It Is Good to Give Thanks

Twentieth Sunday Scripture Readings

Sometimes, when we focus our attention on the gospel passage provided for us in the liturgy, we may miss some of the important context that adds meaning and richness to the passage. It can give us the false impression that the passage is one incident in a sequence of historical events, which, as I’ve said many times, it is not. The order in which we find the stories and sayings of Jesus in Matthew and the other Evangelists may seem chronological, but instead, they’re arranged topically to make a point or teach a lesson. Let’s look at some context of today’s gospel passage.

The first twenty verses of this chapter in Matthew [15:1-20]—the passage just preceding our gospel—describe the controversy that surrounded Jesus on the topic of what foods are clean and what are unclean. Ritual cleanliness is a major focus of the Law of Moses, the Torah. Jesus turns the understanding of the dietary laws inside-out. He points out that whatever is eaten—kosher or not—becomes unclean as it leaves the body and has no bearing on the person. It’s the wickedness that comes from the inside—from the heart—that renders one unclean. There’s a bridge that connects this topic of ritual cleanliness with our gospel, and that is the status of the Canaanite woman.

In the books of the Law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Canaanites are characterized as sinful, wicked, godless people, worthy of extermination. In a sense, they’re considered to be an unclean race. Matthew uses this term deliberately. This is the only passage in all the gospels to use the name “Canaanite.” Even Mark calls the woman “Syro-Phoenician.” Matthew is evidently suggesting that the woman herself is to be considered unclean. We might think that’s why Jesus at first ignores her, but that’s not the case. Instead, Matthew makes clear that Jesus has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and not for the Gentiles. Yet, even this foreigner recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, calling him “Son of David,” a distinctively messianic title. Jesus reveals himself to Israel, but the world recognizes him, nonetheless.

Though she’s ignored because she’s not within the focus of Jesus’s ministry, the woman’s persistence finally wins his attention. The disciples unwittingly help her. The translation of what the disciples are saying to Jesus is inaccurate. The word that has been translated as “send her away,” the verb used—απολυειν (apoluein)—means “to acquit,” so, they’re saying, “Acquit her.” In other words, they’re asking Jesus to grant her request, so she’ll go away and stop bothering them. Only then does Jesus address them and the woman. To our ears, his apparent dismissal of her, as if calling her a dog, seems harsh. It sounds somewhat less harsh to the Aramaic ear. Instead, this is a typical rabbinic exchange. The rabbi gives a controversial statement, expecting a wise and clever reply. That’s exactly what she gives him, and it becomes the turning-point of the passage. The lesson is that it’s not nationality, religious observance, or ritual purity that merits the Lord’s response to prayer, but it’s faith. There’s a contrast drawn here between Israel, the faithless, and this foreigner, who shows great faith. Unlike the Israelites, she doesn’t rely on her nationality or orthodoxy, but she puts her faith and trust in Jesus, and he responds.

The message Jesus preaches—the good news for the world—is that he, the Word of God, is sent to call sinners of every sort, not the self-righteous. Never did Jesus require orthodoxy or rigid obedience to laws—any laws—as a prerequisite for God’s attention. All that’s required is perseverance in trust of God. Try as we might, we can’t make ourselves perfect so that God will pay attention to us. We can’t buy our way into God’s love by being “good.” We can’t bribe our way into God’s love by doing “good deeds.” The more we try to be “good” to win God’s favor, the more we’re putting our faith in ourselves and in our own power, and not in God.

As always, Jesus has turned that common misunderstanding on its head. Jesus challenges us to let go of our determination to make it to heaven on our own steam, and instead let go, and trust that God already loves us. When we try to buy God’s love by our behavior, we lose it. Does that mean that neither our good deeds nor our sins matter in God’s eyes? On the contrary. Our response to God’s love must be to surrender to God’s will in gratitude. We can have full trust that, no matter how desperate things may seem, God’s “got” us. Christ’s resurrection has proved that even through the greatest apparent disaster of all—death—God’s still “got” us.

When it comes right down to it, there are only two choices in life: God’s will or my will. My will insists that I’m able to save myself. My will says that I can earn enough “grace” to buy myself a place in “heaven.” But God’s will says, simply, surrender and you will live. Surrender and trust like the Canaanite woman. It’s that simple. Sadly, it may be too simple for some people to grasp. They need to complicate it. They need to turn it into a set of instructions that say, “Unless you do A, B, and C, and avoid X, Y, and Z, God won’t love you.” Really? Even Saint Paul says in our second reading, “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

We, whose faith puts our trust entirely in God’s love, live fearlessly in his care. “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?… No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” [Romans 8:35,37] As followers of Jesus, our decisions aren’t coerced by obedience but arise out of gratitude. We are loved unconditionally and so we cannot but love unconditionally in return. We are a thanksgiving people—a Eucharistic people. That’s why we’re here today…because we have to be. We are the beneficiaries of the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus. In response, we have no other choice but to give thanks.

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