GOD’S BOUNDLESS JUSTICE AND MERCY: HOMILY FOR THE 20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (YEAR A) REV. FR. BONIFACE NKEM ANUSIEM PhD

tha Canaanite womanJustice and mercy on a balance

Once upon a time, a priest was invited to a family for dinner. After the well deserving meal and conviviality, the priest decided to pray and bless the family before leaving. After the general prayer, The priest was asked to pray for the children who were preparing to go back to school after their long vacation. Consequently, the mother of the house sent for the children to come for a special prayer. Four children came out for the prayers but while the prayer was going on, the mother of the house withdrew one child (a boy) from the other three.

The priest noticed the exclusion but continued his prayers. At the end, he asked why the boy was excluded from the rest and the woman said that he is not one of her biological kids but a relation of the husband who had come for holidays. The priest was not satisfied over the reason why the boy was excluded and went further to ask if the boy goes school at all. He was told that he does and surprisingly attends the same school with the other children. The priest was so disappointed that such an act of exclusion could take place in such a family he knew to be very committed and religious. In reaction to this, he called the boy out and offered a more delightful and a fairly longer prayer over him alone and concluded with a warm hug before leaving. 

Consciously or unconsciously we often fall into the act of setting up barriers between ourselves and others. It is actually a pity that most of the time, these barriers are unjustifiable. When God was setting up a people for Himself that would transmute to the universal community of God’s people, He began with the people of Israel. However they could have taken the divine election for granted and felt that they were the only favoured ones and that God does not care about other people; this is acutely false and presumptuous.

 Today, the readings present us with elements of universality in God’s dealing with the people. In the First Reading (Isaiah 56:1.6-7), God extended salvation and deliverance to foreigners and indeed to all who would come to Him in worship in His house which is a place of prayer. In the Second Reading (Romans 11:13-15.29-32), St. Paul takes the discussion further by assuring the Gentiles of God’s mercy which is a facility that is open to everyone. Among other things, St. Paul indicated that he is magnifying his ministry beyond the Jewish borders. All these are clear indications that God’s divine activities, which includes but not restricted to his justice and mercy, are not exclusively reserved for a privileged few, but for everyone irrespective of race or religion.

In the Gospel Reading (Matt.15:21-28) we are told that our Lord Jesus Christ withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon when a Canaanite woman met him and cried out saying: “HAVE MERCY ON ME, O LORD, SON OF DAVID; MY DAUGHTER IS SEVERELY POSSSESSED BY A DEMON”. But our Lord did not answer a word. Seeing this “negligence”, our Lord’s disciples asked him to send her away so that she could stop her crying after them. That means that the woman continued calling without giving up. Often we give up after praying once or twice.

At some point in the encounter, our Lord decided to answer her but not to address her problem but to highlight the known cultural and religious barrier between the Jews and non-Jews. Our Lord told her that he was sent only to lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman still did not give up. She changed her posture by knelling before our Lord and at the same time saying “Lord, help me”. Here we meet our Lord Jesus Christ in an unyielding mood as he made another case by saying that it is not fair to take the children’s bread and give same to dogs.

Based on the point above, the unrelenting Canaanite woman argued that even dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the masters table. It was at this point that our Lord turned and said to her “O woman of great faith! Let it be done as you desire”. And her daughter got healed instantly. From this highly interesting episode we stand to learn and relearn so much in what would follow shortly.

Our Lord moved away from the Jewish region to the region of Tyre and Sidon; the ancient Phoenicia and present day Lebanon. The question could be asked why and what did he go there to do? Well the answer can be found in the Gospel episode. He went to a region outside the Jewish boundaries. Simply put our Lord went beyond boarders to show that God is not limited to one particular region. In this region, only one person came to him for a passionate request not that she was the only person that had a challenge but she was the only one that saw the right solution to her problem. Many Canaanites who had issues may have given up the idea of coming to our Lord Jesus Christ with the idea that there is a barrier or boundary. The woman in question looked beyond the boundaries. She saw beyond the limits.

