Sunday, August 14, 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 / Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 / Matthew 15:21-28

Why are we Christian? Why do we have faith in Jesus Christ? Why have we been born again in baptism and made heirs with him to life everlasting?

Faced with these questions, even a few moments of reflection will force us to reject the easy answers that come to mind. We might, for example, imagine that we have faith in the Lord Jesus because of some personal virtue of ours, because we have the right kind of insight or did the right kind of research among various religious options or because we are simply holy enough souls that the truth of the Gospel came to us as easily as breathing. However, we know ourselves too well to think any of these might be the case.

We might, on the other hand, chalk it all up to circumstances of birth, upbringing, or culture. However, we know many people who shared the same circumstances, perhaps even our own brothers and sisters, who have departed from fellowship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and may never have truly believed in the first place. We also know too many people from families, places, and circumstances which, on the face of it, should make them the least likely of believers, and yet there they are, joining us at the font and the altar. Indeed, some of these may be so fervent as to even make us jealous of their faith, longing to share with the Lord what they have come to know of his love.

The only real answer, the only true response to the question of our faith, is that it comes from the free and sovereign choice of God's love, and from his love alone.

Now, even while this answer is true, we are not likely at first to be all to comfortable with it. The divine election of some, and apparently not others, to share in saving faith rings at first hearing a rather sour note in our ears. It shocks us as do the words of Jesus to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel: It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs. We see ourselves as fair and even-handed, or at the very least we strive to be, and we expect God to be even more so. That we, who seem so little to deserve special treatment, special choosing by God, should be the object of election by grace sits awkwardly on our minds.

The truth, however, is that only on the basis of God's free choice in love can we ground any hope not only for ourselves, not only for his chosen people Israel, but indeed for all the peoples of the world. So long as we imagine that coming to God's mercy is inevitable, we risk falling into the error of indifference, thinking that the world could just as easily get along without the Gospel as with it. In so thinking, we will stop longing for that joy God has prepared for us beyond all our imagining.

This was the truth Jesus wanted to give to the Canaanite woman. He did not want to make a quick and easy response to her petition, quietly and efficiently delivering her daughter from the demon and then sending her on her way unchanged, untransformed, as his disciples had urged. Rather Jesus wanted to awaken her faith, to draw her by his gift of faith more deeply into the mystery of himself, so that the would long not for the best goods her mind could imagine, but enlightened by faith, to crave the tiniest scrap from Jesus' table, only to discover in her faith an invitation to the everlasting banquet of the Kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, we who are in the Church, the Body of Christ, we who have been delivered from disobedience and sin by the mercy of God poured out in Christ Jesus, know how incredible, how surprising is our presence here, how easily we might have taken another path were it not that we too shared from the scraps that fell from our Master's table. If Jesus has done so with us, then surely we need not imagine that there is anyone in any circumstance too distant for his mercy to reach, to fallen in disobedience that he cannot be brought back into freedom. We ought to live than not in sorrow, anxiety, or despair about those who have not yet received the Gospel or who, having received it, have walked away. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know with confidence and with hope, will unfailingly draw into our company countless persons whose journey to faith would astound us, were our own journeys not equally amazing.

This is why, without any danger of pride or indifference, we ought gladly to receive the news of our election by grace and love. If we have been chosen and called, then all the more ought we to open wide the doors of our hearts to those who seem to us far removed from the Gospel. We have been made God's house and his temple, and he has said of us through his prophet Isaiah, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Can we, who have been called from disobedience to life from the dead lost hope in God's mercy? Can we ever fail to embrace beyond the boundaries of race and nation to draw into our company the hearts of all who live?

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