Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 8-20-17
Peace be with You,
Two weekends ago, in celebrating the Transfiguration of our Lord we emphasized the fact that the Lord’s Transfiguration is a prefigurement of our transfiguration. We also noted that this is ultimately a work which will only be completed in eternity. This is not to suggest, however, that all there is for us to do, therefore, is sit on our hands and wait. Rather, it is of the utmost importance that we begin assimilating ourselves to the life of heavenly glory here and now, through living a life of prayer and virtue. The Orthodox Saint Nicholas Cabasilas explains it to us this way: “…if the life to come were to admit those who lack the faculties and senses necessary for it, it would avail nothing for their happiness…the light would appear and the sun shine with its pure rays with no eye having been formed to see it. The Spirit’s fragrance would be abundantly diffused and pervading all, but one would not know it without already having the sense of smell” (The Life in Christ, Bk 1.1). Given our frail human state, this work will no doubt be difficult and encounter seemingly insurmountable hurdles, however we have two reasons which ought to provide us with much hope; first, as we saw last weekend, our merciful God continually accompanies and cares for us on this journey; and second, this journey is ultimately a return to our truest selves.
If one were asked to describe in one word the socio-political climate of our time perhaps “division” would be as good a choice as any other. Our communities too often are still divided across cultural and racial lines; both our nation and the world at large seem to continually become more divided ideologically along party lines and economically along property lines; and the Church seems to be headed towards further division amongst those who call themselves traditional and others who are seen as mainstream. To be sure, there are some very good reasons for the disagreements taking place in all of these areas; disagreements which ought to serve as the basis for fruitful dialogue which can propel us in a direction where a higher percentage of the human family can truly flourish. But this can only happen when an approach of humility is taken by both parties, a willingness to see where our worldview may need more nuance and may indeed even be wrongheaded. Unhappily, with every article that is published, it seems more and more unlikely that this will be the result anytime in the near future. And though there are many reasons for this, I would suggest at the root is the contemptible tendency displayed by both sides to demonize their would-be interlocutors. Today’s readings provide a stark contrast to such a state; a contrast which ultimately provides the only real basis for a solution to overcoming these very deep divisions which surround us on every side. And they do so at both the macro and the micro level; i.e. from the purview of society and that of the individual as well.
The contextual setting for our gospel reading for today is actually not so different from the contemporary context described above, but in order to see this we will need to backtrack a bit. Our gospel reading for today begins at Matt. 15:21 which reads: “Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Then in verse 22 we meet an individual whom we will focus much of our consideration upon today; there, we read “And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.’” Having read thus far we must begin with a question; where did Jesus withdraw from? Previous to this, the last point of reference given to us by Matthew regarding the location of Jesus and his disciples was that they had reached Gennesaret (Matt. 14:34), which is located in the north of Galilee. There, Jesus had performed many healings and was next engaged in a very heated discussion with a group of Pharisees and scribes over the tradition of the elders regarding ritual purity laws (Matt. 15:1-2). The Pharisees were a subgroup of Jewish adherents who were very concerned with ritual purity, such that they would go to great lengths not only to assure they maintained a level of ritual purity fit for service in the temple, but also to assure that they did not associate with those who did not do the same in order that they might not even accidentally become ritually unclean. For example, even sitting in a chair after someone who was ritually unclean had sat in it would render one ritually unclean. Thus, when this group asks Jesus why his disciples transgressed the tradition of the elders by eating without washing their hands (Matt. 15:2), Jesus has a twofold response for them. First, he accuses them of being hypocrites, telling them that for the sake of their traditions they have no qualms about rendering void the word of God concerning the command to honor one’s father and mother (cf. Matt. 15:4-7). Second, he says to them and all within earshot that it is “not what goes into the mouth that defiles man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matt 15:11), later explaining further to the disciples by adding that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander…” (Matt. 15:18-19).
