The movie Amistad tells the story of a group of captured Africans, intended to be sold as slaves, being brought to Boston where a legal battle ensues to determine their fate. At one point while the Africans are in jail, a bible is given to them to “read.” Since they do not speak English, they do so by looking at the prints of different biblical images. While one of the African men is looking through the Bible, his friend says to him “you don’t have to pretend to be interested in that, I’m the only one looking at you.” He replies, “I’m not pretending to read it, I’m starting to believe.”
The friend becomes interested and moves over to see the book. The story is told looking at the prints. “There was great suffering until…[He turns to the Nativity scene] he was born.” “Who is he?” his friend asks. “He is followed by the sun, he heals people, he protects them, he walks on water. But something happened. He was captured and his hands tied.” The friend replies “He must have done something wrong.” The answer comes “just like us?” Turning to another image he says “He was killed… but that’s not the end…they thought he was dead but he did not die…he rose to the sky….this is where the soul goes when we die…this is where we shall go when they kill us… this is not a bad place.” This African man found Christ in the midst of his suffering. In finding Christ, he found hope, which made his sufferings bearable and the promise of freedom obtainable. The scene is a poignant reminder that all are offered salvation through Christ.
Jesus came for all so that all could be saved. The preparation for universal salvation came through the covenant with Israel. In the law of Israel there are many reminders of the care that needs to be given for the “foreigner” or “alien” who lives among them or is passing through their territory. The foreigner or alien are not part of that first covenant; they have different gods. We also see, in the covenant with Israel, a hope developing that one day all peoples would share in the worship of the One God. Such is the case in the first reading for today’s liturgy. The passage comes from the Prophet Isaiah. He looks forward to the day when the non-Jewish peoples (later referred to as the “Gentiles”) will worship and join in observing the covenant with the Lord. Speaking for the Lord and about these people, 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 hope of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The gospel passage recalls Jesus’ encounter with the Caananite woman. She has a daughter with hemorrhages and is asking Jesus for a cure. She is a Gentile but she places her faith in the Jew, Jesus. She is a foreigner, alien to the Jews. Yet she places her faith in Jesus. She knows He is the one who can help her. She believes. The reaction of Jesus’ companions is not all that uncommon. People often reject someone after a brief interaction when that someone is from outside the group for example: a foreigner, someone of a different race or language group, someone with a physical deformity, someone with an odd personality, and so on. They say: “Send her away, for she keeps calling after us.” She persists none the less. When Jesus interacts with her, He speaks of his coming first (not only) to the people of Israel. Yet her faith is so strong that she does not give up her pleading which elicits great praise from Jesus: “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.” And her daughter is healed from that moment. Jesus bestows life and healing through the mother’s faith.
Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman points ahead to the day when Jew and Gentile alike will be invited to share in the same covenant, the same relationship with God. It is in and through Jesus that this will happen. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection will establish a new covenant where all are invited. Baptism will be the gateway.
Saint Paul in his Letter to the Galatians will describe this new life in Christ in these terms: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.” (3:28)
The hope of universal salvation is fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ. As we go through the week ahead and encounter someone who is different from us or may be an outcast among particular groups, perhaps we can recall the Canaanite woman, then offer that person an encounter with Christ.
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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