Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Among the various things that have happened in our country and around the world recently, there was mention in the news of the fortieth anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon. When I was in high school, I remember coming home after school and watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Senator Howard Baker asked what has become a famous question, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
I bring this up because our Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) has raised similar questions for Scripture scholars and theologians. In the encounter between Jesus and the "Canaanite woman," people have wondered whether Jesus actually had a change in His vision of His ministry, or whether He was actually teaching His disciples a lesson about the universality of His mission. In other words, what did Jesus know, and when did He know it? I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to the question. I think the questions come up because the debate raises important issues for various people. For those who stress the divinity of Jesus, there is no doubt that Jesus knew what He was doing all along, and therefore must have been teaching His disciples a lesson. For those who stress His humanity, it is important to detect growth and change in Jesus’ life on earth, and so they have no problem seeing Jesus change His views about His ministry. And there are those who see it as significant that a woman, a "foreigner," no less, is instrumental in helping Jesus broaden His horizons, and so the importance of women in Jesus’ life is once again confirmed, with implications about the role of women in the Church. I know it can be a cop-out to say this, but I do believe there is validity to all three perspectives.
But perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from this encounter in the Gospel is that, as we have seen in Matthew’s Gospel before with the visit of the Magi at Jesus’ birth, the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just meant for a specific group of people, but for the entire world! We cannot in any way, judge others as undeserving or unworthy of God’s love in Jesus Christ! We cannot try to withhold the Good News of Jesus Christ from anyone!
It may seem to be a given that the Gospel is meant for everyone. But this has led me to another topic for reflection. For those who see no reason why the Church should be involved in social justice, I offer this: If it is not right for us to withhold the Good News from anyone, can it be right for us to withhold the necessities of life? Many applaud the Church for the charity work that it does, but criticize the Church for doing things such as helping undocumented, or illegal, immigrants. But does it not make sense, along the lines of the Gospel, to see these people more in terms of their humanity than their legal status? In many ways, working for justice is the best (the only?) way to see that everyone has not only the necessities of life, but the opportunity to be the fullest expression of who God made them to be. Does the Church itself need to keep learning this? Absolutely!
Do we dare hope for a church and a world which is just and at peace? Do we dare hope for a world in which no one is prevented from living their full potential as human beings? What’s going on in the world seems to speak against any kind of hope. But the woman in our Gospel reading dared to hope! Knowing she was a foreigner in the eyes of Jews, she still came up to Jesus, begging for healing for her daughter. And ultimately, no matter what one reads into their exchange, Jesus heals her daughter. May we be like the Canaanite woman and dare to dream and hope, and help bring about healing in Jesus Christ!
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.