Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Little Something Extra...Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Incorporating the Gentiles

Today's readings are all about the hope and salvation God offers to the Gentile nations, that is, the non-Jews. Originally, God made a covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with the nation of Israel, the Hebrews, or as they later became known, the Jews. The Jews were God's chosen people, the ones who lived in relationship with Him, recognizing Him, worshiping Him, receiving His commandments (although not always keeping them), and (ideally) rejecting all false “gods.” They were a people set apart from the Gentiles, who worshiped multiple “gods” and did not know the one true God. 

The Jews took pride in their position as God's people, but sometimes they failed to realize that God had bigger plans in mind. Israel, in fact, was God's firstborn son, a child whose role was to lead his younger brothers and sisters, the other nations of the world, to God. God certainly wanted to save Israel and bring the Jews into an intimate relationship with Himself, but He wasn't about to stop there. Through Israel, He would attract everyone else and bring salvation and intimacy to the entire world.

In today's readings, then, we hear about God's relationship with the Gentiles, to whom He reaches out through Israel, through Jewish prophets, prayers, and preachers and ultimately through the Messiah, Jesus Christ, Who also came from the Jews. 

The First Reading from the Prophet Isaiah tells us that at some time in the future, the Gentiles will join themselves to God. They will become His servants and worship Him. They will enter into His covenant and become part of His family, joining their elder brothers, the Jews, in flocking to God's holy mountain to offer sacrifice. They will stream to His house of prayer to kneel before Him in joyful intimacy. 

The Psalm continues this theme, declaring that the nations will “be glad and exult” in God and that God's way will be known throughout the earth. The Gentiles will praise Him, and He will rule over all the nations. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles, telling them that the old prophecies have been fulfilled. God's plan is in full swing. The Messiah, Jesus Christ, has come through the Jews, and He has opened the doors of God's mercy and salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also presents an interesting twist to the Israelite/Gentile story. His own people, the Israelites, have mostly rejected the Messiah. The elder brothers have turned their backs on God's plan, and the younger brothers have stepped up to grasp what they refused. But all is not lost. Paul says that, even as he turns his attention to the Gentile ministry, he still has hope for the Israelites. Even though they are disobeying now, they will someday see the great mercy given to the Gentiles and long for the same thing for themselves. They will become jealous of their younger siblings and reach out to accept their own salvation. 

Finally, the Gospel offers us another glimpse of the relationship between Israel and the Gentile nations. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile country. He is perhaps seeking privacy and time alone with His disciples, but He doesn't get it (which is probably no surprise to Him). A Canaanite woman, a Gentile, approaches Him, crying out to Him to help her possessed daughter. Jesus actually seems pretty harsh toward her. He ignores her at first, but she keeps insisting until the disciples get so annoyed that they tell Jesus to send the woman away. He replies to them that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the elder siblings.

This seems like a refusal, but the woman still isn't ready to give up. She falls before Him and begs for help. Jesus still seems to resist (notice, however, that He has not sent the woman away), saying “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, the elder siblings of Israel have priority. The young siblings of the Gentiles (the little the Greek word for “dogs” here suggests) have to wait their turn. 

The woman still doesn't relent. She offers a clever response: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” This is just what Jesus has been waiting for. The woman offers the exactly right blend of humility, perseverance, and good sense. Her faith remains strong even through all Jesus' apparent rebuffs, and Jesus grants her request. The woman's daughter is healed at that very moment. 

What is Jesus doing here? It seems strange that He would be so reluctant to help a Gentile since it has been God's plan for centuries that the Gentiles would one day enter into a covenant with Him. Perhaps Jesus is showing us what it takes for the Gentiles to assume their proper place in God's family. It will not be easy, He seems to say. It will take faith. It will take perseverance. It will take humility. They will meet with resistance. Their elder siblings will not share their inheritance very willingly. But if the Gentiles persist, like the woman does, they will discover the wonderful mercy and love of God.

Today, most Christians are Gentiles. We are the younger siblings of Israel. We have been invited to intimacy with God. We can stream to His house of prayer and praise Him with exultation. We may reach out for God's mercy and experience His love. At the same time, we are called to embrace the faith and humility of the Canaanite woman, knowing that if we do so, we will always touch Jesus' heart and find Him waiting for us with miracles.

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