It is from this discussion at Gennesaret which Jesus withdraws from to the district of Tyre and Sidon. The movement from the territory of Israel to that of the Gentiles alone would be enough to raise the ears of the Pharisees in shock, and so when we hear that Jesus is there confronted by a Canaanite woman they would have felt an interior impulse to run for the hills! And this for two reasons; first, she was an unclean Gentile, and second, she was a she! No upright and self-respecting Jewish male would at this time be seen openly conversing with a woman, and for a time, it seems as though Jesus intends to play the Pharisee with her (Matt. 15:23), but as always our Lord will surprise us, precisely to wake us out of our self-pleasing and complacent stupor. But before going on with this, let us turn to consider our first reading for today.
Our first reading for today comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah and therein we find the outlook which our Lord’s words cited above are based upon. From the pews we hear verses 1, 6, and 7. However, we will explore the intervening verses as well in order to give us a more complete understanding. The opening verse of this particular passage is the key to its understanding and reads thus: “Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Is. 56:1). In hearing the word “justice” we tend to think about “social justice,” a term which in our day and age is bandied about by nearly every activist group. The problem is that each group means something different by it, and having thus become relativized has begun to lose any real meaning. Its proper understanding is indicated to us by the word “right” in the verse. Here it is uttered by God and thus to do right is to function as he has designed us to function; said differently, it is to live according to the natural law, which orders all things to their proper end. It is precisely the framework of the natural law which concretizes justice and gives it its proper understanding, i.e. that justice is a virtue, a human quality which helps us grow in accord with the imago Dei etched into our nature. This virtue is defined by St. Augustine as “love serving alone that which is loved and thus ruling rightly” (The Way of Life of the Catholic Church, 15.25), while St. Thomas Aquinas defines justice by its object which is ius, or giving each one what he or she is owed (Summa Theologica, II-II q. 58 a. 1). The definition provided by Augustine gives us the proper framework, i.e. he is describing an ordered love and ultimately has in mind love for God above all things and love for all else rightly ordered following from this first love. The definition by Aquinas then calls for this love to function so as to work to ensure that all have what is needed in order for their lives to flourish. It is this understanding of justice that this opening verse calls for, and which leads, as we see in the following verse, to happiness: “Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil” (Is. 56:2). What we have here is essentially a beatitude, and thus happiness ought not be understood as a fleeting psychological state, but instead as that stable quality of life which the beatitudes enumerated by our Lord in the gospels leads to (cf. Matt. 5:2-12 & Luke 6:20-26).
The remaining verses of this passage give us a macro view of the society characterized by this justice, a society which may be succinctly described as all-inclusive. Here it is important to state that this inclusivity is not the inclusivity of secular society frequently heard spoken of which is a false inclusivity based ultimately upon indifference. You will never hear one who is truly inclusive say “Who am I to tell you what is right or wrong for you?” One could scarcely conceive of a more callous stance towards one’s fellowman. Instead, the true inclusivity spoken of here is an inclusivity which judges rightly, seeing things for what they really are including self and others and determines to love despite the shortcomings detected. This inclusivity says “I see how both you and I are broken, each in our own ways, and I will try to the greatest extent that my brokenness allows me to love you as a child of God, because love is ultimately the only thing that can heal us, that can make us both whole again.” This inclusive love has the power to transform; to make the eunuch fruitful (Is. 56:3-5) foreigners family (Is. 56:6); and it does so precisely by living in loving communion with God and one another. This is the hymn of praise being sung on God’s holy mountain; it is the praise our God desires, why? because it is only this praise which can make the human family eternally joyful (Is. 56:7)!
