Our gospel today, when read correctly, presents us with a very familiar issue. And the way to read it correctly is hinted at in our first reading.
Our first reading talks about foreigners joining themselves to the Lord. Who are the foreigners? Those who are not part of God’s chosen people. How do these foreigners join themselves to the Lord? By keeping the Sabbath, by remembering the covenant. Basically, foreigners join themselves to the Lord by recognising how God has formed God’s people, and in humility accepting this reality and faithfully keeping it.
This then is the context for our gospel today: the relationship of Israel to the nations. Israel is God’s holy people. The only way Israel can complete its task, the only way Israel can be who it is called to be is to remain holy. This is why Israel must in some sense keep apart from the nations. Israel always gets into trouble when it is contaminated by the nations, when it forgets its covenant with God, when it pollutes itself by worshipping other gods.
At the same time, though, the vocation of Israel is to keep itself holy precisely in order to be a light to the nations. Israel is God’s chosen means to redeem the whole of creation. Israel is to remain apart from the world, precisely so that God can send it into the world to proclaim the coming of the kingdom, to minister God’s love and mercy to a world devoid of both. Thus, Israel must keep itself pure not out of a sense of moral superiority, but precisely so that it can actually help the world, so that the medicine it seeks to bring is not corrupted and thereby rendered useless.
Ok, we might say. Good. Now, that’s settled we can move on, right? Well, if we pay attention, we can see that this issue is a perennial one. It is the relationship between the Church and the World. It is the continuing tension between maintaining simultaneously the purity of the Gospel, the purity of our worship, the coherence of the Church’s teaching, and ministering to people in need, going out to find the lost sheep, being in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters. These are the two aspects of Christ, that are in fact one: Christ with his heavenly Father, Christ sent to redeem the fallen world.
Unfortunately, these two aspects of Christ, these two functions of the Church, these two sides of so-called Catholic identity often can be played off against each other. Purity of teaching or worship can be an excuse to write off the world as a lost cause. On the other hand, evangelical zeal can be an excuse to change doctrine or muddy the waters of belief. Neither is correct.
It's the same in any family. Parents must protect their children from bad influences, so that they have a chance to grow up into mature adults. One cannot just allow anyone into the family. Parents have a serious role as gatekeepers. But at the same time, a refusal to interact with the world will have the opposite effect. Parents also have to encourage children to grown up to take their place in society, to offer to society the gifts that have been protected and nurtured in the family home as they have grown up. It is precisely this sense of security, this sense of peace that the world needs. Parents therefore must mediate the world to their children. They also have a right to expect that those who want to participate in their family will play by the rules of the family.
We can see Jesus doing this in two ways in our gospel. The woman as a Canaanite is the very definition of a foreigner. She is by definition worshipping other gods. She therefore presents a serious threat to the purity of Israel. However, she has recognised something beautiful in Israel, in Jesus. She is attracted to Jesus, in part because of her child. Her love for her child helps her to see what her child needs.
But Jesus needs her to play by the rules. She must acknowledge Israel properly. She must recognise and accept God’s plan for acting. She must go further than she initially does. And so the second thing that Jesus does is nurture this gift.
As we know, part of nurturing gifts in children is expecting development. A parent often has to encourage a child to aim higher. Parents are supposed to be able to see more in the child than their child can. They are supposed to know the value of discipline and practise. Parents are supposed to guide their children along the path of virtue so that they can live increasingly fulfilling lives.
Jesus does the same with the woman. He knows she is capable of more. He knows her faith can get deeper. He knows that if he just makes her work harder then her relationship with the Living God will become more grounded, more lasting, more fruitful. And so he pushes her and pushes her until she comes up with one of the most remarkable statements of humility and faith in the whole of the gospel. And when she does, Jesus delights in her. He holds her up as one of his children, as a true daughter. And therefore as a light to the nations in which she used to exist. Let’s pray God can do the same with each one of us.