Isaiah 56, 1, 6-7 + Psalm 67 + Romans 11, 13-15, 29-32 + Matthew 15, 21-28
Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colorado
A unique miracle story today ties together what has been revealed in the three previous stories. It is unique because Jesus never sees, touches, or speaks to the one who is healed. In fact we know nothing of the daughter that is healed except that she is “troubled by a demon.” Because we know nothing of her and because there is no contact between her and Jesus, the miracle of her healing, which we can only presume because Matthew reports it is not the issue. There are two elements to this story: one about Jesus and one about the apostolic church.
Scholars are beginning to insist that Jesus focused his ministry on the Jews. He really believed that he was sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and that salvation and the ingathering of all people would be would begin when God’s people had purified and reconciled themselves to the Covenant. His attitude toward the Gentiles was one of disinterest. The prevailing thought was that they would eventually convert to Judaism. This is what gave Jesus such distress with the Scribes and the Pharisees. They resisted his calls to reform themselves and bring life back into Judaism. His journey in this story is not made for the sake of the Gentiles. He has gone into that district of Tyre and Sidon because there are Jews living there, and he wants them to rediscover their faith and get back to Jerusalem. He did not go there for the sake of the Gentiles. Only toward the end of his ministry, when the total rejection of his mission by the Pharisees and leaders of the people comes to the point of his murder does he begin to open wider the gates of mercy and grace.
The other element of this story is the apostles. While the woman easily takes center stage because of her persistence and clever lines, the apostles are very much a part of this story. Here they are again, just like they were out in the wilderness two weeks ago insisting that Jesus send the hungry people away. “Get rid of her” they insist. So narrow is their thinking, so limited is their vision of the reign of God, grace, and mercy that they want her silenced and sent away even though she is way ahead of them when it comes to faith as witnessed by the title with which she addresses Jesus. They never call him “Son of David”.
Matthew uses apostles to describe the church which was then predominantly Jewish struggling with the Gentile converts among them. I wonder if the conversation in the Gospel does not matching the conversation Matthew hears in the church: “Get rid of them”. “It is not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to the dogs.” Is it possible that this is about Communion? This is the kind of reflection the Word of God prompts us to consider today. “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” might match the conversation in the church when it comes to charity. You know how the saying goes: “Charity begins at home. Why should we help them when we have such great needs right here?” I remember something like this 50 years ago when I was a new young associate at an inner city parish that had a grade school. There were barely 100 children in the school, and only one of them was a Catholic. The others were simply poor racially diverse inner-city street kids whose parents brought them to the Church for education, values, respect, and a better future. There were countless arguments within the parish and the diocese which subsidized that school about why we would keep that school open for those Non-Catholic kids (who happened to be black) when every other school was struggling. Monsignor with great courage would always respond with the same message: “Because we can, and because we should.”
When the two elements of this story are identified, there remains one constant truth being revealed. There is an ever expanding circle of grace and mercy found in God who asks the same of us. That woman believed that there was more than enough to go around when it comes to mercy and compassion, and she challenged Jesus with that truth which he confirmed by his praise of her faith. The demon of limited love and exclusivity is defeated at that hour by a nameless woman who crossed the boundaries of sexism and racism, confronting an ideology that insisted she was just a dog.
Today we have her to thank. She teaches us just like she taught Jesus a lesson. It is a lesson on God’s inclusive mercy and limitless grace. She teaches us to stand up against those who would say “Go away.” She shows us where to go when there is great need, and she shows us how to respond when someone says: “Help me.”