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God's Word on Sunday: God’s message is meant for all people

  • August 9, 2020

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 16 (Year A) Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

“Maintain justice and do what is right.”

That command is direct and uncomplicated, and that is all that God asks of us. And yet it is what we find most difficult to do, for it infringes on our personal territory. The selfish part of us fights back, and we can find a million excuses, justifications and self-deceptions to do otherwise. Justice becomes politicized.

Religion itself is often enlisted in this self-serving game as people focus obsessively on ritual and externals to the detriment of justice. But God is adamant — justice and doing what is right is how we please God and that applies to anyone, anywhere.

Isaiah’s view of God was increasingly universal and expansive. In what must have been a surprise, God welcomed foreigners to walk in His ways and to even serve in the temple.

That wonderful statement, that the temple was to be house of prayer for all peoples, was echoed by Jesus in the New Testament. God belongs to all peoples and cultures and they all must be respected.

This has not always been observed faithfully. The tension between the particular and the universal is present in all religions. The first Christian contacts with non-European peoples and cultures are not happy or inspiring pages of our history. Belonging to the body of Christ does not mean becoming European, North American or anything else.

At the very beginning of Christianity, there was tension and conflict over table fellowship and religious traditions. This tension continued throughout our history, focusing on such things as dress, customs, language, veneration of ancestors and so on.

The bottom line: Insist only on what is absolutely necessary. The faith is to be incarnated in every culture, not transplanted. Let all peoples praise the Lord in their own voices.

As Paul agonized over what he perceived to be Israel’s refusal of the Christ, he struggled to see the hand of God in it all. He proposed that their refusal was part of God’s plan. This would allow the Gentiles to enter the covenant. In the end, His people would accept the Messiah and all would be saved.

We would have theological quibbles about Paul’s solution today, but it still has an important lesson to impart. Trust that God and the Holy Spirit know what they are doing. Paul did not believe that the people of Israel were rejected by God, and neither should we. God’s covenant with Israel has never been revoked.

The story of the Canaanite woman’s encounter with Jesus makes many people feel slightly uneasy. Jesus sounded brusque, almost to the point of rudeness. Perhaps it was because He was in pagan territory and did not want to attract attention.

The woman was persistent and addressed Him as Son of David — a messianic title. The disciples tried desperately to get rid of her. He insisted that He had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He was not a magician or miracle worker, so she should go elsewhere.

As she knelt in entreaty before Jesus, He repeated a proverb about not taking the children’s food and feeding the dogs — quite a putdown. But she would not be cowed and came right back with a snappy answer, insisting that even dogs get the scraps under the table.

She was loud and pushy because she had to be. As in all ancient cultures, women did not approach or talk to men in public, especially to make demands or request favours. They were invisible. And she was a foreigner and knew it.

But she had courage, persistence and faith, and would not be cowed or humiliated. Jesus admiringly recognized her qualities and granted her request.

We cannot have selective sight or hearing, filtering out people or things we do not want to see or hear. Their voices must not be dismissed or ignored — they will not go away.

Compassionate listening — as Jesus finally did in this story — is the key. The voice that we refuse to hear may be the voice of God.