My Name is Great Among the Gentiles
Gospel Reflection for August 20, 2023 - Matthew 15:21-28
And Jesus went from thence, and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold a woman of Canaan who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grieviously troubled by the devil.
Who answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us:
And he answering, said: I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel.
But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me.
Who answering, said: It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs.
But she said: Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.
Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt: and her daughter was cured from that hour. (Matthew 15:21-28 DRA)
The Gospel reading for this Sunday reveals what the early Church considered to be the greatest miracle of Christ; it was also the concept which, alongside the divinity of Christ, seemed most foreign to the ancient Israelites, including the Pharisee and Essene schools. From a historical perspective, it is impossible to truly explain and has no parallels with any other culture or religion. From a theological perspective, as glimpsed in the Epistle from St. Paul today, it is a very deep and complex theme which runs throughout Scripture, including the reading from Isaias, but which is not too explicit and has been largely missed by Jewish interpreters throughout history. The Romans were equally perplexed and fought against it, but ultimately succumbed to God’s victory.
This great miracle is the conversion of the Gentiles through Christ, in fulfillment of a favorite prophecy of the Fathers:
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts. (Mal 1:11)
No other religion has spread to a culture completely foreign to its historic roots, a new religion yet which did not deny or sever itself from the religion which it superseded, totally replacing the new culture’s native beliefs within only a couple centuries, all without force, bribery or ethnic replacement. What began as an obscure sect of poor, mostly uneducated Hebrew fishermen, tax collectors and women, hunted and persecuted both by the Jews and the Romans alike, whose original Founder made the most extraordinary and unique claim in human history – to be both God and man and to have resurrected from the dead – and who was worshiped by His followers despite being known as a crucified criminal by the Romans and as a blasphemer and sorcerer by the Jews, by the fifth century had spread across the European and Mediterranean worlds, from Spain to India and from Britain to Ethiopia, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and leading to the abolishment of slavery, the gladiatorial games and pagan idolatry. This unknown sect would become the greatest influence in the world, the city on a hill and the hope of mankind, as it remains to this day.
From its beginnings, and from its origins, who could have foreseen this?
Only one did foresee it: God, who proclaimed it through His prophets and then came in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to accomplish it through the Cross: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” (Jn 12:32) However, this Sunday’s reading also illuminates another important fact of Christ’s divine mission: “You adore that which you know not: we adore that which we know; for salvation is of the Jews.” (Jn 4:22) As Paul emphasized in the Epistle, the children of Israel are and remain God’s Chosen People, the Tree whose root is the patriarchs. This tree can be seen as Christ Himself, the Tree of Life, and He made the divine life-giving sap of His Blood available even to the Gentiles, who can be grafted onto the Tree as a wild shoot through grace. Immediately after this Epistle, Paul also warned his ethnically Gentile faithful:
And if some of the branches be broken, and thou, being a wild olive, art ingrafted in them, and art made partaker of the root, and of the fatness of the olive tree, Boast not against the branches… For if thou wert cut out of the wild olive tree, which is natural to thee; and, contrary to nature, were grafted into the good olive tree; how much more shall they that are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (Rom 11:17-18, 24)
God allowed the Jews to fall into disobedience by denying Christ in order to show them that obedience of the Law, or any human work, is insufficient to win justification and salvation apart from God’s gracious mercy. He taught the Gentiles the same lesson but in a different way, permitting their paganism and sinfulness then bestowing unmerited mercy in Christ. The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel recognized, in her abject humility, the helplessness not only of the Gentiles but of all mankind and so received the grace of Christ. She did not “correct” Jesus, as some claim, nor was He lying to her: the Gentiles are not the Chosen People, but the Chosen People also cannot be saved by their own power. Both require the grace of Christ, but even Gentiles are only saved through being grafted onto the Tree of Israel, the “remnant” of Israel as St. Paul called those Jews who remained faithful to God. (Rom 11:5) In this way, the true Israel is the Church, the Body of Christ in whom the promises of the patriarchs and prophets is fulfilled and the Gentiles can join the Chosen People in faith. (Rom 4:16-17; Gal 3:7-8, 6:16)
This is the same lesson which the world must relearn today, both in the Church and outside her. The world is no longer convicted of sin or aware of its total dependence on God, both for its very existence and for salvation. People today, including many Christians, believe they deserve and are entitled to God’s benefits simply by their privilege, depending on what social group they identify with, as though God had some need for them. In truth, God needs nothing but Himself, and we deserve nothing in ourselves but what God gratuitously decides to give us out of His sheer and unfathomable charity. Without God’s mercy, we deserve only what we desire by our sins: eternal separation from Him.
This must be the kerygmatic message we proclaim to the world today, without softening, apology or malice. Like the apostles, the world is once again Gentile, faithless to God and disobedient to His laws, longing, even if unawares, for the hope who is Christ alone in the darkness of its hedonistic abyss. The biases of modern society against Christianity perhaps make this harder, or easier, than for the apostles. Our mission is not for ease but for heroic service to Christ for the salvation of the world. May the humility, courage and charity of the apostles guide the New Evangelization – particularly through the Eucharistic Revival, for which Missio Dei will soon be publishing a book through En Route Media to encourage a return to love of Christ and reverence for His divine sacrifice of the Mass, the universal and daily “clean oblation” prophesied by Malachias. I encourage all readers to help us in this great work by reading and sharing our new book with the world!