St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? … No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:36-39).
The passage is a great reminder to us of God’s persistent and powerful love. His love endures through any trial or distress. St. John in his first letter writes: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:7-12).
Love is at the heart of who God is and who we are called to be.
The focus of the readings this Sunday is God’s love for all peoples and the invitation to share in his divine life. The refrain for the responsorial response is: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” From a biblical perspective, the “nations” are the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples.
God’s love goes beyond national boundaries or racial or ethnic distinctions. God is above historical reality for he is eternal.
But God breaks through the barrier of time and enters into history through the covenant so that he might be known. While the covenant begins with creation it takes a particular manifestation through Israel and is brought to fulfillment in Christ Jesus. God’s love for all nations and peoples is communicated first through Israel and ultimately through his Son.
The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy comes from Isaiah. In this passage we hear the announcement that the salvation of the Lord is to be revealed so we are called to be righteous and to act justly. The prophet of Israel, speaking for the Lord, goes on to say that foreigners will share in that salvation for all who act justly, keeping to his way and the covenant, will have a place in his home.
He says: “them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Gospel account recalls the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking a cure for her daughter who is possessed by a demon. As a Canaanite she is a Gentile. In today’s language these terms are sometimes used: “alien,” “foreigner” and “stranger.” She represents everyone who is outside of the Jewish people. She comes to Jesus, who is Jewish, seeking help. “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!” is the cry she makes.
Her first words indicate a faith in Jesus for she calls him “Lord” and “Son of David.” The initial response from Jesus and the proverb he uses might strike us as harsh. At first, he says nothing. Then at her persistence the disciples ask him to send her away. He does not; rather he speaks. The words may sound crass to our ears but when we see the dynamic interchange, we realize he is not just speaking to the woman but to all the people gathered. He says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The question then becomes, is he speaking to the woman alone or is he speaking to the crowd? It seems he is speaking to the crowd. They saw him as the Jewish messiah and in the popular mindset would have expected words like this. It is as if he is drawing them in to have their expectations shattered by something more. They hear these words and, at first, seem to be confirmed in that understanding. This is furthered by his use of the proverb.
The Canaanite woman, however, is not rattled by his words; she has faith and persistence. After he first spoke, she replies “Lord help me;’’ then after the proverb she says: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that come from the table of their masters.” At this Jesus says: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And at his word the daughter is healed.
The concept of the messiah in the popular mindset, at least for those who are gathered there, is transformed. Salvation comes through the Jews, for Jesus is a Jew, but it is for people of all nations.
The story speaks to us today as it does in every generation and every historical context. God’s love is for all people and nations. Everyone is invited. What does it mean for me? What are my expectations? What are my hopes? What are the expectations and hopes of the people with whom I am associated by blood, by ethnicity, by race or by citizenship?
Jesus challenges us all to reformulate those basic questions from his Father’s perspective, which may not always be ours. What are God’s expectations for me? What are God’s hopes for me? What are God’s expectations and hopes for all peoples?
God’s love is strong and powerful, it never goes away. He constantly loves and calls us to love. He is love and that love is life. Jesus personifies this love in human fashion. He shows us how to live in divine love and he teaches us that all peoples have a share in that life of love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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