Sparring with Christ
Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Conrad suggests we allow Christ’s words to provoke us.
Today’s Gospel passage seems extremely odd! We expect Jesus to be rude towards hypocrites; we don’t expect him to be rude towards a woman who is in desperate need of his help.
Perhaps Jesus isn’t being rude. Maybe he’s getting people to think. When the Gospels were written, no punctuation was used; it’s not always obvious what tone of voice is implied. Did Jesus ask his disciples, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, wasn’t I?’ Was he teasing them to say ‘Yes,’ only to discover that’s the wrong answer? True, earlier on, Jesus had sent them out to preach only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. But before that, he had praised the centurion’s faith and healed his boy, adding that many will come from east and west to sit at table in God’s Kingdom. The disciples should have in mind texts like today’s first reading, which predicts God’s covenant-love will embrace people from all over the world. His Chosen People had privileges we heard St Paul list last week, an irrevocable vocation, as he says today. Their vocation was to ensure God’s salvation would reach to the ends of the earth; that vocation was amply fulfilled when Jesus sent out his first disciples – all of them Jews – in the Spirit’s strength to teach all nations.
Jesus’ words are read to us so as to provoke us. Many of us live in countries that are, or have been, Christian. Many clergy and parish workers serve communities in these countries; many Christians find ways of preaching to ‘the lost sheep of the house of England, or Scotland, or France…’ But Jesus isn’t only for these countries. There’s something wrong if we have lost our missionary zeal. We should rejoice – and be humbled – to learn about the many Christians in countries that haven’t been largely Christian whose faith, like that of the centurion and the Canaanite woman, puts ours to shame.
Was Jesus asking that woman a question? – ‘It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the house-dogs, is it?’ Was he at least leading her on – perhaps with a twinkle in his eye – to get the better of him? Was their conversation a bit like a tutor sparring with a bright student?
Maybe we should think of Jesus sparring with us. In what seems a typical Jewish way, he sometimes puts, bluntly, one side of things, only to put, bluntly, the other side later on. He tells us our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if we are to enter his Kingdom – then reassures us by saying he came to call sinners. He tells a rich young man to sell everything and follow him as a wandering preacher – then tells other people he has healed to stay at home, and is friends with Martha who has a household to manage. Jesus sometimes expects us to juggle his sayings, while letting them keep us on our toes and stop us becoming complacent. More generally, the Scriptures often make us think. Which statements are literally true, which are meant as metaphors or images? Which Old Testament laws unpack for us the Natural Law that holds for all time, which are ritual laws that have been superseded – and how did these prophesy Jesus’ Sacrifice and the Sacraments he gave us?
Jesus sometimes seems to spar with us when we pray, when, like the Canaanite woman, we beg him to heal someone we love and care for – or to heal us. It can seem that he’s rebuffing us, as he seemed to rebuff her. Sometimes he is leading us on to get the better of him, to persist until we do get what we want. Always he recognises our faith; always he uses it to further the growth of his Kingdom. When we don’t seem to get what we want, he’s asking us to reflect on the clearest, the most eloquent, the most unfathomable thing he said, namely his act of Sacrifice. It’s his great lesson to us. It won for him his Resurrection, and won for us our future share in his Resurrection when, at last, all prayers and longings will be answered.