TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A
In the last few months we’ve heard a great deal about how this virus which has transformed our lives out of all recognition spreads from person to person:
through physical contact, through breathing, coughing or sneezing on each other and so on.
We’ve had to take on board a whole raft of instructions about how to prevent that same virus spreading, by frequent hand-washing, using sanitiser, wearing face-masks, keeping our distance from each other.
But here this morning we are concerned not with the spread of this deadly virus, but with how the Christian faith spreads and what we, both collectively and individually, can do to help it.
Our Christian faith grew out of Judaism, the faith practised by Jesus and his disciples.
And we tend to think of the Jewish faith as being rather insular, closed off, inward-looking.
You’re either Jew, or you’re not. There is no half way.
But today’s first reading, from Isaiah, challenges that view of the Jewish religion:
‘Foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord to serve him and love his name and be his servants …. these I will bring to my holy mountain … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’.
Here Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, makes it clear that anyone, of any nationality, who observes the Sabbath and lives by the Law of Moses could be accepted as part of God’s chosen people.
St Paul, in the second reading from his letter to the Christian community in first-century Rome, tells of how he was sent to the pagans, rather than to his own people, Israel.
Paul, brought up living by the strict religious code of the Pharisees and a former persecutor of the followers of Jesus Christ, has been sent not to convert his own Jewish brothers and sisters to his adopted Christian faith, but to those who, as a Pharisees he would have considered beneath contempt, beyond salvation, literally untouchable: the pagans.
We can only imagine what his Jewish brethren thought of Paul; not only had he abandoned his faith and taken up with this ridiculous group of followers of this charlatan, Jesus - a common criminal who not only claimed to be the Son of God but whom his followers said had risen from the dead - but now he was going around talking and associating with non-Jews, pagans who, in their eyes, had no hope of being saved.
Jesus’ attitude toward the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is quite shocking.
We do not expect to hear of Jesus ignoring people who have come to him in need.
And yet we forget that Jesus was sent to his own people, to Israel, which had become so obsessed with the strict observance of the Mosaic Law with it’s hundreds of rules and regulations that it had lost sight of the God they sought to serve.
Jesus himself was brought up by Mary and Joseph as a faithful Jew, and his mission of salvation was directed at his own people.
Although some of the most remarkable episodes in his life, such as his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, are with non-Jewish individuals, still it was to the house of Israel that he had been sent.
To be clear, Jesus did not come to start a new religion.
That came about because of his own people’s rejection of his message and the persecution of his apostles and followers in the early church.
Jesus’ mission was intended to restore Israel as his Father’s Chosen People and so make the House of Israel ‘a house of prayer for all the peoples.’
But Jesus always had an openness to those not of his own faith who demonstrated belief in him, even though they did not believe in the God who sent him.
It was enough for Jesus that they believed in his power to help and save them.
That faith was enough to enable him to work his miracles amongst them.
Of course, to believe in Jesus IS to believe in the One who sent him, since they are one and the same.
AS he himself said, ‘to have seen me is to have seen the Father.’
The thing with missionary work is that, though you may have a particular aim or objective in mind, given that it is God’s work that you are undertaking, it may have unexpected, unplanned-for consequences.
Jesus’ mission was, in the main, rejected by his own people.
As a result, his apostles took his message to a far wider audience and as a result today we have a world-wide Christian Church of some tow and a half billion people.
Had Jesus’ mission been accepted by his own people we might not be here worshipping him today.
We might be Jews, we might be pagans.
But because of people like the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel, people who came to believe in Jesus and who then told others about him, and who themselves then did the same, we too have come to believe in the one who rewards faith and saves those who seem beyond hope of salvation.
This how the Christian faith spreads:
from person to person, by word of mouth, by the sharing of faith and convictions, by kindly words and deeds, spreading ever-outwards like ripples in a pond.
Of course, the path of faith will not be a smooth or easy one. History has shown us that very clearly.
There will be obstacles and setbacks, objections and arguments from the learned and the clever, those with eyes which cannot seen and ears which cannot hear; there will be many who either cannot allow themselves to believe or who refuse to admit what their hearts tell them is the truth.
But because of people like the Canaanite woman, people with faith, wit, determination and persistence who refuse to be denied, our faith will continue to grow and endure. Until the day God brings all peoples of every nation to his holy mountain and his house is made a house of prayer for all the peoples.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.