God will offer salvation to all

  • August 7, 2008

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 17 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

A prophetic image from the long distant past can speak to us over and over again.

Isaiah’s vision, born from the experience of captivity and exile in Babylon, presents a new and inspiring image of God. Imagine a place where anyone is welcome to approach God — no ID checks or background investigations at the door. The God encountered within is not a tribal deity but one concerned with all of the peoples of the Earth. Divine blessings are offered to all. The entrance requirements are simple and speak to all human beings: doing justice and what is right.

The covenant, the Sabbath and loving the name of the Lord are all variations on that one theme: delight in doing good. The temple will become a place where all humanity is able to approach God, and Jesus reminds us of this very forcefully in Matthew 21.

Was this ever achieved? If not, is it a failed prophecy? A prophecy is a glimpse into the mind and heart of God and the passage presents God’s fervent desire for humanity. It may not occur in the immediate future and we will have to work towards that goal. But all too often human selfishness and fear gets in the way. We are presented with a vision of how God wants to be seen, approached and worshipped. If we do not live up to that image, the fault lies with us. In our own world so much of the violence and hatred we see is fueled by "God issues" of our own making. Possessiveness and drawing boundary lines in the sand is the cause of so much of the negative behaviour. Add to that an utter conviction on the part of everyone that they possess the whole and absolute truth, and the recipe for a grim, divided and violent world is complete.

Paul is struggling with the apparent refusal of his own people to accept Jesus. His quick theological mind has resolved the tension by recourse to God’s compassionate mercy. (Reading the omitted passages would be helpful.) He has hit upon the idea that Israel’s refusal is temporary and all part of God’s grand plan, enabling the word then to be taken to the gentiles. All Israel will be saved, and God’s gifts are irrevocable. God is levelling everyone — Paul’s theme in Romans — in order to save all. Paul was thinking in the short term — expecting the imminent return of the Lord and the judgment — and today we would have to question aspects of his theological argument. But one thing is clear: God will go to tremendous lengths to include and offer salvation to everyone. We are on shaky ground when we attempt to define who is "in" or "out." God is not done with us yet and it is God who makes those decisions. And if God’s past record is a guide, we are in for some big surprises.

The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman is disturbing, for Jesus isn’t exactly welcoming or even friendly to the woman. Of course, we do not know what He was thinking or what His intentions were, only how Matthew narrates the story. She is a pagan — a "Canaanite," which would be a pejorative term. Matthew’s Gospel shows a zealous concern for the Law and for Israel’s traditions, and that is reflected in Jesus’ insistence that He has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And He follows that with a proverb about not throwing the children’s food to the dogs. But the woman does the unthinkable. She breaks the rules of her traditional society by verbally sparring in public with a male and someone considered her social superior. Her quick retort that even the dogs get something for their needs wins the day. Jesus is impressed by her persistence, courage and faith so He heals her daughter. This is not about exclusion, even though it was used for centuries as Christian theological justification for exclusion of the unbaptized. This teaching story is really about the tension between the human uses of God to limit and define a group and God’s desire to be known as universal and impartial. Borders and labels mean nothing to God.