ISAIAH 56:1, 6-7 | ROMANS 11:13-15, 29-32 | MATTHEW 15:21-28
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus leaves Palestine and withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman begins to follow him, calling out over and over again, “Have pity on me Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” It’s noteworthy that this pagan woman is addressing him as the Messiah, the Son of David! He ignores her, but she’s persistent! When the disciples ask Jesus to send her away he reminds them that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Having said that, he should have sent her away, but he didn’t. Instead, he tells her that, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This sounds so unlike Jesus to us. But the word Jesus uses for dogs is playful, not insulting. A better translation would be doggies, tiny lap dogs! The woman picks up on his joke. “Please Lord, for even the doggies eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Impressed by the depth of her faith, he instantly cures her daughter.
In the society Jesus lived in, the world was clearly divided, “them and us.” This divide was dictated and enforced by the religious leadership. It’s clear that Jesus didn’t follow these traditions so engrained in his society. He traveled outside of Palestine, cured many Gentiles and even praised the depth of their faith as witnessed in the passage today. He regularly suffered attacks from the religious right for his position. Eventually, they had him executed.
Today, let’s think about the “them and us” phenomenon tragically deteriorating the ideals on which our country was founded. This scene with Jesus and the Canaanite woman compels each of us to question to what extent I might have bought into the them-and-us dynamic? What must I do to permit Jesus to begin healing this situation? How can I be part of the remedy?
Lord Jesus, Son of David, you healed the Roman Centurion’s slave,
the Samaritan leper, the Gerasene demonic.
You offered eternal life to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
I beg you to heal my heart .
Cleanse the stains of racism and privilege from my mind and heart and soul.
Give me the strength to suffer as you suffered when you reached out to the foreigner and the outcast.
Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.
1 KINGS 19:9A, 11-13A | ROMANS 9:1-5 | MATTHEW 14:22-33
The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we conclude today, is perhaps the most emotionally charged chapter outside of the Passion Narrative. Let me recap the progression of events beginning with the conclusion of chapter thirteen that ends with a sad and disturbing scene. Jesus is rejected by the people of his home town, Nazareth. They see his healings. They listen to his preaching. But because of their familiarity with Jesus and his family, they were strangely put off by him. They asked, “where did this man get all this?” In fact, their lack of faith in him was so deep that “he did not work mighty deeds there.”
Chapter fourteen immediately picks up and intensifies the darkness. It begins with Herod’s “profession of faith” in Jesus. This may seem like a contradiction, but think of the times demons address Jesus as the Son of God. It often seems that the powers of darkness acknowledge Jesus before the people he’s teaching and even before his disciples. Herod had been hearing of the mighty powers that were at work in Jesus. He came to the conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Matthew immediately reminds us of the events of John’s death. We all know the story. Herodias, Herod’s present wife and ex-wife of his brother Philip, had been plotting to murder John because he publically condemned her and her marriage to Herod. She had already managed to get him arrested and imprisoned. But her real opportunity for revenge came at a banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday. Everybody was there, his military leaders and members of his political inner circle. We could easily conclude that Herod and his guests were drunk by the time Salome, Herodias’ daughter, performed a dance for the guests. She “delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.” Herodias took advantage of the situation and prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Fearing political embarrassment Herod granted her request. After the banquet John’s disciples asked for his body so that they might give him a proper burial. They then went and informed Jesus of his execution. “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
It is no accident that Matthew places the account of John’s death in the very same chapter in which he gives the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. He’s clearly contrasting the love celebrated in the Eucharistic banquet of the kingdom of God with the depraved banquet in Herod’s earthly kingdom. The account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish implies that the disciples have the same power to feed the multitude. By his command, “Give them some food yourselves,” he’s reminding them that he came to serve and not to be served. To be his disciples and to celebrate the Eucharistic meal they need to follow his example of self-giving.
After the crowd of five thousand had eaten their fill Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. He retreated into solitude again. Meanwhile, a storm blew up catching the disciples a few miles off shore. Their boat was being tossed about by strong winds. The disciples feared for their lives. It was the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. According to folk lore, it was the time when spirits and phantoms were returning to their graves after a night of wandering. Suddenly, they saw a figure walking on the water. They began to scream in horror – it was a dybbuk, a ghost!
