August 20, 2023
This Sunday’s gospel is a perfect companion piece to the one we heard last week. Each gospel manages to show us two sides of the same coin. Last week, you will remember, we found ourselves in the Sea of Galilee, and heard the account of Peter attempting to walk on water and sinking. It was the story of an apostle – a man, and a Jew – challenged by the Lord and then failing that challenge because of his doubt or lack of faith.
But this week, it is the exact opposite. We are back on dry land and hear the story of someone who was NOT an apostle – in fact; it is about a woman and a Canaanite, a group hated by the Jews. Like Peter, she was also challenged. But she confronted that challenge with tenacity and perseverance. And she achieved a miracle because of the courage of her conviction. One episode is about the cost and the risk of doubt; the other, the transformative power of faith. But this passage we just heard offers us an even more startling lesson – an idea that some people today still find hard to accept. It is this: God doesn’t just love those who are like us.
His mercy extends to those who are different from us, to those whom we might even consider to be our enemy. Sometimes, those enemies may even have a deeper faith than we do – the kind of conviction that can work miracles. Certainly, the Jews considered Canaanites an enemy – you can hear the scorn when the disciples tried to send the Canaanite woman away. It is important for us to remember here that Matthew was a Jew writing for other Jews – and that the words of Jesus and his apostles echoed the prevailing sentiment of Matthew’s audience.
So, that audience would have been surprised to learn that the Son of David worked a miracle for someone whom many of them had been taught to hate. More than surprised: they would have been stunned. But Jesus was constantly upsetting the status quo, and forcing people to think differently about themselves, and those around them. And here he does it again. Faith, we learn, can astonish us. Miracles can happen. God’s vision is so much greater than ours. As an old hymn puts it, “There is wideness in God’s mercy.” It is available to all.
In the first reading, from Isaiah, we heard of how God embraces those “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…” and the passage concludes with the beautiful words that are inscribed in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Then we sang the responsorial psalm and made that idea our own prayer: “Lord, let all the peoples praise you!” And then we heard from Paul, writing to the Romans, and he even celebrated the fact that he was an apostle to the Gentiles, one sent to those outside his own circle of belief.
You might have heard about, “Google-plus,” that is a social network on Google. It allows you to create your own separate “circles” of friends and co-workers, sharing certain information with only certain circles of people. But these readings this Sunday remind us: Those who may seem to be outside our circle aren’t necessarily outside the circle of God. His circle is limitless. And there is always room for more.
What a comfort! All of us, at one time or another has been “outside the circle.” All of us have felt like foreigners: isolated, uncomfortable, like we don’t belong. Remember that first day at a new school? The first hours in a new job? Or even the first months in a new country? God never forgets it. And He extends His hand to us, and to everyone seeking to be a part of His circle. Are we willing to take what He has to offer? Are we willing to “join ourselves to the Lord”? Are we ready, like Peter and the Canaanite woman, to dare to believe what others would find unbelievable?
And: mindful of this gospel, are we willing to extend to others the same kind of mercy that God extends to us? Can we accept those who are different? Are we willing to love those we have been taught to despise? They may be more like us than we realize. And they are, like all of us, works in progress. As a friend of mine likes to say about someone who is in leadership: “God isn’t finished with him yet.” The fact is, He isn’t finished with any of us yet.
Last week, we celebrated the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta, better known as Edith Stein. Born Jewish, she became an atheist – completely rejecting God — before converting to Catholicism, joining a convent, and then losing her life in a Nazi death camp. At any given moment, she would have been considered “outside the circle.” Not a Christian, then not a Jew, then not a believer. But she was never beyond God’s circle of grace. All it took was her own yearning, her seeking – her desire, like the Canaanite woman, to have God work a miracle in her life.
Today, as we gather around this table for communion – people from different race and color, speak different languages, different gender, different regions and even nationalities – we gather literally in communion, bound by our love of the Lord and our hunger for the Eucharist, our own yearning to be a part of this miracle. Pray for those who may not be here yet – but who may be on their way. Pray for those who are seeking to join this circle – as Isaiah wrote, to “join themselves to the Lord.” Pray that we may be as merciful to one another as God is to us — because God isn’t finished with any of us yet.