There are no favourites in heaven

  • July 27, 2011

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 14 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

Who are God’s favourites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Human beings have always had a distressing tendency to want to possess or control God, making God the champion or protector of an ethnic group, nation, class or religion. People have difficulty imagining God blessing those considered to be enemies or undesirables. And yet the “distressing” message is repeated often in Scripture: God does not play favourites and God is there for all people.

Often it is the encounter with people and groups who are different that acts as a catalyst for rethinking images of God. Those Israelites who went into exile in Babylon had to live among (and at the mercy of) an alien people with very different views of the divine. Although they struggled against this environment they also were affected by it and began to broaden their theology and their image of God. In Third Isaiah (chapters 55-61), which was written at the end of the exile, we begin to see a more universal understanding of God. In this passage an image of a holy mountain and temple in which all the peoples of the Earth are welcome makes a startling appearance. Israel’s God can be everyone’s God — right conduct, desire and worship is the only entrance requirement.

Last week Paul wished that he might be cut off and accursed for the sake of his people — now he is trying to make them jealous. He is still trying to be true both to his faith and the love he feels for his people. Paul reminds us that God’s calling of Israel is irrevocable. This has been forgotten by many Christians over the centuries in their rejection and persecution of Jewish people, but is something that John Paul II proclaimed publicly on several occasions. In a verse omitted in the lectionary reading Paul even insists that in the end all Israel will be saved — this refusal of faith is only temporary and meant to hasten the inclusion of everyone. Whether this divinely inspired jealousy is indeed the case is beside the point, we need only remember that no one is rejected and no group superseded in God’s plan of redemption for humanity. We all have our continuing vital roles to play.

This story of the encounter of Jesus with the non-Israelite woman leaves most people with a bit of unease. It does not sound like the usual compassionate and welcoming Jesus. While deep in pagan territory (what was He doing there?) He was approached by a “Canaanite” woman — not a nice word in the Jewish lexicon for it represented the original inhabitants of the land whom the Israelites fought and dispossessed. Her cries for Jesus’ assistance for her demon-possessed daughter fell on deaf ears, even though she had addressed Him with the Messianic title “Son of David.” The irritated disciples want Jesus to get rid of her so He insisted that He had come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This of course is in keeping with Matthew’s theology for his presentation of Jesus is Israel-centred throughout the Gospel. Jesus even added a not-too-flattering proverb about not casting the children’s food before dogs.

But she was not cowed — she shot right back with a witty one-liner that won the Lord’s favour: Even the dogs get the crumbs from under the table. Her daughter is healed. Did this actually happen and did Jesus actually say these things? It is impossible to prove one way or the other, but one thing is fairly certain. Matthew includes this story in his Gospel — written some 50 years after the crucifixion — because his community needed to hear it. He is teaching his community that there are no “dogs” and that God also blesses the “other,” a message that perhaps not everyone in the community was delighted to hear.

We encounter the Canaanite woman in many guises today and we must always remember that barriers and labels are of human rather than divine origin. God always shakes free from human attempts to possess and control. By our open-hearted response the “Other” we can contribute to the continuing growth and expansion of God in human consciousness.