This is the vision for the human family within the mind of God from all of eternity, and it is this vision which characterizes all our Savior does, including the conversation we give witness to today between him and the Canaanite woman. The conversation ultimately highlights the contrast between the Pharisees and the woman, who approach the Lord with completely opposite attitudes. The first contrast we notice is that whereas those who were descended from God’s chosen people, the Pharisees, did not recognize Jesus for who he is, this foreign woman does, calling him Lord, which Paul tells us none can so confess except by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:3). Thus, the outsiders have become the insiders, reconciled to communion with God in encountering the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Therefore, here the woman is representative of all the fallen human family. But notice please that this reconciliation has not happened magically, it has taken place with much daring and effort on the part of this woman who experiences much pain and distress in solidarity with her daughter. For although it is her daughter who is possessed, it is she, who St. John Chrysostom tells us, experiences the disease of her daughter in its full weight and with full consciousness (Homily 52 on Matthew, 1).
Given the woman’s obvious love for her daughter the response of Jesus is downright off-putting to our ears, for he says nothing, he remains silent. And, our bewilderment only increases when our Lord finally opens his mouth to say to this poor woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Why, we wonder, would our Lord deal such a devastating blow to this woman’s hope? Here, we can explore a couple possibilities. First, our Lord is making known his faithfulness to the People of Israel, for it was with them that our Lord had entered into an everlasting covenant which included the promise that through them all nations would be blessed (cf. Gen. 22:18); a promise whose fulfillment is prefigured in the episode we witness today. Second, St. Augustine suggests that our Lord remained silent at first “that her desire might be enkindled” (Sermon 27 on the New Testament, 1), i.e. in making her persist, this woman’s desire for what she asks for grows, as does her capacity to receive that which our Lord was prepared to give to her (cf. Augustine, Letter 130 to Proba, ch. 8.17).
So far so good, but these answers are put in serious question when after the woman persists our Lord says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26). If the first response wasn’t devastating the second might well be crushing, our Lord here seems to speak of the woman as less than human! But notice please the endurance displayed by the woman, undeterred she continues to ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7) at the feet of the throne of mercy. This endurance has a very specific quality we ought to notice, for it is not an endurance of pride that demands one be given what one is entitled to, but it is an endurance characterized by humility that asks for a gift. It is this humility which has ultimately been the difference between this woman and the Pharisees; for the Pharisees in their pride at being members of God’s chosen people, have failed to see his presence before them, whereas the woman’s humility has the opposite effect, it clears her vision. It is precisely her humility that enables the woman to recognize that she has not lived up to her potential as one created in the image of God and says, ‘yes, I am less than I should be, but I know that I only need a crumb, a little morsel of what you have to be whole’ (cf. Matt. 15:27); a plea echoed by another Gentile, the centurion who, pleading on his servants behalf cries “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8). To this reply comes the response from our Lord, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire;” and we are told that the woman’s daughter was healed instantly (Matt. 15:28). This ending to the scene confirms two things for us. First, it signifies that the One speaking is indeed the one whose word creates reality; and second, it echoes the inclusivity of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ spoken of earlier in our passage from Isaiah and by our Lord himself in the Gospel of John where he says: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
My friends, what we have witnessed today may be likened to an exchange between teacher and student. For we have seen the one Teacher, Jesus Christ, facilitate the development of virtue within the Canaanite woman. Knowing exactly what she needs to dig deep within herself so that the seed of virtue, the imago Dei, may be found and brought into the Light (John 1:9) where it can experience growth; the Lord prompts and leads her to the appropriate responses, accompanying and assisting her as she plumbs the depths of her being and finds treasures of faith, justice, humility, endurance and patience which allow her love to expand and come together to create a sound of right praise with which our Lord is well pleased. It is only this type of virtuous life lived on the micro level which can propel the human family further towards the macro vision present to the mind of God from eternity; a vision which has in mind our eternal happiness. Let us seek to live such lives which alone have the power to both bring about the common good here and now, and acclimate our senses for eternal life.
O Jesus, Good Teacher, in your patience and humility you deign to instruct the human family in its imitation of you. Give us the grace this day to open ourselves to the nourishing waters of your grace which give growth to the image of God hidden within us in infantile form, destined for full flourishing in that heavenly kingdom where through you we shall experience the fullness of joy in the perpetual exchange of love which obtains between you, the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Your servant in Christ,