Sunday, August 20, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 15:21-28

There is some potential for scandal in today’s Gospel reading. We seem to get a different picture of Jesus than the loving, welcoming, compassionate, healing Savior that we encounter in other places in the Gospels. What parent could not identify in profound sympathy with the anguish of this woman who is simply trying to do whatever it takes for her daughter to be well? Yet Jesus and His disciples rebuff her several times. It looks like Jesus is not even living up to the teachings of loving His neighbor or blessing His enemies (Canaanites and Israelites having nothing less than a contentious history). Our neighbor, as we learn in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone. Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile. I believe that these passages ask us to take a closer look. If we do, a profound outpouring of divine grace appears. 

We learn that Jesus withdrew to Tyre and Sidon. This was a pagan gentile territory. I think a fair presupposition for Jesus’ perfect life and ministry is that nothing happens by accident. More precisely, it is not a random act that brings Jesus to gentile territory on several occasions. He is doing the perfect will of the Father. 

If we hearken to the Old Testament, we learn that God chose Israel to be an instrument of His grace to the world. No Old Testament prophet says this better than Isaiah. Isaiah 49:6 says “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Importantly, this verse refers to the Servant of the Lord. The Servant here was understood by the earliest Christians, who were all Jewish, to not simply reference Israel in the abstract but a particular individual. Jesus the Messiah. Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah tells of the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD and become His servants will be brought to the Holy Mountain. This reading is best understood in an eschatological sense, coming to perfection at the consummation of the present Age but asymptotically approaching until that time by the power of the Incarnation. 

Christ being present in a Gentile territory is momentous because it represents an important step in the Gentiles being grafted into the tree of Israel. Yes, Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon for a reason. He is the light to those nations. The light is present there, His illumination is a harbinger. Still, why does it not seem to shine brightly on everyone there in this passage, especially the anxious woman? 

We can easily lose sight of the fact that Jesus did many things for the sake of posterity. It seems reasonable to think that He desired future generations, those who would receive the faith handed down from the Apostles, to know about the faith of this Canaanite woman. Further, St. Augustine famously said that God wants us to persist in prayer, for our own sake. The way I understand this is that God may will to answer our prayer in the affirmative, but He wills to answer not the first but the 1,501st. If we couple these two ideas together, the passage now leaps off the page. 

What we see in the Canaanite woman, much like the gentile Syro-Phoenician woman, is that she persists in her faith. She is undeterred despite the rebukes. She continues to plead with the Lord and His disciples. We can perhaps surmise that she has run out of options. With no place to turn, she turns to the Jewish holy man who has reportedly done many signs and wonders. Or, it could be that she had a thirst for God. She knows something dark has come over her daughter that is beyond any natural cure. The spiritual/physical condition befalling the daughter can only be healed by light. Somehow, the mother knows this. We certainly resonate with the deep love she has for her daughter. What truly loving parent, we think, would not do everything for their child? Such a thought can only come from a position of love. God is love and the love any creature has, if it is indeed the agape love of willing the good of the other, originates in God. 

The petitions from the Canaanite woman betray a desire for the living God. She provides an example for all everyone by asking the Lord to have pity on her, to help her, and that merely the scraps from the table are sufficient. This could be a model prayer in itself. The woman knows that she is not owed anything from God. No creature has a claim on the Creator. She therefore humbly asks the Lord for grace. Grace in the most common parlance is unmerited favor. 

Still, why does Jesus rebuke the woman? First, to test the genuineness of her faith. There are many times in the Bible where we see tests of faith. For our sake, God wants to burn away the dross from our souls until the pure metal of refined faith remains. The Lord desires our hearts, minds, and the totality of our being. When we go to Him in prayer, it seems fair that He would want to know if we really desire Him above all else. Is it God we really want for Himself, or do we want Him simply as a means to an end? I think we see that the woman sought the Lord out of a pure heart, as evidenced by her humility. 

Secondly, perhaps knowing the woman’s faith was genuine, Jesus' verbal rebuke redounds to the benefit of those in the audience and for the sake of all who would learn of the account afterward. It was a teaching moment. There may even be times that parents have done this with their children. We take an extra second when they are asking or telling us something to peer into their soul. The way that we ask a question can communicate a great deal to the other person. Jesus relays the chronology of His mission. He first comes to the lost sheep of Israel. During this time there are brief, though significant, interludes into Samaritan and Gentile territory. The Apostles will then later take the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, baptizing all nations. The light is Christ, carried by His followers. Thus, Christ is very much present to the Gentiles, even after His ascension.