A voice broke through the howling wind. “Take courage; it is I; do not be afraid.” Could
it be Jesus? Peter challenged the spirit. “Lord, if it is your command me to come to you on the water.” Peter stepped out of the boat and miraculously stood on the water, but he gave into his fear and began to sink screaming out, “Lord, save me!” Without any hesitation Jesus reached out to him. The two of them stepped into the boat. The wind subsided. The storm passed. Everyone was safe.
Jesus’ comment to them was part admonition, part disappointment. He had entered the storm with them. He responded immediately to Peter’s plea for help. Yet, they still didn’t grasp who he was. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” There’s sadness in his question. The people of Nazareth had outright rejected him. In spite of the miracle of the loaves and fish the disciples had still not put their faith in him.
They continued crossing the lake and came to Gennesaret, a predominately Gentile area. Word got out that Jesus was there. People brought their sick to him to be healed. Their faith was great. They believed that if they merely touched the tassels on his cloak they would be healed. Matthew concludes the chapter by testifying that whoever did touch him was cured.
As I said in the introduction to this reflection there’s a great deal of sadness surrounding Jesus. He’s rejected by friends and family in Nazareth. He’s mourning the death of John the Baptist. He feels pity for the crowds when they come to him for healing. He’s saddened by the disciples’ lack of faith.
The chapter also presents contrasts. Herod’s diabolical banquet is set against the scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, an icon of the Eucharistic meal in the kingdom of God. The rejection Jesus experienced from the people of Nazareth is contrasted with the deep faith of the Gentiles in Gennesaret.
The storm at sea focuses this chapter. Jesus suffered in this life not only on the cross, but through the rejection of friends, relatives, political and religious figures and even his disciples. His suffering, rather than separating him from the world, created a bond with the suffering human family. There will be ups and downs. There will be storms, sometimes terrifying storms, but he will walk with us. He’ll reach out his hand to each of us. We should never be afraid to cry out in faith, “Save me, Lord!” Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to walk on the water with him.
DANIEL 7:9-10, 13-14 | 2 PETER 1:16-19 | MATTHEW 17:1-9
We’re presented with one of the most important scenes in the New Testament for our reflection today, the transfiguration of Jesus. Let’s put the scene into a context before we delve into its significance.
Six days earlier Jesus had led his disciples to the city of Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to Jews and Gentiles. There he asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The answers varied. They said that some people believed that the Son of Man was the prophet Elijah, others, John the Baptist or another one of the prophets. Jesus pushed them, asking more specifically: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then told Peter that he was to be the rock upon which he would build his Church. Then, to the amazement of the disciples, Jesus made the first prediction of his passion.
Then, the little group traveled for six days. As he often did, Jesus took them to a hilltop to pray. This time he split the group. He took Peter, James and John with him to a higher elevation. There, they witnessed something they would never forget. These three Jewish men experienced the entire history of the Jewish people.
By leading them to the mountain top Jesus was reenacting Moses’ climb to Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God, the document that would forever bind God to the Jewish people. He was also reenacting Elijah’s climb to Mount Horeb where he experienced God in the sound of a still, small voice.
When they got to the top of the mountain Jesus’ face and clothing began to shine with the blinding radiance of God’s glory. Peering into the light of that glory, they saw Jesus speaking with Moses the law-giver, and Elijah the most revered of the Jewish prophets. Then a cloud came. But it wasn’t an ordinary cloud that occasionally de- scends upon a mountaintop; it was the shechinah, the cloud of fire that led the Jewish people through the desert, and the cloud of God’s glory that descended on Mount Sinai, and on the meeting tent, and on the ark of the covenant. From within the cloud they heard the voice of the Father. They collapsed in fear. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
From this moment on, Jesus will be making his way to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. This moment on the mountain has sealed and blessed his mission. We’re told in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about his Exodus, his Passover from this world to the Father. His prayer on that mountain top was asking for clarity. Was he to continue to Jerusalem? Was death and resurrection his Father’s will for him? The events on that mountaintop anointed the final steps of his mission. He had taught his disciples the mysteries of the kingdom. He had accepted his anointing as the Lamb of God whose blood will take away the sin of the world.
The transfiguration prepared Jesus to complete his mission. He was ready to proceed to Jerusalem. The disciples will follow him to Jerusalem but they still have to interiorize what they experienced on the mountain. Soon, they’ll witness his death and resurrection. They’ll be anointed by the Spirit. They’ll become light for the world and salt for the earth. They’ll continue his mission in the world.