Thursday, March 5, 2009
Thursday, First Week in Lent
Ezechiel 18:1-9 / Matthew 15:21-28
As a rule, no one likes to be stereotyped. No one wants to be treated in accord with some aggregate picture, some broader sense of what people like oneself have done or do. We are our own persons. To be sure, we did not come from nowhere, did not spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. We admit that much of who we are, what we dislike and what we desire, what we know and of what we are ignorant, our temperament and our humor, is due far more to someone else than to ourselves. Even so, we insist at the least that we be lauded for our own accomplishments and suffer only for our own faults.
God, it would seem, holds rather the same view. He rejects, after all, the old Israelite proverb: The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the teeth of the children are set on edge. He will have his people know that the virtue of the father is no successful refuge for the wickedness of the son, and the infidelity of a generation past casts no shadow on the faithfulness of the one present. Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sins, the same shall die. And if a man be just and do judgment and justice ... he shall surely live.
This is why our Lord's response, indeed his initial refusal to respond, to the Canaanite woman seems so troubling. Granted, she was a Canaanite, and thus a pagan. Indeed, the cult of Tyre and Sidon, if the records of the Scriptures as well as the Romans who warred against their kin in Carthage are reliable, was a paganism of an especially hateful sort, imagining that Baal, their Lord, desired the burnt offerings of their children in exchange for success and prosperity, and they were all too willing to fulfill that desire. Granted, as our Lord says, his mission was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even so, what has this woman done to deserve the Lord's rejection? What reason do we have to believe that her plea is anything other than it presents itself to be, the desperate cry of a mother for the liberation of her child from one of the spiritual enemies of mankind, a servant of the Evil One? Why must she bear the burden of her own people's history of cruelty and seduction, of killing and then leading astray God's elect? Are not her deeds and her sins hers alone? Even if hers, what of her daughter?
Behind every one of the Lord's miracles, teaches the Angelic Doctor, is a two-fold goal: to confirm the truth of the Lord's teaching and to manifest his divinity. It would have been all too easy for the Canaanite woman to return to her old, false, and ultimately fatal conception of God had her appeal been heard from the first. For her, Jesus was a wonderworker, if nonetheless a Jewish wonderworker. However, for her to call him Lord may easily have elided into her native word Baal, and so have left her ultimately ignorant of the One upon whom she called for help. She might, that is, have been confirmed in a confidence not in the One, true God who had chosen the people of Israel above all other nations to be peculiarly his own, but in the baalim of Tyre and Sidon. What would one more spiritual power be among so many? The Canaanite woman needed to learn that it was not some generic divinity to whom she was making appeal, not one spiritual power which just happened to be both available and reliable, but the Lord God of Hosts who had given his holy Law and the Land with its Temple to his people Israel. She needed to move from the cure she sought for her daughter to that deeper source of life which alone would free her from all her troubles and the wiles of the Evil One. It was only in realizing the radical insufficiency of her native cult, worthy not of children but of dogs, that Christ's healing would do what it was most intended to do, direct her and her daughter to recognize the one true God and himself as the one whom he has sent into the world.
We Christians, of course, worship God in spirit and in truth. We need not fear worshipping false gods in the same manner as the Canaanite woman. Yet, we can all too easily make any number of demands of God without wondering how the fulfillment of such requests may possibly draw us not closer to, but further away from, our true end in Christ. We may protest, like the Canaanite woman, that our plea is just and good, and indeed in the end it may be. Still, the truth is that our hearts are often wandering, and it is only in the Holy One of Israel that we will ever receive what we truly desire. When our petitions seem to have fallen on deaf ears, this is perhaps a sobering reminder. If we had received the boon we seek, would we in fact have known God any better?