Saturday, August 16, 2014

God is merciful and worthy of praise

In our second reading for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from St Paul's Letter to the Romans, we hear: "For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all" (Rom 11:32). At least for me, this sentence seems to be the interpretive key for our readings this week. The Greek word translated as "delivered" in the New American Bible, which is used in the Lectionary for Roman Catholics in the United States, transliterated as sugkleio, means to "shut up on all sides," or "to enclose." So, God permits everyone to be enclosed by disobedience so that He might have mercy on us all.

In light of our first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, which looks forward to "foreigners," that is, non-Jews, joining "themselves to the LORD," and serving him, "loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants" (Isa 56:6), along with Paul's reference to salvation coming to the Gentiles, in order to make God's chosen people, Paul's people, "jealous," it is no wonder that our Psalm response is "O God, let all the nations praise you!".

There is no better way to illustrate this theology than Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman during His sojourn in the region of Tyre and Sidon. She called to Jesus using a messianic greeting, which is a bit odd considering she was not a Jew. She cried out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon" (Matt 15:22). At first it seemed that Jesus was ignoring her. But she was so relentless in her cry for mercy that the Lord's disciples implored Him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us" (Matt 15:23). Jesus, as it seems He often did, replied to their request obliquely, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24). These words seem to mean that He was not going to heed her cry, but neither was He going to send her away.

Then, the woman came right up to Him, did Him homage, and implored, "Lord, help me" (Matt 15:25). To this Jesus, referring back to His declaration that He was sent only to gather the lost sheep of Israel, stated, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs" (Matt 15:26). The children are Israelites and the dogs are Gentiles (i.e., all non-Jewish people). In Jesus' day the terms "dog" and "swine" were Jewish terms of contempt for Gentiles. Rather than being cruel, it seems that Jesus was making a point, not to the poor woman, but His other hearers, most likely His own disciples.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, by Germain-Jean Drouais, 1784

The woman's humble reply to Jesus' seemingly harsh and dismissive words moves Him deeply: "She said, 'Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters'" (Matt 15:27). In the presence of the Lord, who is, as Origen described Him, autobasileia, "the Kingdom in person," she was content to eat scraps from the table.

In the first volume of his three-volume work on the life of Jesus, Pope Benedict wrote:
Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term "Kingdom of God" is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God's presence (49)
In light of her response, Jesus could not but say, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (Matt 15:28). As He spoke the demon left her daughter, who was healed.

The point is not that in order for our prayers to be answered we must grovel. The point is that Jesus has mercy on those who are humbled by life's circumstances and yet still call out to Him in faith, call out to Him from their great need, recognizing their dependence on Him. It seems to me that living through what we are living through these days, violence in Syria, Iraq, and the Holy Land, the whole debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, the suicide of Robin Williams, which caused comedian Jim Gaffigan to tweet this week: "Is it me or are things on this planet just getting worse by the minute?," that we too need to cry out to God for mercy. The prayer revealed to St Faustina seems well-suited for this heartfelt plea: "For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."

The Servant of God Msgr Luigi Giussani expressed this well in his testimony, given publicly before Pope St John Paul II in 1998, when was advanced in age and getting quite frail: "Existence expresses itself, as ultimate ideal, in begging. The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ." This week let's take a lesson from the Canaanite woman by praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day during the 3:00 PM hour. "Jesus, I trust in You."

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