Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 14, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans  11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)


The readings from today’s liturgy place us before a serious question: Who do we believe are included in the Kingdom—and who are not? On whom do believe that God’s favor and mercy rest?


The readings are all about the notion of boundaries, of limits.


We begin with the words of the prophet Isaiah. He’s writing at a time when the Israelite people have recently been released from captivity in Babylon. They’ve returned home with the task of re-building their nation. There will be a new temple. But who will be admitted into it? They are beginning to generate norms: and some people are making them into purity codes. They are standards for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Inclusion—and exclusion.


And the prophet challenges limits they would place on God’s favor.


Unfortunately those who selected the readings have once again chopped them and left out passages that are central to understanding them. (As most of you know, that’s a long-standing beef of mine!)


Let’s listen to the reading again. Only this time we’ll put back in the section that was cut out.


Thus says the LORD,
“Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
“How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the Sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
 [That’s the part we read. Now listen to what was cut out:]

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For thus says the LORD,

“To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
[We return to the text we read:]

“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

It’s all about whether the foreigners and the eunuchs—people who feel themselves unworthy--will be treated like everyone else! Of course the house of God will be a house of prayer, but that’s not the point. The point is that it will be a house of prayer for all peoples. No one is to be excluded who is working at living righteously.


Isaiah is warning them—and us—against creating human norms and policies that exclude people we think are not worthy. He’s calling us to expand our horizons, challenging the man-made standards that make ‘outsiders’ feel unworthy.


They are engaging in the same task that every young nation has to engage in. In our brief 200 years as a country the recurring question has been: who will enjoy the full fruits of citizenship? It took us a horrific civil war before we reached the point where we could recognize the full dignity of blacks and women in our laws, and of course we must not kid ourselves into thinking that the goal has been reached in the way we actually treat African-Americans and women. And where do gays fit in? Or the undocumented who put the food on our tables?  Not to speak of what is scariest for so many—the Muslims?


Then we turn to Paul’s concern in Romans.


Remember, he was a faithful Pharisee, and proud of it. We all know that he persecuted the followers of Jesus, the believers in this new “Way.”  (And we mustn’t forget how dramatic that process was: he dragged people out of their homes and had them killed.) He goes through his conversion when the Lord knocks him off his horse on the road to Damascus and he is led to realize that Jesus has changed everything: the Law, the Temple, the criteria for belonging and behaving in the restored Israel.


Paul is thrilled with his new faith but it leaves him with a painful question: where does it leave his people? He remains a Jew, with such a fierce attachment to the Jewish people that he calls them ‘my flesh’ and ‘my race.’


Can it be that they are now lost? The covenant initiated by Yahweh was to be forever; is it not rescinded? Was it all a fiction? And if it is still in effect, how, now that Jesus has transformed the power of the law?


Over several chapters in the Letter to the Romans he wrestles with several images to try to hold the two things together intellectually. But what is finally key for him—the bottom line—is his conviction that the divine plan of salvation has been set in motion by God so that he might have mercy on all. Whether Gentile or Jew. Any explanation that in effect denies that is wrong: God’s love has no limits!


Then we turn to the account of Jesus and the woman in the Gospel. And it turns out to be a disturbing story.


We need to situate the account geographically. Jesus has gone up to Tyre and Sidon. They are on the extreme Northwest corner of Galilee, bordering on its boundary, or perhaps actually outside it. In Mark’s telling of the story we get a sense that he went up there to get away for a while from the constant demands on his time and energies.


And this woman intrudes on that peace. When Mark refers to her he describes her by her geographic location: she is a Syro-Phoenician woman, someone from the area of Syria and Phoenicia. In the account we read from Matthew he calls her a “Canaanite.” That’s an Old Testament designation. It suggests people who are wild and God-less and wicked. Certainly not among those the Israelites would consider to be included under the umbrella of the people of God.


She makes a request for a cure just as many others do in the Gospels. But she knows this is no ordinary wonder-worker. She addresses him as “Lord” and “Son of David.”


And then comes his response. And it is bracing, even shocking, to our ears. He says to her, in effect: “I didn’t come here for people like you! You’re a bunch of dogs! The food of the kingdom is reserved for the children. For those who are worthy.”


Scholars of the Middle East tells us that even though it’s rough treatment it’s not actually as harsh or cruel as we make it out to be with our Western sensibilities.


There is a form of speech among the people of Palestine that is a kind of verbal game. You throw out a harsh observation and the game is to see how quick the other party is in coming up with a retort. In our own land you can see it sometimes among young kids. They will take turns trying to see who can come up with the worst insult.


When I was lying in bed last night I recalled an incident from my family’s story that makes the point:


I have a niece who society would designate as mentally challenged. When she was about 10 she was with her older brother, whom she adored. They were cutting up and teasing one another. At one point he said, “Ah, you’re just a hambone.” She came right back and said, “Well, you’re a wet blanket.” So the game was on. He said, “You’re a saggy bed.” She called him “a leaky faucet.” They went back and forth until finally she thought of the worst thing she could imagine. She said, ”You’re an enema!” Of course he said, “I give up. You win.”


The Canaanite woman takes up Jesus’ challenge. She doesn’t back off or get upset at his reproach. She stands up to him and comes back at him. “OK, I’ll let you have ‘dogs’—but, hey, we make out OK living off the scraps on the floor.”


And Jesus praises her faith!


Her response is a form of familiarity with the Lord.


It’s the same way the greatest prophet of all, Moses, interacted with God. He had been up on the mountain speaking directly with Yahweh. When he came back down he discovered that the people had lost patience and made a golden calf to worship. The Lord is very angry and he wants to destroy the people. Let’s listen to the account in Exodus chapter 32:


Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” 


It’s a very tempting offer. Moses will be rid of this stiff-necked people and will be the king-pin of a new people. But he will have none of it.


Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 


He tells God, “These are not my people. They’re your people. You led them out here. You made a promise and I’m holding you to it.” And the passage ends with:


So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.


And it’s the same way Mary dealt with Jesus. When they’re at the marriage feast in Cana she notices they have run out of wine. She simply notes the fact. And his response has an uncomfortable edge to it. “What’s that got to do with us? My hour hasn’t come yet.” But she just goes right past his comment and tells the servants “Do what he tells you.” And in the face of their need and her insistence Jesus changes his plan. He recognizes that his hour has come and he initiates his mission.


In each instance the prayer of familiarity has its effect. Yahweh decides not to destroy the people. Jesus acts in a way he had not anticipated. Even though the primary focus of his mission remains the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman.


The foreigners and eunuchs of Isaiah’s day are not to be excluded. The covenant with the Jews has not been abolished; Yahweh’s mercy extends to Jew and Gentile alike. Even the despised Canaanites can cause the Lord to change his plan if they place their trust in him.


The mercy of the Lord is without bound or limit. No one is excluded except those who exclude themselves by refusing his love.


The question we are left with is the one we started with: God’s mercy is without limit, but how do we place limits on his bounty by excluding others from the mercy of God by our attitudes and ways of behaving? Can we allow our hearts to be stretched to match the expansiveness of our magnanimous Lord?