This Sunday’s Gospel is very strange. A Canaanite woman comes begging mercy for her demon-possessed daughter. At first Jesus doesn’t answer. Then he says what seems obviously untrue: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But when the woman compares herself to a dog, eating “the scraps that fall from the table,” Jesus heals her daughter.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”?
The first reading – from Isaiah, in the Old Testament “of the house of Israel” – holds the key.
The New Testament is like the end of a great mystery novel (or indeed, of any great novel, for any great story makes us long to know the conclusion). Yes, now we know the solution. But that only makes the rest of the story more interesting. We don’t know who the Messiah is if we don’t know and love the Old Testament he fulfills.
Isaiah speaks of “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD.” You probably know that when “LORD” is capitalized, it is because it is a circumlocution for the unspeakable name revealed to Moses, YHWH. These foreigners are not joining themselves to the abstract God of everywhere. They are joining themselves to the God who has revealed himself to Israel.
The reading details this emphatically. It describes them as “loving the name of the LORD”: the “name” speaks of his revelation, of joining the people who know him as by name.
The foreigners in question “keep the Sabbath.” To worship God is of the natural law. But to keep the Sabbath is to share in the worship he revealed to Israel.
They “hold to my covenant” – in general, his relationship with Israel – and come “to my holy mountain,” Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem. They “make joyful in my house of prayer,” the Temple, and offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” the sacrifices of the Law, “on my altar.”
And so this, “my house,” the temple in Jerusalem, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” – those of every race and tongue and people and nation (Rev 5:9).
This image is absolutely essential to the Bible, and to our Catholic faith. Salvation is not individual. As Vatican II put it, “God does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people. . . . That is why he chose the race of Israel as a people unto Himself.”
“In Christ Jesus you who once were far off” – not members of that nation – “are made near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, to make in himself from two, one new man, so making peace” (Eph 2:13-15).
By giving the Holy Spirit, Christ destroys the divisions between nations. But this is not to send us off as individuals. Rather it is to bring us together, to intensify the unity of Israel and to welcome all into it. The Church, the new Israel, is more perfectly one.
The liturgy barely touches Paul’s difficult discourse on Israel in Romans 9-11. This week we get a small taste.
“The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” he says. The promises to Israel are not annulled. The Old Testament is not gone, it is fulfilled.
We “have now received mercy because of their disobedience.” That is, the failure of Israel to follow the Law by their own strength has taught us to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit (which Paul has just discussed in Romans 8).
But “by virtue of the mercy shown to you,” the strength of the Holy Spirit now fulfilling Israel, “they too may now receive mercy,” and so fulfill his promises to his chosen people.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
He was sent to the lost sheep, those who strayed from the perfect unity he desired for his holy people. But in bringing the lost sheep back to that unity, he also brings all nations together as one, so that “my house of prayer shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The God who dwells in this people is not a God of scarcity, but one whose mercy overflows, like the scraps falling from the table. Those who gather around his table, knowing the abundance that is there, he indeed showers with his grace.
Are there people you have a hard time imaginging gathered around Christ’s table? Could you live greater devotion to his plenty through your relationship with those people?