. They are welcome on Israel's terms.
That was originally Paul's understanding, too, as the dedicated Pharisee that he was. But his position has shifted its center because of his experience of the risen Christ, his reflection on that experience, and his pastoral ministry over the years. By the time he writes this letter to the Romans, he has been an apostle of Christ for close to twenty years, and has been wrestling all that time with the same thorny question that the Isaian writer faced centuries before: just how does this happen? How are the ethnic and cultural differences to be overcome when for the people involved, they are very real? For Paul now, the center for worship is no longer Jerusalem, but anywhere that the believers in Jesus gather. Those who claim Israel as their portion are of course part of those who are welcome, now no longer on Israel's terms, however, but on those of Christ.
This shift in understanding is so radical that now in this letter to the Roman communities of Christ's followers, written toward the end of his life, Paul actually has to argue the opposite side: that the Jews, too, are welcome in this new movement that, from Paul's perspective, is looking more and more like something that will wind up predominantly Gentile. This is what did happen, probably even during Paul's lifetime.
Cultural, demographic, and therefore religious shifts have been happening throughout human history. With them come painful moments of conflict, uncertainty, and loss of the familiar. My neighborhood isn't anymore what it was when I was growing up. The region, the state, the country have changed into something I don't recognize. The world is no longer the safe place that I thought it was. These are familiar experiences not only in most parts of the United States, but in many parts of the world. Immigration issues are the plague of politics, while human needs cry out for remediation.
The insights of today's Scripture readings bring us face to face with issues that are serious in our own world: immigration, refugees, natural disasters, movements of peoples for political or economic reasons, people cast out of their homes with nowhere to go and not welcome anywhere else. Attempts to alleviate these problems are politically and socially complex, and yet very simple: everyone has a right to worship freely and to live without fear. Too easily does the "other" become the perceived enemy. The challenge of today's Scriptures is the call to change of mind and heart that allows us to welcome the stranger and do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others caused by alienation from home and country.
Today's Gospel reading tells of Jesus healing a sick child because a mother is bold enough to keep asking. Perhaps the healing of this one child is an image of the collective healing that needs to take place if all are to live in happiness and security. What steps can we take today to begin to bring this about?