One might think that in this passage Jesus calls the woman a dog, which is a perjorative reference to Gentiles. However, the context does not fit well with this interpretation. He is not just letting her know that Jews think Gentiles are dogs. I think the Lord is intimating the potential for risk in taking something good, like the wonderful grace of healing, and providing it in such a way that it would be trampled underfoot, abused, or taken for granted would be profane (think about Jesus opponents accusing Him of casting out demons by the prince of demons). The woman responds that the food scraps are sufficient and have great value; which we might understand as follows: there is nothing wasted in the giving of grace. Isaiah 55 tells us that God’s word does not return void. This must be true of anything done by the divine Word, Jesus Christ. There is no wasted divine action. On some level, the woman realizes that only a word from the Lord will heal her daughter. Even a scrap of grace is enough to get us through the hardest of times. In another place, Jesus warns against casting pearls before swine. There are certain situations where a hostile or unholy audience will try to trample upon or defame the grace of God. We must be wise to this. Yet, the woman in today’s passage clearly shows where the lines of delineation are between genuine, persistent faith and folly. 

Let us recognize the great example of faith, persistence, and love that the Canaanite woman exhibits and seek to emulate this in our own lives. May we receive God’s grace with humility and seek to share it with others. And may we be vigilant in our prayers for God to help those in most need of His mercy. 


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 8:28-34

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus casts two demons into swine that careen off a cliff. The unclean is cast out into the unclean, and then into the deep abyss. Pigs root around in the mud and muck. They consume everything and anything, increasing their size indiscriminately until properly fattened for slaughter.  Where there is muck, sin, and debasement, demons flock and gather. Evil spirits gravitate toward their natural abode. In the process, they seek to turn men into pigs. They drive men into filth and thicken them up for the butcher. 

What we see in the passage is that God comes among us to put things into their proper order and place. Demons have no place among the children of God, who are in fact children of the light. The right place for man is with God, enjoying the Creator who is blessed forever. Jesus faces down the savage facade of the demons and sends them on their way. He makes clean the spiritual house of the demon-possessed men and restores them to their right minds. From here, they can begin a new life. For these men, the pig trough will never look as appetizing again as it once did. May it be so for us as we reflect on our own faith and conversion. 

Instead of welcoming Jesus as the healer and one who restores order, the people of Gadarene town want to cast Him away. I suspect many cities and towns today would react the same way if Jesus walked among us. Many would not want their lives disrupted. They are too happy to just walk around the savage demons blocking the road or take a long way around to maintain the status quo. Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of God and banish the power of the evil one. He came because the way things are is not how they should be. Again, how easy it is to fall into the trap of becoming like swine, wallowing in our filth instead of letting the Lord clean us. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Gospel Reflection Matthew 5:38-42

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus radically subverts our ideas of justice. When we follow the Lord’s teaching, we come to see that our conceptions of proper disposition and conduct must be aligned with the divine will in order for us to progress in happiness and enjoyment of fellowship with God. 

Our first reaction when someone does violence to us, physically, psychologically, or economically, is to respond in kind. I would even venture to say our inclination is often to respond disproportionately. If someone strikes us on the cheek, we want to hit them back even harder. We have all witnessed the “sue ‘em for everything they have” mindset in civil litigation, another example of a disproportionate response. Our culture of sin and vice encourages fantasies about retributive violence and glorifies vigilante justice. None of these modern ideas of justice carry any brief with the teachings of Jesus and His Church.

For many, when they witness injustice in the world, there is a rush to take up arms. This type of armament can be in the form of guns and gangs or social ostracizing and silencing. It seems as though asymmetrical and perturbed forms of retributive violence are part and parcel of the human condition. Jesus acknowledges as much through His pivotal teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. One of the problems with this condition is that we have come to almost revel in it and joy in perpetually rationalizing and taking matters into our own hands. We believe that we can always make things right by taking our own path. We can show the other person or put them in their place. Things will be put right and we are to do the racking, drawing, and quartering. Jesus gives us the better way. 

We can hold too fast to that which is temporal and fleeting at the expense of the eternal and permanent. Should we give up our lives to save it from the thief stealing our cloak? Should we involve ourselves in endless cycles of legal trauma trying to get back that which is already gone? Again, our sense of justice formed in the absence of divine light might indicate we answer in the affirmative. Jesus asks us to think again. 

Our sense of something being wrong when we experience injustice is a good thing. We should feel it in our souls. We should be moved to compassion. The questions of how we think about this and what exactly we do about it are important. If we are moved and motivated solely by passion, we will end up only serving ourselves and not God or our fellow man. On the other hand, if we listen carefully to the teachings of Jesus, we can begin to see the world through the lens of divine justice. We can step into the path of the Lord and walk with the One who was treated with supreme injustice. This walk does not move us to complacency or apathy. Quite the opposite. It moves us to rightly ordered action that enures to the benefit of our souls and the souls of others who suffer. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Gospel Reflection Mark 10:28-31

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “...many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.” God’s way of ordering things sometimes runs contrary to ours. And we do well to reorient ourselves. The sooner, the better. Those who are ‘last’, in the sense of not having worldly goods or pleasures, giving these things up for the sake of the Kingdom of God, or being deprived entirely because of injustice, will be ‘first’. The privation of goods now becomes seeds of abundance for later. 