It is important to pay attention to how the woman addressed our Lord. She called him “SON OF DAVID”. This is one of the most important titles of our Lord Jesus Christ mentioned about seventeen times in the bible and it simply means “Messiah” which also means “Saviour”. Some of the prominent places include its mention by Bartimaeus the blind man (Mark 10:47), that of the two blind men in Matthew (20:30) and that of the crowd during the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Matthew (21:9). Furthermore, we see the woman making a very direct request; it was not complex like some of us would say today I have a problem or problems that need solution. She went direct to say exactly what was wrong with her daughter and what she wants the Lord to do for her.

One surprising thing anyone reading this passage would notice is that our Lord ignored her at the first time she made the request. It was not a denial; it was rather a purposeful delay that was meant to raise the level of her faith. Often times, we feel that God cannot address our problem when we call upon Him and we don’t seem to get an answer; delay is not denial. That was why our Lord Jesus Christ encouraged us in Luke (18:1) to pray always and never to lose heart or despair. Instead of giving up, the woman changed her posture from standing to knelling which is an expression submission and dependence. Even the negative intervention of the disciples could not stop her.

When our Lord finally decided to answer her it was not to her benefit as our Lord made it clear that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (lost sheep indeed). At this point our Lord brought out to the fore, the unjustifiable barrier that had been in existence among the Jews and the non-Jews. He was like reminding her what she seemed to have forgotten; the culture and religious barriers. However the woman did not give up. She seemed to saying in her mind: “you have already crossed the boundaries so nothing should stop you from attending to me!”

The next thing our Lord did following her defiance was to remind her that it will be unfair to drop the food meant for children to the dogs. The implication of this statement is very apt. Our Lord referred to her as a “dog” and she was ready to answer that name since in her reply, the dogs also have the privilege of eating the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. It was at this point that our Lord turned to her and gave her a very rare title: “woman of great faith!” This is the direct opposite of the title Peter got last Sunday “Man of little faith” (Matt 14:31). It is most instructive that the woman representing the non-Jews and foreigners had great faith while Peter representing the Jews, the chosen ones, the children of the master had little faith; a great irony indeed.

In God and with God there is not limitation. His justice and Mercy are as infinite as God Himself. At times some people make the mistake of trying to put God into a pigeonhole. Sometimes we attempt to give God restrictions as to whom He should bless and who He should not bless. Sometimes we create unjustifiable barriers along cultural and religious lines. There are indeed some people who have listed out those who will go to heaven and those who will rot in hell. St. Paul was clear on this when he said that in Christ Jesus there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free born, no male or female for all are one in the Lord (Gal.3:28).

The truth we must accept is that God is just and merciful (Psalm 103:8) and His justice and mercy are unlimited. However, we must also know that they are MERITED; they are not picked by the roadside. From the First Reading, we discover that these divine facilities can be obtained by those (even foreigners) who come to God just like the Canaanite woman made effort to come to our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence we cannot sit back and receive mercy and justice; we must make sure we activate them by our choices and actions. The Canaanite woman remains our exemplary guide.

It will be inconclusive to end this reflection without turning briefly to one of the divine statements in the First Reading where God said “my house should be a house of prayer”. This sets us on the path of reflection on what the house of God has become for many people in our day and age. With the rate of secularism and irreligion around us many have turned the house of God into various things. Some churches by every qualification are small scale businesses; some have actually grown to become large scale Public Liability Companies where people secure shares. Often we discover that prayer itself has become a commodity that people have to pay for before they receive. It is most unfortunate that some have turned the house of God to social club, house of gossip, house of fashion and beauty, call and business centres and a legion of other things. For all these malapropisms, those responsive will receive the Justice of God; no doubt.

As we await God’s justice and mercy in various aspects of our lives, let us also be mindful of those around us to whom we owe justice and mercy. More so, let us be mindful of the fact that God does not have barriers and boundaries and we must not set such boundaries against other people whether they are related to us or not. May God’s abiding presence remain with us and may we always be inundated by his unfailing justice and mercy. Have a beautiful week.

Fr. Bonnie

(fatherbonny@hotmail.com)   

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