Jesus asks us to trust in the cosmic justice of God. Our own sense of justice, while capable of latching onto the truly Just, is often skewed. Thus, we lean not on our own understanding when God has spoken for our benefit on a particular matter. Indeed, the Lord will render properly to each his or her due. One day everything will be properly ordered. Until then, disciples of Jesus are called to give things up for the Gospel. For some, this means committing to a religious life of poverty. For some, a life of chastity. For some, it means enduring persecution. And for others, it means a life of continual sacrifice of the self for the other. A thousand and one pangs of the soul, wrestling the ego into submission only for the battle to begin anew tomorrow. Whatever the Lord has called us to sacrifice, may the Holy Spirit strengthen us to do it with joy, peace, and hopeful hearts for a heavenly reward. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 17:1-11

Today’s Gospel reading continues with the Farewell Discourse. In these passages, from John chapters 13-17, we get a very intimate, first-hand account of the final hours of Jesus’ life and teaching. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a ‘fly on the wall’ among Jesus and the disciples, the Farewell Discourse is a great place to start. 

In the passage today, Jesus says “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” The word ‘know’ in this verse intends to communicate a personal acquaintance or first hand experience. To have eternal life is to experience the life of God first hand. We are told in other places that this comes about through the life-giving power of the Spirit (John 3, et. al.). The mysterious and glorious interplay of Trinitarian relations is involved in each step of the Christian journey. This is but one reason why so much was at stake in the early Church over doctrinal matters concerning the nature of the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

To have eternal life is not to be a floating apparition. Eternal life is not an unending, mindless state. It is not going to someplace in the sky.  It is to have the “life of the Age’, to be a full participant in the age to come which is a remade and properly ordered cosmos. Eternal ife is a qualitatively different kind of life. It is elevated. Free from inordinate passion and malice. Free to worship and live in harmony as God intended from the beginning. 

Monday, May 22, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 16:29-33

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world." Time and again, Jesus tells His followers to expect difficulty and struggle in the world. The world is the kingdom and dominion of the fallen ones. It represents the order of those powers, principalities, people, and systems opposed to God. 

We should be wary when things are going well for us in the world. It means that either we are not doing things God’s way or that our opponents are operating in a subtle manner. We must not be fooled into thinking there is some safe quarter within the world. However, we do not need to walk on eggshells. We do not need to be anxious about when the shoe will drop. We can trudge on circumspectly. The proper attitude of the Christian life is one of the virtuous mean. 

The Christian knows their pilgrimage is a trail of tears. They know that life gives fleeting glimpses of heaven. And we know, as the Gospel today says, that Jesus has overcome the world. The system of evil and death is in its waning days. 

We cannot see far from our vantage point; thus, we cannot always see clearly how Christ has conquered. Yet, if we look closely, the signs of His victory come into focus. We see the newly baptized coming into the Kingdom. We experience the forgiveness of our sins. We nourish our famished souls in the Holy Eucharist. We elevate our souls to God when we hear the music of the heavens. We sing with the angels and saints “holy, holy, holy.” The victory of Christ is evident if we look for it by its own phosphorescent-like illumination, and not by the dingy bulb of the world. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 16:20-23

Life is rhythmic and cyclical. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for everything. Weeping and laughing. Mourning and dancing. We are from the dust, and to dust we shall return. Our existence in space and time is corruptible, insofar as we are composed, the breath of God and dust, and are then subject to decomposition. Joy is vain. It slips from our grasp the moment we gaze upon it. Grief is constant. We wade through the floodwaters of this valley of tears until we are eventually overcome by the crashing waves. 

Through the storm of life, with its respites of calm and monotonously blasting gales, Jesus speaks to us. He offers words of comfort in today's Gospel passage. Comfort that does not, and cannot, come from the world of ashes and decay. The Lord says that anguish will come before a joy that is not vain. Happiness, the quietude of our wills, can be snatched away from us now. But not forever. Our hearts will rejoice when they are no longer breakable. 

The Christian message has been fraught with tension from the beginning; the already-but-not-yet. Jesus is already Lord of all, but the instantiation of His Kingdom across the cosmos is not yet fully realized. Jesus is already raised from the dead and exists incorruptibly; we are not yet like Him. Creation groans in travail. Still, Jesus promises that our longing to be with Him is like the birth of a child. Agony will dissolve into bliss. Death will be swallowed up by life.